A couple of nights ago I was treated to a huge electrical storm over Lake Chapala, Mexico. No rain, no thunder, just lightning. This went on for well over an hour presenting a great opportunity to capture some dramatic lightning images.
First however, a word of warning, if you are venturing out to shoot lightning pictures remember that lightning is dangerous. Stay inside a building or vehicle and definitely stay away from tall trees, water, and any other tall object that can act as a conductor. All the images in this article were taken from the covered deck of my home, around 600′ above the lake.
To successfully shoot lightning images you need a camera that can be set to manual exposure, and a sturdy tripod and preferably a cable release. You are going to be using long shutter speeds so it is essential that there is no movement whatsoever of the camera. Lens choice will depend on the location of the storm but generally wider angle lenses will work best.
Nikon D3s, 24-70mm f2.8 lens @ 35mm, 10 sec at f8 set manually, Gitzo carbon fibre tripod with Arca Swiss ball head
Set up your camera and lens on the tripod and focus manually to infinity. It’s best to turn autofocus off so the lens does not hunt for a focus point in the dark. . You need to include some foreground elements to add interest and in the shot above I am fortunate to have the village of San Juan Cosala with it’s lights. This did however present a slightly tricky lighting balance as too long an exposure would simply blow out the lights of the village into one big glare.
You need to experiment with your exposures – the shutter needs to be open long enough to capture one of more bolts of lightning. Take lots of shots, some will work and some won’t and it is, to a great extent a matter of luck. Vary your exposures until you find one that works. Review images on the LCD screen as lightning varies tremendously in the level of brightness.
It is also, to some extent, possible to anticipate the next bolts of lightning as there are often fairly regular intervals between strikes. But, your shutter must already be open when lightning occurs, if you try and take the image as you see the lightning you will be too late.
Nikon D3s, 24-70mm f2.8 lens @ 48 mm, 3 sec at f2.8 set manually, ISO 200. Gitzo carbon fibre tripod with Arca Swiss ball head. This image shows both cloud to cloud lightning and bolt lightning
Long exposures inevitably mean an increase in the noise in the image file. My Nikon camera have built-in processing for long exposure noise reduction. This captures a ‘dark frame’ using the same exposure as the original image immediately after the original is captures. The camera software then uses this dark frame to find and remove ‘hot pixels from the original. Very technical, but it works. If you have it turn it on! The downside is that if for example you are shooting a 30 second exposure the processing takes another 30 seconds during which you cannot take another image.
Generally my ‘how to’ articles have concentrated on obtaining the sharpest images possible. That’s great, up-to-a-point, as the majority of my published images need to fit exactly that criteria. But, after you have captured all the usual images of your subject showing it in all it’s pin sharp glory, it’s time to look beyond the norm and start getting more creative.
In a follow-on from my previous blog where I started to look at the similarities between sports and wildlife photography, the techniques used for movement blurs in both subjects are identical.
Movement blur is simply allowing your camera shutter to remain open long enough to allow movement of your subject (or of the camera) to register on the sensor.
Nikon D3s, 16mm f2.8 fisheye lens hand held, 1/6oth @ f8 ISO 640 Note that by keeping the nearest cyclist centred in frame he remains quite sharp while all the other competitors are blurred
Let’s look at some of the methods to induce that sense of movement into your still images.
Creative blurs using long exposure with subject moving
There are effectively two methods you can use with a long exposure technique, keeping the camera still while the subject moves, or moving the camera (panning) whilst keeping the subject centred in the frame – or you can combine the two.
Nikon D3 with 80-200mm f 2.8 lens @ 80mm hand held, 1/30th sec @ f22 ISO 200 – Here I have used both a slow shutter speed and a panning action. The slow shutter produced the movement in the subject, the panning the movement in the background
This is perhaps the most common technique to induce deliberate blur where the photographer choses a shutter speed sufficient to render a recognizable subject but, at the same time, the shutter is open long enough for movement to register on the image. The trick is in choosing what stutter speed to use and for this you need first to assess how quickly your subject is moving. Obviously a formula one race car move quicker than a galloping horse which in turn is quicker than grass stems being blown in the wind.
Nikon D3, 200-400mm f4 lens @ 360mm, 1/125th sec @ f16, ISO 200 In this image I have used a relatively fast shutter speed but the foreground blur imparts a great sense of movement. This was shot through a vehicle window whilst travelling at around 50 mph (80 kph)! The Pronghorn is renowned as the fastest land animal in the Americas.
If you are using a long shutter speed to capture movement, for example moving water, it is absolutely essential to lock the camera down on a solid tripod. The long exposure will exacerbate any camera movement. To ensure there is no camera shake it is best to either use a cable release or to lock the mirror up and use the camera’s self timer to trigger the shot.
Nikon D3, 20-35mm f2.8 @ 35mm, 1/15 sec @ f22 ISO 100. Gitzo carbon fibre tripod, Arca Swiss ball head
What shutter speed?
So, what shutter speed do you need to create motion blur – the answer is ‘it depends’. If the speed is too short you still end up freezing the subject or it has minimal blur which just doesn’t work well. If too long then the subject itself becomes too blurry to be recognizable for what it is. Other factors will also come into play such as the angle your subject is moving. Is it toward you , diagonal, away etc. each of which causes a different apparent speed of motion. Are you, the photographer standing still or are you moving i.e. in a vehicle?
Note that, the further away you are from your subject, the easier it is to pan and follow, keeping the subject in the same location in the viewfinder. The plain fact is you need to experiment a little for each subject you shoot – exactly what that little screen on the back of the camera is for!
However here are some starting points:
Birds in flight to create some wing blur – 1/125 sec
Panned action for cars, cyclists, and animals at full gallop – 1/30 sec
Sports action featuring people, basketball, athletes etc. 1/60 sec
Remember that these are just indicators, you will still need to experiment for yourself.
I am not including star trails etc as this is a whole other subject. Similarly I am not going into rear curtain flash – I will again write about this in a separate article.
Long exposure while moving the camera
The second common method of creating movement blur is when the subject is still (or relatively so) but you deliberately move the camera during the exposure.
Nikon D3, 105mm f2.8 Micro lens, 1/8sec @ f32, ISO 100. Here I have used a twisting motion to rotate the camera and lens whilst taking the photo. Note how the fish near the centre are rendered relatively still whilst the further you look to the outside of the frame there is increased blur.
There is a huge range of movement you can introduce, rotation, up and down , side-to-side each of which will introduce a different blur effect. Also experiment with the same movement and different shutter speeds to find which works best.
As creative blurs require longer exposures than normal you need to take care with not to overexpose your photos. In general keep the ISO settings as low as possible and use small aperture to allow for longer shutter speeds without over-exposing. On bright sunny days even then you may not be able to set a long enough shutter speed to achieve the desired effect. This is where the use of a neutral density filter comes into it’s own. Neutral density filters cut the amount of light coming through the lens without altering the colours. These are available in a range of density settings but I recommend owning having one of the darkest, perhaps a -6 stop. This way you can always open the aperture or raise the ISO if you need a slightly faster shutter speed. If you don’t have a dark enough ND filter you have fewer options to slow the shutter down.
Nikon D3s, 20-35mm f2.8 lens @20mm hand held, 1/30 sec @ f4, ISO 200. Here due to the light levels it was not necessary to use a small aperture to achieve the desired slow shutter speed.
Here, a word of warning. Your sensor must be scrupulously clean when taking long exposures. Almost invariably you will be using small apertures which have the effect of sharply focussing every tiny scrap of dust on the sensor. If I know I am going to be taking long exposure shots I will always clean ny camera sensors before going out.
To see more creative blurs search the online archive by entering keywords in the search box below.
Several times I have been asked how it is that my long-time career as a sports photographer gels with the wildlife and nature work I now mostly shoot. The fact is that there are a great many similarities.
First let’s look at the equipment… Pretty much identical, rapid-focus cameras using large telephoto lenses.
Second… similar techniques, long periods of waiting around with not much happening while trying to maintain a high level of concentration so you don’t miss the decisive moment!
Nikon D2x, 600mm f4 lens, mounted on a Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head, 1/3200th sec ISO 200 @ f5.6. You can certainly shoot low slowly flying birds from a tripod but it’s much harder to acquire focus and stay locked on than with hand holding. Here, as I was still shooting with a D2 series camera that does not handle high ISO settings as well as more modern cameras, I have opted for a larger aperture than I would choose today.
One area of wildlife photography where all the above is particularly true is in capturing images of birds in flight. Often fast moving, unpredictable, with difficult lighting, much the same as with so many sports events.
My preferred lens for in-flight photography is the Nikon 500mm f4, either with or without the TC-14 1.4x converter, and occasionally the 200-400 f4, more often than not hand held with image stabilization turned on, depending on the size of bird I am working with and the distances involved. I never use the converter on the 200-400, which slows down autofocus to an unacceptable level. This technique results in more ‘keepers’ than using the 600mm f4 on a tripod with a gimbal head. The 600mm is just way too heavy to hand hold, at least for me, not being a muscle-bound body builder!
Just like photographing high-speed sport it’s essential to set your camera effectively to freeze the action (unless of course you are going for intentional blur, but that’s a whole other subject – coming soon!) I never let my shutter speed drop below 1/2000th sec, adjusting my ISO settings to ensure that I stay at this speed or above. Remember, birds can be very high-speed subjects, often cruising at 30 mph, and can reach enormous speeds of 60 mph or more when diving or hunting. I will generally stop my lens down to around f8 to give a good depth of field and also because this is the ‘sweet spot’ on my 500mm producing the sharpest corner to corner images. Unlike sport and ground-based wildlife subjects – where I will often use my telephotos wide open (largest aperture) to limit depth of field and isolate my subject from the background – this is rarely necessary with in-flight photography as, in the majority of cases, your subject is against the sky or is already distanced from any discernible background.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens hand held, 1/2500th @ f8, ISO 800. Look for the unusual bit of action such as when this bird dips his toes into the lake..
With my Nikon bodies I use continuous autofocus, AF/C (AI Servo on Canon) and select 9-point autofocus when photographing single birds, or 51-point 3D-tracking when shooting more than a single bird. I always use the highest frame-per-second rate possible and, like capturing sporting action, will often shoot in short bursts.
Shooting birds in flight I almost always use manual exposure, unlike sport where my preferred method is aperture priority. Primarily, in sport, I generally aim to keep my subject isolated from the backgrounds which, most of the time, are fairly constantly lit. With in-flight photography, backgrounds can constantly change as you continue to shoot; i.e. the birds move from blue sky to white cloud, or from a dark vegetation background to a more open area, and it’s really important that the exposure is based on the bird and not on the background. To set my exposure I get in position and shoot a few test shots ensuring my minimum 1/2000th sec is achieved, checking my histogram, and adjusting my shutter speed and ISO to move the histogram to the right without it actually touching the right-hand edge and blowing out highlights. It is essential to keep detail in the brightest, often white, part of your subjects.
For white balance I invariably just leave the setting at auto. As I shoot 100% in RAW format, I can always change the white balance in post production, if I need to – which is rarely. I find it all too easy when manually setting a white balance to forget I’ve done so and end up with extra work on a whole bunch of photos.
Technique for birds in flight
Even though my Nikon lenses autofocus extremely rapidly, you often have little time to acquire sharp focus as a subject might suddenly appear. To ensure the most rapid focus I will, if at all possible, find a subject that is at approximately the same distance as I predict my subjects might appear and pre-focus on that. This means that when a bird appears in the right zone my lenses have little work to do in locking on to the bird and I find I am shooting sharp images way earlier. I always use the rear focus button on the camera and not the half-depressed shutter button, as I like to decide when the cameras actually focus on the subject… Another throwback to how I shoot sport.
If you can, keep your selected autofocus points on the eye of the bird, which is easier with large birds than with rapidly moving, smaller subjects. When photographing more than one in-flight bird, ensure that your focus points are on the leading bird, because if the leader is ‘soft’ and the following bird(s) is sharp, it produces a very strange look.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens handheld, 1/2000th @f8, ISO 320. When shooting more than one bird ensure you focus on the leading subject. Also remember that many birds have large areas of white colour so it is essential that you don’t blow out your highlights.
Just like shooting sports, with birds in flight it is essential to develop good panning technique. You MUST keep the lens moving, locking your subject in the same position in the viewfinder as far as you can, and keep shooting. A common error is to shoot every image with the bird dead centre in the frame. I often shift my focus selection points slightly to one side of the frame or the other depending on the flight direction, to allow space for the bird to move into. This generally gives a much more pleasing composition. The best bird images, particularly with larger species, tend to be when the wing is at the highest or lowest position during the flapping motion, aim to hit this spot consistently.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2000th sec @ f8, ISO 1200. Try and time your shots so the wings are either fully elevated or fully down, relatively easy with soaring birds like this vulture
Perhaps more-so than with other forms of wildlife photography, it is practically essential to shoot with the sun at your back with a useable arc of around 30°. Backlit and sidelit subjects rarely work well as you will invariably end up with very harsh shadows. The angle of the sun is also a huge factor. Photographers talk about the golden hours, around two-and-a-half hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset, when the light has a soft even feel and has a golden glow that lends itself well to all wildlife subjects. A further advantage of a low sun angle is that it will often result in a great catchlight in a subject’s eye. In general, high sun angles during the middle part of the day are not workable if the sun is out, but you can extend the shooting day with more overcast conditions.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2500th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Give a little more space on the side of the image that your subject is facing to allow room for it to ‘move into’
Another weather condition to keep in mind is wind direction. Birds, like aircraft, will tend to take-off and land into the wind. Absolutely the best conditions for in-flight bird photography is when both the sun and the wind are at your back.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/1600th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Birds take-off and land into the wind, try and have both sun and wind at your back
Remember, like all photography, the foregoing suggestions are guidelines and not set-in-stone rules! I still experiment with different shutter speeds, camera movement, lighting angles etc. but, my experience has been, that using the above guidelines will generally produce the most pleasing images.
The 2017 Nature Conservancy Council photography competition attracted over 33,000 entries from 141 countries.
I am honoured to announce that my entry below has been awarded a place in the top 100 entries to go forward for final judging. This includes a peoples’ choice award which you can vote for online. Please visit The Nature Conservancy Council Photo Contest to see the top 100 entries and vote for your favourite images.
This image was taken with a Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400 f4 lens (set to 380mm), 1/1250th @ f4.5, ISO 200
Pronghorns can run at speeds up to 53mph (85 kph) leaving potential predators far behind making them the second fastest land animal in the world after the African cheetah and by far the fastest animal in N. America. Not only sprinters but long distance runners they raise the white hairs on their rumps when startled which can be seen for miles.
Many years ago, long before we ever came to live in North America, my wife Jean and I were sitting in a restaurant in Houston Texas having a meal while en-route to cover another major sports event. A nearby TV was showing the baseball play-offs games and it was evident that tour waiter was more intent on the game than on serving us. To get his attention we decided that the best course of action was to engage him in a conversation about the game as frankly, we had no idea what was going on. There followed a series of questions around the rules of the game, distance from pitcher to batter, how far it was around the bases, how many players in a team which, if achieving little else, did get us our meal served.
Fast forward to 2014 and I found myself in Toronto working as the Photo Chief for the 2015 PanAm Games. So, I started to pick up some photo assignments, mostly for USA Today, covering major pro-sports event in and around the city. Inevitably, I therefore picked up my first assignment to shoot baseball, and quickly realized that little I had learned all those years ago had stayed with me.
My first ever game was Canada Day, July 1st 2014, a national holiday here in Canada.
I had tried to study other photographers photos, including the work f some famous baseball photographers including Brad Mangin and Robert Beck to try and figure out the shooting angles and chatted to friends here in Toronto to get the names of the teams leading photographers. So far all well and good!
I have always believed that a good sports photographer can go to any new sport and quickly figure out the best ways to shoot it, and found that baseball is easily learned – up to a point. Sure there are the photos of the pitcher throwing the ball, and the batter hitting the ball but much of the best action photos come from other plays, sliding to a base, fielders catching and I soon found that my lens was pointing one way while all the others were in an entirely different direction as they were anticipating plays – still a lot to learn. And one other thing, I realized that, although I thought my reflexes were pretty good, not one of my batting pictures had the ball in.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens at 250mm 1250th @f4, ISO 800, set manually, Gitzo carbon fibre monopod
Now, shooting for a major wire service like USA Today Sports Images means that you are constantly having to decide when it is a suitable break in play to race in to the photo area, select some images, caption them, transmit them and get back out again hoping you didn’t miss any major play. And thereby came the next problem. In most sports I was used to very simple captioning – i.e. Seve Ballesteros (ESP) putts on the 18th green to win the British open golf, or Rafael Nadal plays a forehand in round two at Wimbledon, and so, adopted the same principal for captioning my baseball photos. Big mistake!
Nikon D3, Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens at 360mm 1000th @f4, ISO 3200, set manually, Gitzo carbon fibre monopod
Phone starts ringing from the editors desk asking me what the play was – i.e. was that the RBI single from the pinch hitter in the 7th inning? Of course I had no idea what he was talking about, and what’s a pinch hitter anyway? Fortunately I had colleagues in the TO2015 office who were baseball fans, and the other photographers at the game soon started to educate me in the finer points of the game and before long my images started to improve, and the caption errors got less.
So, fast forward again to October 2015, and now having covered around 50 games I find that this is a game that has really grown on me and I look forward to covering each one. And what a season it has been for the Toronto Blue Jays, they are in the post-season play-offs for the first time since 1993, when they were World Series Champions. Unfortunately things are not looking so good, having just lost the first two games of the play-off series to the Texas Rangers, hopefully they will pull it back with two way wins so I can continue my new fond love affair with the game.
Oh, and every caption for the play-off games I have covered was absolutely perfect, mainly because we were hard-wiring (plugging an ethernet cable directly into the port on a Nikon D4s and transmitting straight from the camera to the picture editor) the camera to send images and all the post-processing work and captioning was done by the editor. Yes, baseball play-offs are a really big deal. USA Today Sports Images had three photographers at the games, one shooting from an elevated position, one from the photo pit near first base, and yours truly from the photo pit near third base. You cannot afford to miss a big play at this level.
How to improve your baseball photography
These principals apply whether you are shooting your son or daughter at Little League or getting your first opportunity at shooting a big league game.
Get close to the action – use a long lens and fill the frame as best you can. At least a 200mm even for those school diamonds. I rarely shoot with any less than a 300mm and often am right out to the 500 or 600mm if I want to get good facial expressions
Use a fast shutter speed to stop the action, especially if you are trying to get the ball in the picture. 1,000th second at an absolute minimum and even at that speed you will still probably get a slightly blurred ball. Remember, that with any modern DSLR you can push the limits by increasing the ISO setting. I often use the auto ISO setting on my Nikons where I can ensure that if the light drops to a level that would make the shutter speed less than 1,000th the ISO will automatically increase to compensate.
If you see the ball in the viewfinder it is probably not going to be in the picture you take, especially as you get to the bigger league games with faster pitchers and harder hitting batters. By the time your brain tells your finger to press the shutter, and the mechanics of the camera operate to open the shutter the ball is either in the catchers glove or sailing over the outfield. At MLB games I keep both eyes open and try to watch the ball leaving the pitchers hand, press the shutter and fire a sequence of two or three and you are likely to get the ball in the frame – with a bit of luck actually connecting with the bat
Anticipate the action – not all good action shots are pitchers or batters at the plate. Watch when players are on the bases, stolen bases or the batter diving to home plate make some of the greatest action shots. Concentrate, focus on the player and follow focus the action if your camera focusses fast enough or pre-focus on the point where you expect the action be if your camera is a little slow. Almost any modern DSLR will allow you to follow the action. However, even with he fastest cameras, make sure you have your focussing set up properly. My cameras allow 51 points of focus but for any sport where you are essentially focussing on a single player cut this number down in your menu settings and your success rate will improve dramatically. I always use 9 focus points on my Nikons for this type of sport.
If you have a favourite player (your son or daughter!) make sure you shoot from the right side of the field. A right handed pitcher should be shot from
third base, a leftie from first. A right handed batter, go to first and a leftie from third.
I hope you find the tips will help you improve your baseball photography.
UPDATE: Yesterday, 14th October, Toronto Blue Jays won the divisional championships. Take a look at the latest images gallery to see a small selection of some of my favourites or go to http://www.usatodaysportsimages.com to see the full selection
Throughout the PanAm Games I had, as my constant companion, a Nikon 1 V3 mirrorless camera along with a 10-30mm lens and FT1 lens adaptor, courtesy of Nikon Canada. This camera boasts an 18megapixel 1″-type sensor with no AA filter (offering a multiplication factor of 2.7 for your regular DSLR lenses, but more on that later. It can blast through images at 20 FPS, captures 1080/60p video, and features wi-fi connectivity through an IOS or Android Ap.
How did I find it – in short absolutely incredible – by far the best small lightweight camera I have ever handled.
18.4MP CMOS sensor
20 fps with continuous AF and subject tracking
NEF Raw and JPEG file capture
3″ tilting touchscreen with 1.04M dots
1080/60p video capture
Wi-Fi connectivity with IOS and Android smartphone connection
In Canada the camera is delivered with the additional grip and the electronic viewfinder both of which aid the feel of a traditional DSLR.
Without even referring to the instructions manual the controls on this camera will be instantly familiar to any Nikon DSLR user. The same as any DSLR the camera offers all the conventional shooting modes, programmed auto, aperture and shutter priority, as well as metered manual.
As a DSLR user I always find it difficult to compose my images using the LCD screen on the back of a compact camera. With the 1 V3 you have the option of using the supplied electronic viewfinder, which I never took off the camera. I had no trouble composing my images on the electronic finder, although viewing an electronic version of your subject material takes a bit of getting used to
The Nikon 1 V3 has a hybrid auto-focus system that combines 171-point contrast- and 105-point phase-difference detection systems. The Nikon 1 V3 to focus extremely quickly in good light, even on a moving subject. As the light levels drop, the camera switches to contrast-detect AF which, which is not a fast as contrast method but still fast enough for every situationI encountered. The camera that decides which AF method to use – the photographer has no influence on this.
Shooting sequences, even in 20 FPS mode, resulted in almost every frame being pin-sharp, impressive stuff!
As a sports photographer I thought great, 20 FPS and quickly switched to this mode. I just as quickly switched back to single shot mode for all but real action situations as I realized I was shooting 15-20 almost identical images of fairly static subjects. Even though I have got my workflow tuned to a fine art I still don’t want to look at dozens of essentially identical shots!
Of course, the proof of the pudding for any camera is the quality of the images it captures. Here I was far from disappointed. Shooting with both the Nikon1 10-30mm lens and using the adaptor with a range of DSLR lenses produced spectacular results.
The FT1 adapter provides some really unique shooting opportunities. Mounting a super telephoto and the 2.7 multiplication factor results in one monster lens. Take for example the image below shot with a the V1 and a 500mm f4 a windsurfer competitor. That’s a 1350mm f4 lens – this shot was taken from approximately 500 meters away!
Nikon 1 V3 plus FT-1 adapter, Nikon 500 mm f4 lens 1/1600th @ f5, 400 ISO, aperture priority automatic mounted on Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head.
Close ups are also a joy to shoot with the extremely close focusing distance of the supplied 10-30mm f3.5-5.6 zoom of only 0.7ft (0.2m)
Overall, this is the the small camera I have been searching for. It offers unparalleled versatility, is light to carry everywhere you go, and produces professional quality images.
One feature I loved about this camera was it’s built-in wireless capability allowing me to transmit images across to my iPhone using the free Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility ap, the images appearing almost instantly in my photo library. Perhaps this is the answer to me doing more with Instagram!