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Starring The Sparkles
Specular highlights, those seemingly random pinpoints of light reflected from shiny surfaces, can be huge distractions in photography. As faithful readers know, I've spent a lot of time perfecting my cross-polarization methods to remove highlights that obscure detail in shiny subjects such as tide-pool residents, lush foliage and minerals. When gloss is a defining characteristic of a subject, it can be a challenge to control the shine to render a natural photographic interpretation. But highlights, like some other troublesome photographic phenomena (such as graininess, for example), can be turned to artistic advantage when intentionally emphasized.
When the sun appears in the frame, it's quite common to exaggerate the large point of light into a starburst by using a wide-angle lens stopped down to its minimum aperture (ƒ/22). The light entering the lens through such a narrow opening is diffracted, turning an annoying bright spot in the image to a mood-setting burst of light. The photographer can position herself to maximize, minimize or carefully position the starburst. Be aware that this treatment of the sun in the frame will compete with your subject for the center of interest in your composition. (Fine Print: Remember what your mother said. Don't look directly into the sun, even through the viewfinder of a camera!)
Lately, I've been experimenting with emphasis of specular highlights on subjects such as highly reflective features of antique cars and the ripples that surround subjects on rivers and lakes. A river runs through our city, and in the summer its clear water, derived from the snowcapped mountains around us, beckons to kayakers, canoeists and stand-up paddleboarders. Since last summer, I had this vision of photographing a beautiful, strong young woman on a stand-up board, surrounded by a multitude of starbursts caused by the sun's reflection off the ripples of the water. Achieving this vision offered several challenges beyond the obvious one of finding a willing model with the skill and stamina needed to paddle upstream to reposition the board within the reflections repeatedly.
You can't just head down to the river at any old time of day and expect the sun to create the effect you want in the place you want it. In this case, I chose a location for the photograph where I could work from a bridge directly above the river in the boarder's path. I used the iPhone/iPad app called LightTrac to calculate the time of year and time of day that the sun would be positioned directly behind the subject. This was a fairly narrow window because the river runs east-to-west at this location. It all came together one sunny August afternoon between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
I chose a 24-105mm lens to frame the boarder within the area of specular highlights on the water below the bridge. I chose the smallest aperture (ƒ/22) and underexposed by 1.5 to 2 stops by increasing the shutter speed. This necessitated an ISO of 400 on my Canon EOS 5D Mark III to allow a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action (1⁄500 sec.). The end result is an exposure intended to define the specular highlights as starbursts; unfortunately, this underexposes the subject (my lovely model) and allows the light to overpower the composition of the image. This can be corrected by postprocessing the image in Lightroom or Adobe Raw Converter to bring back the detail in the shadowed areas.
You can use this technique on other water subjects, such as capturing the highlights of water flowing over rocks in a stream; on a lake where the water is disturbed, adding a little interest to a portion of waterscape; with dewdrops on flowers or grasses; and, one of my favorites, capturing lily pads or fish on the surface of ponds. The key is that the starburst effect must be clearly intentional and even exaggerated while not overpowering the photograph's center of interest. If it's too vague, it will just look like the photographer didn't understand the basic principles of light and photography and cluelessly shot into the sun.
It's All In The Cards
Q I'm totally confused by the array of SD and CF cards available for use in my DSLR. Some are really expensive! What factors should I consider when choosing new cards?
A ASD (Secure Digital) and CF (CompactFlash) cards are produced in many configurations, and they're constantly changing as technology advances. A major consideration in choosing a new card is the reputation of its manufacturer—a few of the well-known producers are (alphabetically): Delkin, Hoodman, Kingston Technology, Lexar, PNY and SanDisk, to name a few. The key determinants of quality are durability, reliability, capacity and speed.
Durability: How well will the card withstand abuse in the field? It must be strong enough to endure repeated insertions/extractions without bending the case. Hoodman cards have sturdy metal jackets.
Reliability: Early cards had an expected endurance of 10,000 cycles (write/erase/rewrite/erase). Current quality cards are rated at up to one million cycles; you'll find yourself moving up to a higher-capacity card before you ever wear one out.
Capacity: I've tossed a lot of low-capacity cards (say, 4 GB) that, when I bought them, were the biggest available. I now use 32 and 64 GB cards because newer DSLRs with more megapixels produce larger image files, plus I'm capturing lots of time-lapse and video these days.
Speed: Specified in "X" ratings (as in 200X to 1000X+), the higher the number, the faster the data "reads"—that is, transfers from the card to the camera's LCD or to the computer. The "write" speed is often slower, and that has implications for your photography if you use a camera that produces large image files and captures at a high frame rate. Be aware that the "read" speed may be limited by the capability of the card reader you use to transfer files from the card to the computer. A USB2 reader is much slower than a USB3 or a Lightning reader.
While you should always seek the most durable and reliable cards available to protect your image data, the factors of capacity and speed may be the quality criteria that determine your card choice and cost. Faster cards with greater capacity are more expensive; but if your camera doesn't produce large files, you may not need these particular qualities. However, if you're using a professional-level camera to its full capability, you'll want to purchase the toughest, biggest, fastest (most expensive!) cards you can find.
Finally, beware counterfeit (extra-cheap) and off-brand cards. They might not live up to their stated speed or capacity and are likely to be less reliable.
By the time you read this, winter will be fast approaching, but you may be planning outdoor expeditions to photograph fall colors, early snows and winter scenes. October and November are key times for photographing polar bears in the northern latitudes and large mammals in places like Yellowstone National Park. While today's DSLRs and lenses, especially the pro models, are well constructed and sealed, you still need to protect your investments from scratches and moisture. I've used protective coverings on my camera gear for many years, ranging from a handy plastic bag to sophisticated, fitted enclosures. This season, I'll be working with a set of lens covers and "raincoats" from LensCoat (www.lenscoat.com), a company that manufactures a variety of photographic accessories in the U.S.
LensCoat's closed-cell neoprene line is fairly extensive in that it includes styles tailor-made to fit particular models of cameras and lenses, with strategically placed windows to allow access to camera and lens controls. Tripod and gimbal covers are available, as well. They protect your equipment from bumps and nicks, and shield your hands from heat-draining cold metal parts. I'm especially excited about the new iPad cover because I'm doing a lot of work with the CamRanger and my iPad in the field. LensCoat's RainCoats range from simple lens/camera waterproof covers to complex, model-specific rigs with windows and sleeves.
Some basic tips for photographing in inclement weather include keeping a towel handy to avoid transferring moisture from your wet hands to sensitive camera and lens openings, and keeping snow off of your gear before it melts and becomes invasive water. Batteries are less efficient in cold temperatures, so carry several extras in an inner pocket to keep them warm. Be alert to the potential for condensing moisture as you move your equipment from a cold to a warm environment. One solution is to place the cold equipment in a plastic bag before you bring it inside so that the condensation forms on the interior of the plastic bag rather than on the camera's internal components. Leave the camera in the bag until its temperature conforms to the new environment.
Follow George Lepp's exploits, see his latest photographs and be part of the discussion on his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/georgelepp.