For me, as a travel photographer, the size and the weight of the photography equipment that I carry around is very important. Over the years, I learned how to carry only the items absolutely necessary for shooting in order to eliminate anything unessential.
Long exposure photo shot without a tripod, using the Align+Blend technique.
I was able to replace some of the pieces of equipment with software. For example, I stopped using ND Graduated filters a few years ago. For me, it was easier to take bracketed shots and blend two images in Photoshop or simply use the graduated filter in Lightroom. Next, I left behind the remote trigger because I learned that using the two second delay function on the camera allowed me to achieve the same result without an extra piece of equipment.
During my latest photography trip to Hawaii and Northern California, I did quite a bit of hiking and realized that, after the switch to mirrorless, the biggest and by far the bulkiest, piece of equipment I carried was my tripod. I love my Feisol tripod because it is light, tall, and steady like a rock. But, sometimes it is just impossible to bring with me.
Even though I learned how to take bracketed shots handheld and merge them effectively to HDR in Photomatix and Photoshop HDR Pro (read Natural Looking HDR in Photoshop and Lightroom in 5 Easy Steps), without a tripod I still could not accomplish one of the most important types of photography, which is long exposure photography.
Long exposure photo – shot with a tripod.
I use long exposure photography quite a bit, especially when shooting seascapes, and of course, I have plenty of seascapes in my portfolio. Longer shutter speed allows me to achieve beautiful, smooth and silky looking water plus, it works just as well for the sky.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a few techniques in an attempt to achieve the same long exposure effect in the water and the sky by shooting handheld without a tripod. After I started to produce predictable results on a consistent basis, I am now ready to share the technique with you.
Below is the effect I achieved using my new technique that I call Align+Blend.
Normally, I shoot in bracketing mode, taking at least three exposures. In order to use the Align+Blend technique, I had to switch from bracketing mode (AEB) to the Single Shot Mode. I shot 10 consecutive shots of the scene, trying to be as steady as possible, without too many movements. I was shooting at an approximate speed of one shot per second and, it took me nine seconds to complete the series. In order to get the sharp images, I used a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second.
Single RAW image, unprocessed (1/200 sec).
That was it. The shooting part was done. The rest was accomplished in post-processing.
Step 1 Import
I imported the 10 RAW files into Lightroom.
Step 2 Process in LR
I applied one of my landscape presets to the entire set making sure that each image had an identical look (If you are interested you can download my free preset collection on my blog).
Step 3 Open as layers in Photoshop
I selected 10 images in Lightroom and opened them in Photoshop as layers in the same document (right/option click).
Step 4 Align Layers
I used the Auto Align Layers feature in Photoshop to align all 10 layers with Projection set to AUTO. The Auto Align is a fairly sophisticated tool, and Photoshop had no issue aligning all of the 10 individual layers.
Step 5 Convert to one Smart Object
I converted the 10 layers to one single Smart Object (right/option click).
Step 6 Set Stack Mode
I used the following command to blend the 10 original layers inside of the Smart Object. Layer > Smart Object > Stack Mode > Mean. This resulted in a long exposure effect by moving elements of the scene (water, sky).
Step 7 Fix any areas with issues using a layer mask
At the same time, the windy weather created some unwanted effects by moving tree branches and the grass in the foreground. To fix the blurry effects I placed one of the 10 original RAW images on top of the Smart Object layer and blended together two layers with the help of transparency (layer) masks. I used the area of the water and the sky from the smart object layer and, the rest of the scene from the single RAW layer.
I managed to achieve the long exposure effect without a tripod and without sacrificing the quality of the final image.
This technique also works as the replacement for Neutral Density filters. In broad daylight, even when you have a tripod but the smallest aperture (f/22) is still not small enough to slow down the shutter speed, take multiple shots and blend them together later in Photoshop in a similar manner.
As modern day photographers it is easy to get overwhelmed and consumed by new gear, new technology, new software, new techniques (did someone say HDR?) and so on. With so much going on in the industry, sometimes you need to step back, sit down and relax.
Sometimes you need to stop the rush in your head and slow the heck down.
With that said, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some advice for you new photographers that feel an intense desire to do more than you know you can handle at the moment. Or for you photographers that have experience already, but want to go back to simplicity.
To add to Simon’s article, I wanted to share a video I recorded on the same topic of slowing down:
You will notice that I have shared some very specific things you can do to force yourself to simplify your photography. Things like switching to manual focus completely, using a smaller memory card, or not using Auto-ISO. Each of these things will force you not only to think, but to think specifically about the subject or scene rather than just broadly.
Prime lenses are another way to simplify. It would be nice to have expensive zoom lenses with f/2.8 or wider apertures. But do you need that? Might it just complicate your photography?
Instead of spending the money on expensive lenses, or an all-in-one zoom, try prime lenses. When I am on the job I’m typically using either a 20mm, 35mm, 50mm or 85mm lens. Each has an aperture of f/2.0 or wider. They’re lighter so they don’t hurt my back, they’re smaller so they take up less room, and they make me move my feet and think about perspective more.
They are simple.
Made using a prime lens.
Admittedly, when HDR first became popular I hopped on the bandwagon. But eventually I got bored with doing the same bracketing technique over and over. At the time processing HDR was not even close to perfection, so the time needed for post-processing was way too much for my liking. So I stopped and instead started to bracket two exposures, or three if needed. Then I would manually mask in specific parts of the scene as needed. I would do this using onOne Perfect Layers or Photoshop – depending on what else I wanted to do to the photo.
Having written books on long exposure and panoramic photography, I love both those techniques. But I don’t always need to do them. I don’t always need filters or a tripod.
A good example of this is as follows. Recently I have started trusting the dynamic range of my camera’s sensor more than ever. Instead of using a filter as often as I used to, when possible I will use that dynamic range and recover highlights and shadows inside of Lightroom. The histogram for my photos is typically towards the middle so that it’s even easier to recover both ends of the spectrum.
Fortunately the Nikon D810 has an amazing dynamic range to allow this. Many other cameras are in a similar situation. That doesn’t mean I never use my neutral density filters, because I do. It just means I simplify when I can, because it allows me to enjoy photography even more.
Sky blackened without filters and only using Lightroom.
When it comes to processing photos I often see so many filters being used by photographers. There is nothing wrong with that, but I sometimes feel it’s overboard. I might be a minority with how I feel about processing, but here it goes.
When processing photos I am a mix of a purist who also likes to experiment. I am colour-blind, so I rely on my ColorChecker Passport to guarantee accurate colors. But I know that my colors are often off. It happens and that’s okay, but I still aim for accuracy. That’s the purist side of my mentality. The experimental side wants me to try new things, and that is also okay.
But, lately while processing I have been keeping things simple. Very basic color correction as needed, contrast, clarity, and so on. Or a very basic black and white conversion using either Lightroom, onOne, Silver Efex or Tonality. I don’t go for anything out of the ordinary. My black and white processes are very simple. Because sometimes simple is best.
Simple photo and processing brought a smile to hundreds of Vineland, NJ residents.
Keep it at One
If you really want to return to simplicity, try spending your photography time with only one camera body and one lens. For the past few months I have been participating in the WE35 project at The Photo Frontier. It’s a project where each photographer is researching the world of photography, and life in general with only one camera body and a 35mm lens (or 35mm equivalent).
Doing this is extremely challenging and mentally fulfilling. It requires you to simplify your entire photography workflow. So I encourage you to give it a try, as well as the other tips I have shared here.
I will leave you with one more note. Believe in yourself, your knowledge, and your creativity. You don’t need expensive equipment or to always do fancy techniques. You need yourself, your camera and a lens. So step back and enjoy photography and stop driving yourself nuts over every piece of gear and technique that you can do.
You will not often find the stairs of Opera Garnier in Paris free of people, so you will need to put the Clone Stamp tool to work to remove the people if you want a clean picture. This applies at many other tourist destinations as well.
There are a lot of good post-processing tools available for making minor edits to your photos. Within Photoshop, there are the Healing Brush and the Spot Healing Brush tools. Lightroom now has its own healing brush. Those are great for minor edits to your photos like removing spots or power lines. When it comes time for serious, intensive surgery on your photos, however, there is no substitute for the Clone Stamp tool. You will only find this in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, there is no Lightroom substitute.
Getting started with the Clone Stamp tool is simple. You just have to tell Photoshop two things: (1) where you want to replace the pixels (target area), and (2) from where Photoshop should take the pixels to use as replacements (s0urce area). To use the Clone Stamp tool, just follow these steps:
Select the Clone Stamp tool from the tool bar on the left side of your screen (you can also use the keyboard shortcut S). Once selected, set the brush size and hardness.
Put your cursor in the area where you want to change the pixels.
Select the source area: Press the Alt key (your cursor will now become a target) and move your cursor to the location where you want to take pixels from (source area). Click your mouse in that location.
Paint in the target area: Release the Alt key and move your mouse back to the original location. Hold down the mouse button and paint in the pixels from the location you chose.
That is a simple process, but if you have used the Clone Stamp tool you realize that there is a lot more involved if you want to master it. This article will provide you with some tips to move you along the road towards conquering this important tool in Photoshop.
#1 – Work on a New Layer
First, always create a new layer before making changes with the Clone Stamp tool. Any changes you make should be made on the new layer. You can flatten the image when you’re done.
Why should you do this? There are many reasons. First of all, it is non-destructive – meaning you are not changing the underlying pixels of your image. In addition, when you use a layer, you can delete it if you don’t like where the changes are going. You can also create a mask if there are portions of the changes that you decide later you do not want. Finally, you can target adjustments to just the cloned areas if they are on a new layer (as will be shown below).
Creating a new layer is easy; simply press Ctrl+J (Cmd+J on Mac) to create a duplicate. You can also press Shift+Ctrl+N (Shift+Cmd+N on Mac) to create a new blank layer, but if you do so, make sure that you have “All Layers” selected as your source in the Clone Stamp Tool settings.
I prefer working on a new layer (as opposed to a duplicate layer) but either way will work.
#2 – Zoom in (way in)
When working with the Clone Stamp tool, zoom in on the area you are working on. In fact, zoom way in (to 100% even). That will help isolate the area you are working on, and importantly, it will also allow you to work at a much greater level of detail than you otherwise would. Make your changes look as good as you can at this higher level of detail, then when you zoom back out, the changes will be indistinguishable (which is what you want).
A shortcut for zooming quickly is to hold the Alt key with your left hand while using the scroll wheel on your mouse to zoom in and out (or use Cntrl/Cmd and the + or – key on the keyboard). That will allow you to move in and out quickly.
#3 – Set Your Brush Size Quickly
You will change your brush size often when working with the Clone Stamp tool. You should do this often to make sure that your brush size is tailored to the change you are making. Changing the size through the Brushes panel is cumbersome. Instead, use the keyboard shortcuts for changing brush size:
Left bracket [ makes brush smaller
Right bracket ] makes brush larger
Using these keys will allow you to rapidly tailor your brush to the specific circumstance.
#4 – Set the Proper Brush Hardness
The Clone Stamp brush’s edges can be set to whatever hardness you desire. Hardness determines the level to which the cloning will blend in with the surrounding pixels. If you set the hardness level more toward 100%, the edges will be hard and definite. If you set the hardness more toward 0%, the edge will blend in with the surroundings.
In general, keep the hardness level at 0%. That will help you seamlessly blend in the effect. There will be times, however, where you are working near a defined edge, in which case you should increase the hardness. Even then around 50% will usually do. Setting the hardness any higher creates harsh transitions that are dead giveaways to your use of the Clone Stamp tool.
#5 – Clone Without Adjustments
Do your cloning before making other adjustments to contrast, color and other changes often made via adjustment layers in Photoshop. If you use the Clone Stamp tool after creating those layers, you are baking the changes permanently into your picture when you clone.
However, in some cases you will have already made changes on an adjustment layer, and you need to decide whether your cloning should include those adjustments. Photoshop lets you decide whether to include those changes in your cloning. After you have selected the Clone Stamp tool, the top row of your screen will include a circle with a line through it (see graphic above). Photoshop defaults to applying the changes of any adjustment layers, but if you click on this icon, Photoshop will ignore any adjustment layers when cloning.
#6 – Grab the Low Hanging Fruit
Most of the time your pictures will have some easy items to clone out, as well as some harder things. Clone out the easy ones first. In addition to giving you confidence in the tool, this will also help you when the time comes to make the hard changes.
How will that help you? Remember that you need clear space from which to draw pixels when using the Clone Stamp tool. By making the easy changes first, you are doing just that so you can draw replacement pixels and will make your job easier when it comes time for the harder, more in-depth changes.
#7 – Watch for Patterns
Sometimes you want to include patterns in your cloning. In that case, when selecting pixels from which to draw, try to find patterns in your picture that match the area you are replacing. For example, if the background is a building, look for a similar building. Then make them match (which will be the subject of the next tip).
Here is a different example to show the Clone Stamp tool in another context. The right side of this image was filled with distractions, but the Clone Stamp tool eliminates them. Be careful that you do not create patterns by using pixels immediately adjacent, or it will give away your use of the Clone Stamp tool
But many times you will not want there to be any discernible patterns in your cloning. Usually a pattern is a dead giveaway to your having cloned something out. In that case, the way to ensure that there will be no patterns is to keep resetting your source point. Sample from one area and clone one part, then sample from another area – repeat frequently. Keep doing that to blend everything together without repeating a pattern.
#8 – Follow the Lines
A key to successful use of the Clone Stamp tool is making all the lines in your picture match. Even slight deviations look fake and destroy the effect you are trying to achieve. For example, in a landscape setting make the edges of tree branches match up. In an urban context, follow lines in buildings such as roof lines, doorways, and patterns on the ground.
When you are using the Clone Stamp tool, start with the lines and then let the rest of the pixels fall where they may. After that, if you need to go back over other areas, you can do so.
Here I’ve zoomed in on a portion of another shot of the Opera Garnier. Use the patterns on the floor and door to recreate the space where you clone over the people.
#9 – Avoid Selecting from Adjacent Areas
As previously mentioned, a dead giveaway of Clone Stamp tool usage is repetition. The Clone Stamp tool is all about repetition – you just need to do it in such a way that the viewer doesn’t notice it. If you draw pixels from an immediately adjacent area, you are risking the viewer noticing the repetition. Take the pixels from somewhere else in the picture instead.
Inadvertently creating a pattern is an easy trap to fall into because the immediately adjacent areas usually are the closest in color and tone to the area you want to replace. As you move further away, tones and colors change so that the pixels get harder to match. Working hard to find a way to use pixels from somewhere else in your picture will pay dividends because the viewer won’t see the repetition.
#10 – Muddle Through (accept the messiness)
By now you have fixed all the easy areas in your picture and you’re ready to tackle a bigger problem. It might be a crowd of people or a car that entered your frame, but it is a large area of your picture. This is the scary part of using the Clone Stamp tool.
The key is to just dive in. Don’t try to figure it all out beforehand (you never will). You can do this in a couple of different ways:
Go big first: Set your brush a little larger than you might otherwise use and just replace the entire area in one fell swoop (and then clean up with a smaller brush), or
Go small and steady: Stick with the smaller brush and paint in gradually, but the key is to keep going. Remember that you can go over it again. Whatever you are doing, while it is probably not perfect, will undoubtedly look better than what you started with.
The key thing is just to do it. There is a tendency to freeze up and plot the entire change before doing anything, which causes you to stare at the computer screen for long periods of time.
Remember, you can always undo what you’ve done (Ctrl/Cmd+Z). In addition, because you followed tip #1 above and are working on a new layer, you can always mask this area off or delete it if it isn’t heading in the direction you want.
#11 – Use the Mirror Function
You can affect a lot of settings involving the Clone Stamp tool in the Clone Source panel (to see it, go to Window and then click on Clone Source). For instance, you can change the shape of the brush or the angle of the replacement pixels.
One of the most useful features in the Cone Source panel is the flip-horizontal option in the middle of the panel. If you click on it, the pixels will be replaced in the opposite horizontal direction as the source. This can be extremely useful in many instances since often you will be dealing with a symmetrical subject where you can now draw from the other side.
A typical example where you might want to use the flip horizontal option is where something covers one side of a doorway or window that you want to remove. By clicking on flip-horizontal, you can use the other side of the doorway or window as your source. Take another look at the Opera Garnier examples above and you will see how the flip horizontal tool would be used quite frequently whenever your picture contains any symmetry (I used this feature in those pictures quite a bit).
#12 – Change the Cloned Areas with Adjustment Layers
Sometimes your cloned areas just won’t look exactly like the surrounding areas. Perhaps it is too bright or too dark, or perhaps the colors are just off a little bit. You can fix it without affecting the surrounding pixels.
One of the great benefits of working on layers is that you can create adjustment layers that affect only the areas you just cloned. Simply create a new adjustment layer (levels, curves, or hue/saturation), which will appear above your cloning layer. Then hold down the Alt key and click at the bottom of the adjustment layer (you will see your cursor change). Doing so will apply the changes of the adjustment layer only to the layer below it.
Remember that using the Clone Stamp tool can be a messy process. Don’t worry if you find yourself having to redo changes or make things up as you go. There is no magical “clean” process. One of the fun parts about the cloning process is the problem-solving that goes into it. Take your time and just keep moving. You can always redo your changes or, if you are working in layers, get rid of them without losing the rest of your work.
The Clone Stamp tool will save more pictures than almost any other tool in your post-processing. If you master it, you can remove almost anything in your pictures that you do not want.
Close up of a DIY camera wrist strap made from paracord
1. Camera strap(s)
I stopped using the camera strap that comes with the camera (DSLR) quite awhile ago now. My fundamental gripes were as follows:
Not at all comfortable to wear around the neck, especially if you have a long lens attached to the camera.
Didn’t particularly like the camera brand name in bright colors screaming out to potential camera thieves that you have a nice camera worth taking!
The strap was a nuisance when the camera was mounted on a tripod.
Because of the strap length, it was irksome and fussy putting the camera back into the camera bag.
DIY paracord camera wrist strap
I like to switch from handheld to mounting the camera on a tripod when I shoot. I do however, like the security of a strap when holding my camera. Some years back, I found a useful DIY tutorial online, outlining how to make a camera wrist strap using paracord. Take a piece about 27 inches long and make a loop about 7-7.5 inches long by tying both ends together into knot. I used a simple overhand knot but you could use a more sophisticated knot such as a Lanyard knot. You will need to burn the ends of the cord, after the knot, to stop it from fraying.
Depending on the size of your hands, you want enough slack to be able to adjust the buttons on the camera.
This paracord is strong and really inexpensive to purchase. It comes in a variety of colors. There are a multitude of uses for this cord, it’s a dream for most DIY enthusiasts. However, this configuration of strap isn’t a fail safe option should you let your camera fall out of your hand.
Joby have a corded strap, specifically for DSLRs that is designed to automatically tighten around the wrist if the camera is dropped. Out of curiosity, I purchased one to try it out. It’s not expensive and does tighten around the wrist if the camera falls or drops out of your hand. It is very comfortable and I love the green color.
However, for you DIY hackers out there, you can fashion a similar wrist strap with a built-in wrist tightener from paracord using a slip-knot. Just do a google search to get a tutorial online.
2. Wrist rubber band to prevent zoom creep
I used to own a Nikon 18-200mm VR lens. It was a great versatile lens. But after some time, when I would take macro or overhead shots, where the camera is at 45 angle or more, I’d notice the lens would creep (move slightly due to gravity). I found this neat solution online to put a wrist rubber band around the zoom ring and the barrel of the lens. It worked and was a perfect solution to prevent the lens from creeping.
A wrist rubber band to stop lens creep.
This rubber band can also act to secure the Ziploc bag around the lens if safeguarding against the rain. See tip below.
3. Ziploc bags and cable ties
Sandbag(s) are great for adding stability to your lightstand or tripod. But they are not practical to bring with you on vacation or on a day trip. This is where having a couple of Ziploc baggies with you in your camera bag are ideal.
If you are away on vacation, purchase a bag of dried beans, rice, or soup mix. Make a small hole near the top of the bag, place a cable tie through the hole and create a plastic ring. Depending on the type of tripod that you have, place this on the hook or use another cable tie to create second ring that will secure the bag to the centre column of the tripod.
A Ziploc bag filled with 1kg of rice suspended from the tripod using cable ties adds stability.
A Ziploc bag filled with dried beans etc., can be also used as an alternative bean bag tripod. If you are out and about shooting on a day trip, and there are no convenience stores nearby – use soil or sand to fill the Ziploc bags.
A large Ziploc bag can even be a turned into a quick rain guard. Make a hole for the lens and use the rubber wrist band to secure the bag around the lens.
This small tin of petroleum jelly is small to put in your camera bag and weighs practically nothing. If you are shooting portrait shots and your subject or model forgets to bring their lipstick, the vaseline gives sparkle to lips and helps catch some specular highlights.
You can get creative by applying some vaseline to an old UV filter, rather than on the lens itself, to create a dreamy retro look. It’s a bit messy, so use a Ziploc bag to put the UV filter in when you’re done and clean it when you get home.
Vaseline, pen with gaffer tape plus other items to have in your camera bag.
If you are a landscape or street photographer, the elements can play havoc with your lips. Nothing worse than chapped lips. Apply some vaseline to protect them.
Petroleum jelly (Vaseline) smeared on the UV filter.
Before shot without Vaseline.
After shot with Vaseline on the UV filter.
I could have smeared more Vaseline to allow for a smaller opening, which would have created an even more dreamy effect. That is the beauty of this technique, just experiment.
5. A Bic pen or any plastic disposable pen
This inexpensive pen should be an automatic addition to your camera bag. After all, you never know when your smartphone or tablet might lose power and you will need to write down some specifics. A pen and paper always comes in handy. Wrap some gaffer or duct tape around the middle of the pen rather than carry a big roll of it around. You never know when you may need a bit of tape.
All of these items are so small and compact that you won’t know that they are in your camera bag. Sometimes it is the small things that can make a BIG difference!
Do you have any hacks or tips that you would like to share?
Long exposure photography makes it possible to show the passage of time in a still photograph. It does this by blurring moving elements and sharpening the static parts. But there is a downside to long exposures – any camera movement blurs the static elements. Here are four simple ways you can prevent unwanted blurring.
1. Use a Good Tripod
For very short exposures there are ways to hold yourself and your camera steady, like: How to Reduce Camera Shake – 6 Techniques. However, when you’re taking an exposure of a few seconds, you need something steadier than your hands to hold your camera. You may set the camera on a table, or a rock but risk dropping the camera or accidental movement that can ruin your shoot.
The most common way is to put it on a sturdy tripod. You have to get at least a decent tripod as El Cheapo tripods are going to give you camera shake too.
2. Use a Remote Shutter Release
Even with a tripod the act of snapping the shutter can cause the camera to shake. There are a couple of ways to combat this problem.
One is to set the delay on the camera (2-sec timer) so any movement is done by the time the shutter snaps. The other is to get a remote shutter release.
Remotes can be connected to the camera by a cable or wireless – either one snaps the shutter without shaking the camera. They are also called remote cable releases. This is a small and cheap accessory which can help you get rid of camera shake.
3. Use Manual Focus
Autofocus is a wonderful thing. Most of the time it does exactly what you want, making it easier to take great photos. But there are times, especially when shooting long exposure, that it can have the opposite effect.
In low light situations autofocus has trouble finding something to focus on. Even when it seems focused it can readjust when the shutter is snapped. Using ND filters can cause the same problem.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution. When shooting in low light you can use manual focus, or use a flashlight for focusing and once the focus is set, turn autofocus off so it won’t change once the light is off.
For ND filters set the focus manually (either before or after mounting the filter) or autofocus first, turn it off and mount the filter. The shot will stay focused, the picture sharp.
4. Lock the Mirror Up
If you are using a DSLR camera – and you probably are since you are shooting long exposure – it has a mirror that reflects the image from the lens to the viewfinder. It is between the lens and the camera sensor, so it has to move before the shutter snaps.
That small movement causes vibration. When you turn on the mirror lockup it turns the shutter button into a two stage button. The first click lifts the mirror and the shutter doesn’t open until the second click. The time between the two clicks allows the vibration of the moving mirror to stop.
5. Use Your Aperture Sweet Spot
Closing down the aperture can make you shoot longer. However, when your aperture is too small, it will start to have a diffraction effect which lowers the sharpness.
In most lenses, the sweet spot of the lens aperture is between f/5.6 to f/8. In other words, you will get the sharpest images when using this range.
When you step down to f/16 or smaller, you will get images like that seem out of focus. You can learn the physics about diffraction in the below video by Steve Perry:
Taking long exposure photographs is a science and an art. Like any art, taking long exposure pictures with the right balance of sharpness and blur takes both skill and intuition. These five tools will help you use your skills to turn intuition into great photographs.