What are hot pixels, and how can you remove them?

Hot pixels are defects commonly found in digital cameras. You can determine if they are hot pixels because they will show in the same location in every frame — they do not move. They will look extra sharp because they are just one pixel. Below, I’ll discuss what they are and talk about three ways to remove them.

What are hot pixels?

Hot pixels are caused by electrical charges which leak into the sensor wells. You usually begin noticing them when you go home and look at your images more closely during post-processing.

Hot pixels can become more visible at high ISOs. They can also become more visible when the sensor becomes hot. This can occur when you are photographing during a hot day or evening. They tend to be more visible in dark areas of your image. They tend to show up far more often in long exposure images. And of course, this includes dark night photography images!

Above, I used the Dust& Scratches filter in Photoshop to remove hot pixels. This is viewing the image at 200% zoom.

A pixel by any other name …

For the purposes of this article, I am not going to differentiate between hot pixels, dead pixels (a pixel that is no longer receiving any information) or a stuck pixel (pixels that receive erroneous information, often showing up as red, blue or green). I’m simply going to refer to them as hot pixels for the sake of expediency.

Three ways to get rid of wayward pixels

1. Pixel mapping

We’ll start straight at your source: Your camera. Your camera may include pixel mapping features in its firmware. The general idea is that your camera takes a black reference frame and then eliminates the detected stuck pixels. Easy. Pentax and Olympus have pixel mapping features.

2. Removing noise

I’ll use Photoshop as an example, mostly because, well, that’s what I use. If you don’t use Photoshop, look for a similar feature on your photo editor.

Photoshop already has an excellent method of getting rid of hot pixels without resorting to third party plug-ins. It’s quite easy.

Using the "Dust & Scratches" filter to eliminate something other than dust and scratches. Many programs other than Photoshop have the ability to remove dust and scratches. Give it a try!
Using the Dust & Scratches filter to eliminate something other than dust and scratches. Many programs other than Photoshop have the ability to remove dust and scratches. Give it a try!

Go to Filter > Noise > Dust & Scratches. This will open a dialog box.

Adjusting the threshold in the "Dust & Scratches" Filter. Look! No more hot pixels!
Adjusting the threshold in the “Dust & Scratches” Filter. Look! No more hot pixels!

Set the pixel radius to 1-2 pixels. Set the threshold based on how much you wish to eliminate the offending pixels. 

The long exposure night image after reducing noise from the "Dust & Scratch" Filter.
The long exposure night image after reducing noise from the “Dust & Scratch” Filter.

What if the Dust & Scratches Filter messes up other parts of my image?

If this occurs, do one of the following:

Paint out the pixels with Layer Masks

Create a Layer Mask (Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All). This should create a white mask in the Layers Window. Then click that white mask, select a brush with the color black and paint out all the areas where you feel the image has been adversely affected.

Use luminosity masks
Creating a luminosity mask. Notice that all the darkest areas are white?
Creating a luminosity mask. Notice that all the darkest areas are white?

Since offending pixels are far more visible in dark, shadowy or unexposed areas, you may target these in those areas with a luminosity mask. Create a luminosity mask where only the darker areas of the image are targeted. The pixels should be gone. If there are other pixels visible, you can paint those out on the mask itself with a white brush, brushing on more of the effect. 

This is a screenshot of the Layers Window. The luminosity mask is the small black and white mask to the right of the top layer. It's a Layer Mask, but is targeted to affect the darkest areas of the image. It's easier and quicker to create a luminosity mask than it is to paint on a Layer Mask, and sometimes can be extremely helpful if you know exactly what you wish to target.
This is a screenshot of the Layers palette. The luminosity mask is the small black and white mask to the right of the top layer. It’s a Layer Mask, but is targeted to affect the darkest areas of the image. It’s easier and quicker to create a luminosity mask than it is to paint on a Layer Mask, and sometimes can be extremely helpful if you know exactly what you wish to target.

3. Dark frame subtraction

There are two ways of doing dark frame subtraction — long exposure noise reduction and dark frame subtraction.

Long exposure noise reduction

You can turn on long exposure noise reduction (LENR) in your camera’s settings.

Remember, though, that this will result in your long exposure taking twice as long. For example, if you do a 3-minute exposure, your camera will then employ LENR for an additional three minutes, so your wait time will be six minutes total. Because of this, you also should not have LENR on if you are doing stacking of any kind. For these reasons, I rarely use LENR.

Dark frame subtraction in post-processing

This is how I prefer to do dark frame subtraction. While you are out in the field taking long exposure photos, take a dark exposure image. 

Set up your camera with the settings you are using. However, keep the lens cap on. This may get puzzled looks from your family if they are not photographers. Take the photo. 

Remove the lens cap and go ahead and take the long exposure. 

When you do your post-processing, open the dark frame subtraction image and your regular image. Put the dark image as the top layer. Change the Blend Mode to Subtract. Boom! That gets rid of whatever errant pixels you may have had.

It’s easy to deal with hot pixels

As I mentioned earlier, this mostly occurs with long exposure photos, especially in the dark areas. This unfortunately makes them particularly noticeable, especially when viewed on a large screen. Thankfully, there are numerous ways to address taking them out. And most of them are easy.

There are other methods of removing them as well. You could use either the Spot Healing Brush or the Clone Stamp tool to remove them. However, you would need to generally remove them individually. I tend to use the Spot Healing Brush for removing sensor dust more so than hot pixels.

You might also be able to use a noise reduction program such as Topaz Labs DeNoise AI.

Do you have a preferred method of removing hot pixels? If so, please tell me in the comments!

Discussing real-world applications of the Pentax Astrotracer with Tim Little

The Pentax K-1′s built-in Astrotracer tracks stars using GPS data to shift its sensor during longer exposures. This allows you to shoot longer exposures without star trailing while reducing noise and increasing details.

It’s quite easy to get Astrotracer up and running. But what about real world applications?

For this, I spoke with Timothy Little, a gifted photographer who makes a living specializing in night photography and light painting. He has been using the Pentax K-1’s Astrotracer feature to create vivid Milky Way photos along the East Coast. He discussed practical uses of this fascinating feature in the field.

Milky Way, Pentax, Astrotracer, stars
“Fields of Gold.” Night photography by Timothy Little.

Why do you use Astrotracer?

“Primarily because it allows me to ratchet down my ISO to relatively low levels. For me this is around ISO 800, which means cleaner images, deeper colors and more time to collect the light I need without star trails.

“In 2020, I had to send my Pentax 15-30mm f/2.8 lens out for service leaving me with a Pentax 28-105mm as my primary lens. In the ‘old days,’ this might have put a serious damper on my astro-landscape shooting. However, thanks to Astrotracer, having access to a traditionally wide aperture is no longer necessary and I did quite well at f/4 as a result for the rest of the season.”

Milky Way, Pentax, Astrotracer, stars
“Fire Fly Road.” Night photography by Timothy Little.

Do you find the Astrotracer easy to use?

“I do! Once you get a system in place, it’s easy to get up and running pretty quickly. The most important thing is to run a GPS and Astrotracer Precise Calibration before starting to ensure your camera knows where you are.

“I’ve saved my typical image capture settings into one of the Pentax user presets, which makes it even easier. I switch the dial to the user preset, which not only loads my ISO, aperture and time settings but also enables Astrotracer. I do my calibration, or as I think of it, my ‘spin routine,’ and I’m ready to go in about two minutes.”

Milky Way, Pentax, Astrotracer, stars
“Galactic Stilts.” Night photography by Timothy Little.

What is your preferred lens to use the Astrotracer? 

“Without a doubt I use my Pentax HD Pentax-D FA 15-30mm f/2.8 the most, primarily because it covers the zoom range I prefer for my landscape work. I typically settle around 20mm which is good for many of my compositions.”

Milky Way, Pentax, Astrotracer, stars
“Stellar Coast.” Night photography by Timothy Little.

Which focal length works best? 

“I’ve had generally good luck all the way up to 135mm, which is the longest focal length I have. I’ve even gone down to a 12mm Rokinon fisheye

“The 15mm end of my 15-30mm wide-angle lens exhibits some minor trailing in the corners which doesn’t bother me and is easily cropped if necessary. I was skeptical that my fisheye would yield usable results, but surprisingly it did!”

Do you need to limit the length of time with a certain kind of lens?

“My experience is that they all start to get a bit ‘drifty’ once I go beyond the three-minute mark, so I tend to limit my time to two and a half minutes which I find is more than enough, especially considering the dynamic range of the sensor if I need to do some boosting in post.

“A good rule of thumb is to always shoot wider than you intend on using and crop later. I don’t get too hung up on some trailing in the corners since most of my work has a heavy foreground element where people tend to focus. The center of the image, which is usually where I’ve composed the Milky Way, moves the least if at all. If I see any trailing at the center, I know I’ve gone too long and will knock off thirty seconds and try again.”

How often do you need to calibrate the camera? 

“Great question! Opinions may vary on this but I recalibrate at every location I shoot if it is 10 miles or more from the last location. Sometimes I will calibrate closer if I think I may have a tree line or obstacle that may limit the ‘seeing’ of the internal GPS. Sure, it may be a bit overkill but I’d rather spend an extra two minutes running the calibration than simply hope for the best and find out later it didn’t quite nail it. It’s a short amount of time that is well worth the investment for the peace of mind.”

Milky Way, Pentax, Astrotracer, stars
“Galaxy Racing.” Night photography by Timothy Little.

If you turn the camera off, do you need to recalibrate or do anything else? 

“No, it’s not necessary even if you shut down due to a battery change or because you’re walking a little ways to get a different angle. In those situations, you don’t have to be concerned about rerunning the calibration. In fact, the GPS is pretty darn quick at snagging what it needs when switched back on.

“It does take a tad bit longer if you have moved a significant distance — let’s say you hopped a plane to another part of the country between the last time you used Astrotracer and now, but that’s to be expected. At that point, you’d want to recalibrate anyway.”

What are some tricks that you find make the Astrotracer work most effectively? 

“Out of the box, Astrotracer does quite well. However, I’ve ran into a few issues that people should be aware of to make sure you don’t have any surprises. 

“If using a manual lens, you must make sure the camera knows what focal length you are shooting at since it cannot read the information itself. After attaching a lens without a chip and turning the camera on, it will always ask the focal length. It uses this to properly move the sensor as needed for the tracking. If you skip this or put in the wrong focal length, the camera will produce star trails. 

“That’s why it’s also important to shut the camera down if switching between two non-chipped lenses. Otherwise, it thinks the second lens is the same focal length and things will not go as you expect. This was a lesson I learned just this year.

“I recently used Astrotracer with a vintage 50mm f/1.8 and it did fantastic.”

Milky Way, Pentax, Astrotracer, stars
“Old Stellar Dock.” Night photography by Timothy Little.

Which situations do you feel Astrotracer works best? 

“Just about any starry conditions will work well. However, because of the tracking and stacking in post production, the best situations are the ones with a minimum amount of foreground objects ‘breaking the sky.’ By this I mean, stacking a tracked sky and an untracked foreground together is quite easy in post. Having to deal with nearby tall trees, radio towers, telephone poles or wires all create processing challenges if those objects are reaching well into the sky. In fact, if there is a shot I absolutely want to get but I see a lot of foreground malarkey, I may just make it easy on myself and simply go back to a short single-exposure shot at with an ISO 3200, f/2.8 setting and skip the tracking all together.

“Shooting to the north minimizes some of the trailing of the stars due to less apparent motion in that direction. East and west tends to produce the most blurring of the stars.”

Milky Way, Pentax, Astrotracer, stars
“Pond Stars.” Night photography by Timothy Little.

Have you had any issue using Astrotracer? How did you work around it? 

“The only issues I have run into were fixed by doing a quick recalibration or making sure the camera knew exactly the focal length I was shooting. Thankfully, the Astrotracer has been reliable to the point that I don’t have any angst about using it as much as possible. The feature, in my experience, feels like it’s polished and not a gimmicky add-on designed for experimenting. If you take the time to set it up and pay attention to your surroundings, it works.

“I have not had any issues with calibration around cellphones or metal thus far. Remember that you may experience some calibration issues near large metal or even your car, tall cliffs, cellphone towers, or even standing under a canopy of trees. These are ‘GPS 101’ considerations. We’ve all dealt with when hiking or driving with GPS.”

See more of Timothy Little’s photography

Catch up with Timothy Little’s photography and workshops on his Cape Night Photography website.

Milky Way, Pentax, Astrotracer, stars
“Salty Skies.” Night photography by Timothy Little.

Solving night photography problems: Six ways of reducing noise

Noise. Whether it’s random white, red or blue specks or grain, we all experience noise.

It’s caused by various things, including heat, increasing light sensitivity of the camera, insufficient “information” or other factors. Here are six ways to reduce noise in your night photos.

1. Proper exposure

This photo of Comet NEOWISE over several radio telescopes was achieved by stacking images, and has a good strong exposure, with lots of information in the foreground and night sky.

The most basic way is creating a proper exposure in the first place. This means not underexposing your photo, particularly since noise often ends up in the darker areas of the photo such as the shadows. 

Check your histogram and make sure the waveforms are not crushed up against the left side. This indicates clipping. If necessary, adjust one or more of the settings in your exposure triangle — ISO, shutter speed or aperture — to try and get a proper exposure. 

Another method is light painting or using LED light panels to add light to the foreground elements.

This image uses light painting of the foreground to get a decent exposure. Also, several images were stacked for star trails to reduce noise. After that, a little noise reduction using Nik DFine was added. This method is described below.

2. Stacking images

For the night photographer, photo stacking typically refers to one of two things. Thankfully, both reduce noise. 

Star trails

The overall exposure is 50 minutes for this star trails photo. This would have been extremely noisy if I had not used stacking to reduce the noise. I used noise reduction with Nik Dfine as described below, and also light painted the dock for better exposure.

One can take successive photos with the same camera settings. Later, in Photoshop or another program, you may combine them as layers, and then change the layers from “normal” to “lighten” to allow the lighter parts, such as the stars, to shine through. This enables you to use shorter exposures, which reduces the amount of heat on the sensor.

For instance, a single hourlong exposure might be rather noisy; a stacked series of images equaling an hour, not so much.

Stacking for Milky Way or stars as pinpoints

When we take photos of the Milky Way or the starry sky as pinpoints of light, we want to use relatively short exposures. But to use short exposures, we need to increase the camera’s ISO so it is more sensitive to light. This can introduce noise. What to do?

One method that more and more night photographers are doing is taking successive photos for stacking. Like before, you would use the same camera settings. Then, they use either Sequator (PC) or Starry Landscape Stacker (Mac). They both reduce noise by using “image averaging” while combining images. As a bonus, they also remove airplane trails and artifacts. The program also aligns the stars so they appear as pinpoints. While you can do this in other programs, it can often be a laborious process.

There is a downside of sorts, however. We typically have to take a separate photo of the foreground and then blend it with your starry sky photo. These programs help with this, but it does require extra effort. 

When photographing the Milky Way, I like to take at least twenty photos. Images are richer and more detailed than my single exposure photos alone. And yes, cleaner.

3. Equatorial mounts

This is another method for taking photos of the Milky Way or starry sky as pinpoints. This addresses noise by allowing you to reduce your ISO. 

Since the earth rotates, what an equatorial mount (or star tracker) does is it compensates for the earth’s rotation. You place the device between your camera and tripod, align it and allow it to take photos for as long as several minutes while still keeping the stars as pinpoints. 

There is a downside of sorts, however. I’ll bet you guessed what it is. Yes, once again, it requires blending with the foreground. But you are rewarded with rich photos of the night sky that show richer color and detail not possible by using single exposures or even stacking images.

4. Avoid heat

I avoided noise during this hot summer evening by heading to 11000 feet in elevation. Also, there’s less atmosphere for the stars to shine through, so they appear sharper and clearer.

Heat does the night photographer no favors.

One way to avoid heat is to plan your photography shoots around cooler weather. Or we could avoid it entirely by heading to higher ground or the coast. We could also simply wait until 3 or 4 a.m. when it is considerably cooler. 

But sometimes, we will need to photograph in hotter temperatures. One way of addressing this is to modify your camera, adding a heat transfer reduction system. Spencer’s Camera and Photo has been doing this for years. Some photographers swear by this.

I have seen photographers discuss other methods such as using cool gel packs or peltier coolers, but have never seen any of them in person. Still, I’ve given you more Google rabbit holes for you to disappear into for hours. Your family will wonder where you went. You can blame it on me.

This is another example of heading to the mountains during a hot day to avoid noise. Also … it’s beautiful up in the mountains? Who doesn’t want to be there, especially on a hot night?

5. Noise reduction

Long exposure noise reduction

If your camera has manual controls, it probably also has long exposure noise reduction (LENR). Unless your camera “bakes” it into your RAW file (I’m looking at you, Pentax), you will likely need to use your camera manufacturer’s specific software to interpolate the noise reduction. In other words, programs like Lightroom will not recognize the proprietary noise reduction employed by your camera.

I don’t use it for this reason, as I typically use Lightroom. Another reason is using my camera’s LENR doubles the exposure time. If my exposure is three minutes long, my camera will take another three minutes to process the image after exposure time. Yeah, no thanks. And I can’t do it for stacking as described above because the photos would then no longer be in succession.

However, we can add noise reduction in post-processing. Lightroom and Photoshop have noise reduction software that are effective. There are also numerous plugins that you may use. Topaz Labs has been a leader with their Denoise and Denoise AI software. Nik DFine has numerous algorithms for different kinds of noise.

I apply noise reduction to its own layer in Photoshop. Then I use Lumenzia luminosity masking software to specifically target the sky or shadow areas if necessary.

Night photos such as this are particularly simple to apply selective noise reduction to the sky as described above. However, the method is quite effective with Milky Way images as well.

6. Dark frame subtraction

I must confess, I am really bad at doing this. That’s a shame since it’s easy. But I tend to forget. 

Here, the idea is to take a dark frame photo at the temperature while you are there. Take a photo with the same settings that you are already using, but with the lens cap on. Then layer your image and the dark frame together, with the dark frame on top. Change the blending mode from “normal” to “difference.” Adjust the opacity to taste. 

We are eliminating noise caused by heat. Essentially, the dark frame has no signal, only noise. The other image has signal and noise. Using the “difference” blending mode allows us to subtract the noise from the signal, leaving just the clean signal.

By the way, Starry Landscape Stacker and Sequator allow you to add a dark frame, giving the potential to reduce noise even further than stacking alone!

Six options for a clean image

You can explore some or all of these methods, and certainly, you can use several in conjunction with each other for even cleaner images. If you use dark frame subtraction with an equatorial mount while at 12,000 feet in elevation on a cool evening, your images are going to be extremely clean.

If you have comments or have other methods of reducing noise, please share in the comments!

Quick tips for keeping your photo gear safe at the beach

As we enter the heart of summer, you might find yourself spending more time at the beach. As photographers, we love to bring our gear with us everywhere we go. If you’re not careful, the beach can be a deadly place for your expensive camera and lenses.

Below are a few quick tips for keeping your photography gear safe while at the beach. 

Bags

If you’re going out for a relaxing day at the beach and want to take some candid pictures, don’t just throw your camera in a bag with your towel, sunscreen and picnic lunch. Having a proper photography bag to keep your gear safe from the elements is essential, and bonus points if it’s waterproof, (I love my WANDRD PRVKE Lite for this reason). You can also read about my triple bag trick for beach photography here.

UV and polarizing filters

I personally don’t usually use a UV filter on my lenses unless I’m shooting in an environment where I think I may need to protect my lenses. Being at the beach can be one of those circumstances, especially if it’s really windy and sand is flying around. A UV filter can protect your expensive glass from the elements.

Alternatively, a polarizing filter is often super handy at the beach anyway as it cuts down glares and reflections and can intensify the blues of the water and sky. It will also protect your more expensive lens if needed. I always have my polarizing filter with me when I hit the beach. 

A polarizing filter can help cut down glare, deepen your blues and help protect your lens while at the beach.

Be smart with your lens changes

Change your lenses as little as possible when at the beach. Avoiding getting sand or moisture inside your camera is crucial. If your car is close, do it there, or shield yourself with a clean towel or blanket if needed. I use a large Ziplock bag to change my lenses in as well.

Think about what lens you’re most likely to use and have it on your camera before you leave the house. The same principles apply to your battery and memory card compartments. 

Cleaning gear

Have a clean towel, lens cloths and a dust blower in your bag in case you need to get rid of any unwanted particles on your camera gear. Keep these things protected inside your camera bag until you need them. 

A dust blower is lightweight and easy to keep in your bag.

Know the tides

As someone who grew up on the beach, this is no-brainer. However, people less familiar with the ocean often don’t realize how fast it can ebb and flow. Always know where your gear is, and which direction the tide is going.

On a flat beach, an incoming tide can rapidly advance and the spot that you thought all of your gear was safe could quickly be submerged.

When shooting on a beach with crashing waves, always be aware of the potential for rogue waves which can suddenly appear much larger than the others and take you by surprise. If shooting with your back to the water, also keep watch on what the ocean’s doing behind you. 

Keep it cool

Watch out for your gear overheating if exposed to the hot sun all day. Find shade if possible, or make some by using an umbrella or blanket. Be mindful of how long you’ve had your camera in the sun for and give it cooling breaks if needed. 

While a lot of these tips may seem like common sense, it’s good to get in the habit of being super vigilant with your camera equipment at the beach. Preventing exposure to the potentially harmful elements while also having the right gear to clean and protect your camera and lenses will save you a ton of headaches (and money!) down the line. 

Five ways to get creative with beach photography

With the official arrival of summer, many of us will be spending more time outside, especially at the beach. Below are five ways to help you get creative with your beach photography!

1. Reflections

Adding reflections into your beach photos can help boost your compositions. Tidal pools are one of my favorite places to create reflection photographs. You can reflect people, objects or just the sky. Walk around a tidal pool and look at it from different angles to see what is reflected in the water. 

Alternatively, if you’re on a sandy beach and the tide is receding, wet sand can also reflect the colors in the sky. This is especially nice at sunset and sunrise when you might have more dynamic tones and colors. 

Tidal pools make for great reflection images.

2. Long exposures

Long exposures can be a great way to change the composition of a beach scene. Neutral density filters are great for giving you a longer exposure which can change how the water and sky look in your images. A thirty second exposure, for example, can smooth out the water and give any clouds in the sky a streaky look. These images can often look more artistic and painterly. I love using my Lee Filters Big Stopper for these types of images.

Additionally, if you’re at a beach with waves or moving water, try experimenting with shorter exposures like 1/4s or 1/10s to see what the movement of the waves looks like. I love capturing the waves on a beach as they pull back into the ocean, it gives images movement and feeling. Usually these types of photos take a bit of experimentation with the shutter speed to get the desired look of the water. Play around and see what you get!

3. Camera position

This tip can apply to many types of photography but it’s one that I often use at the beach. Getting your camera down low can drastically change the perspective of a beach which can give you a more unique composition and provide you with more foreground details. 

Another place I like to take pictures is in the water. Even without a waterproof housing, you can wade into the water and shoot back toward the beach if your subjects are on shore. Or, you can have your camera just above the water while facing the horizon so that the water itself is your foreground interest if your subject is a bird, boat, sunset, etc. Obviously this tip comes with the caveat of being careful; always protect your gear!

Getting low allowed me to use the textures in the sand as foreground interest in this image.

4. Night

Summer means camping and beach fires where I live, so I often find myself at the beach in the evening and at night. This is also a great time to take photos, as long as you have a sturdy tripod. From capturing stars over the water, to a cozy beach fire with friends, there are lots of opportunities to create images at the beach at night. The wide-open spaces can often lend themselves well to silhouetted environmental portraits, or light painting can be another fun technique to play with at the beach.

5. Think smaller

Given a beautiful, sweeping beach scene, it’s easy to want to shoot with your wide-angle lens. But beaches provide plenty of opportunity to seek out details, textures and patterns. Sand affected by wind and tides can often create interesting shapes to photograph. Seaweed and driftwood have all sorts of different textures to explore. Search out tiny wildlife like crabs and snails, or find a cool shell to use as your subject matter. Try bringing your macro or nifty-fifty lens and see what you can come up with!

Snails at sunset.

Next time you’re out enjoying the beach, try one of these ideas to help spark some creativity. As with any genre of photography, early morning and late evening often provide the best light, especially in the summer months when mid day light can be extra harsh. Don’t forget to always protect your gear, and have fun out there!

Six tips to improve your beach sunset shots

It is summertime and you are off to the beach. Here are some tips to improve your sunset shots.

Bracket

Sunset exposures can be tricky. With bracketing, you have a better chance of getting a properly exposed image. Or you may decide to merge images by blending layers or using HDR software such as Aurora HDR. Spot meter on the sky, not the sun. If you don’t want to bracket, slightly underexpose your images to bring in richer colors.

Move around, get your feet wet

Don’t just stay on the dry part of the beach. Wear water shoes or waterproof boots and walk a little closer on the sand toward the water, so the surf tickles over the top of your feet. Turn around. Look for images behind you and to the side. Check out reflections on the sand, people, animals and landscapes. Stoop low, shoot up. Stand high, shoot down. Change the horizon line. Keeping it in the middle can get pretty boring. Switch your lens, based on your subject. A big sun, go telephoto. A vast landscape considers wide-angle.

Sunset Ride

Experiment with filters

In particular, graduated neutral density and neutral density. Graduated neutral density filters are gray on the top half and clear on the bottom. They darken the sky while allowing you to expose for detail in the shadow areas in the lower part of your image. Neutral density filters reduce light over the whole image, so you can slow down your shutter speed thus softening and blurring the water.

Stack filters — use more than one.   Your shutter speed might get pretty slow, so don’t forget your tripod and cable release. Try filters with different stops, to see how the stops affect your image. Graduated filters typically come in 1-4 stops. Neutral density filters come with many more stops, up to even 20. Or you can get a variable neutral density filter with a number of stops. The key is to experiment. Have fun trying different settings, filters and combinations of filters if you stack them.

Come early, stay late

Plan on arriving at least 45 minutes before sunset and leaving 45 minutes after. Look for the beach action before the sunset, and the deep, saturated colors after. Many times the colors are better if you patiently wait a while after the sun has dipped below the horizon. And always look for clouds. Dramatic clouds can make or break an image.

Look for an anchor point

Find something in the foreground. Rocks, a surfer, a silhouette, whatever pulls your interest. Pay attention to the timing of waves, as they move in and out, cresting high and low, and how the waves affect your anchor point. Wait and be prepared for the wave action you visualize for your image.

Safety always comes first.

Protect your eyes — don’t look straight into the sun through your lens. Don’t stand close to or in the water when there are dangerous riptides, rip currents or undertows, or where a wave could wipe out you or your equipment. Protect your feet with shoes or waterproof boots. Rocks and shells can cut the bottom of your feet, and stingrays sting. Protect your equipment. Keep it in a camera bag unless in use.

Don’t leave equipment on the beach. Sand is bad for a camera plus the incoming tide might cover it with water. Use rain protection for ocean spray. Be mindful of dangerous weather conditions and listen to lifeguard warnings. Always pay attention to your surroundings and the incoming waves. Use common sense when dealing with Mother Nature.

Beach Walking at Sunset

Light painting 101: Three steps to illuminating an eerie abandoned piano

Up in the mountains of Nevada is a ghost town. It was a former old Western mining town, and its fortunes rose and fell with the demand for precious metals.

We arrived at the town, ready for some night photography. One of the largest buildings has two stories, both with high ceilings. When I carefully went up the long stairs to the second story, I found this piano there.

I am a musician and play keyboards and guitar. Therefore, whenever I encounter an abandoned piano, I wonder what songs were played, who sung or danced to it, and what symphonies were unfinished. And of course, I always photograph the piano.

Haunting melodies

My two friends were still downstairs. For fun, I began playing a few random high keys. These eerie out-of-tune notes echoed downstairs, drawing an immediate reaction: “Whooooaaaaaaaa!” It was eerie enough that we even created a short video of how the notes sounded downstairs a little later!

Determining how to light the piano

I walked around the piano for a while, shining my flashlight at various angles. Looking around, I noticed the plaster from the wall had given way, exposing the old studs. The handwriting on the old plaster was interesting as well. Since much of the wall was gone, I could walk to the room in back and illuminate from behind.

However, that room had a couple of rows of connected wooden chairs. This posed a bit of an issue since I would have to work around it. I would need to crawl around underneath them to get similar angles. It would be challenging. But I decided it was worth it.

Three steps to illuminating the piano

1. Backlighting the piano

I crawled underneath the connected wooden chairs, extending my handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device to approximate the angle. It was challenging because the chairs were blocking much of the angle. Nevertheless, I managed to get it close. 

I then backed up and swept the light from left to right, so that this would create more shadows that would emanate forth on the floor from both the piano and the studs. As a bonus, I briefly illuminated the flowers on the top of the piano.

2. Illuminating the piano from the left side

I walked back into the room and walked to the left of the piano. Making sure I would not inadvertently shine the light into the camera, I grazed the front of the piano to create detail.

3. Illuminating the piano from the right side

I walked to the right side of the piano. Here too, I used an angle relatively close to 90 degrees from the camera. This enabled me to graze the piano to create detail and shadow as well. 

Why illuminate from the sides?

Have you ever used the built-in flash of your camera or phone camera to illuminate people or things? What did it look like to you? Probably not very flattering.

Light coming straight on to the subject is often harsh and not very flattering. Many photographers choose to use off-camera flash or bounce the light off a wall or ceiling. 

Light painting is no different. You are still using light. However, you simply are applying it more slowly and cumulatively during a long exposure image. This is one of the advantages of light painting. You may illuminate something from multiple angles in one photo, and with different colors and levels or brightness if you wish. But you can do this without having to set up multiple lights on stands or other complex setups and triggering.

How to make better macro photographs

macro

One of the things I struggle the most with when shooting macro is getting my images tack sharp. I used to assume that since the DOF was so shallow that something has to be in focus, right? Not really a given, not very scientific and certainly not a guarantee for a tack sharp image. Here are a few things that will help you get your macro images sharp.

macro

Getting started with macro photography

Use your tripod

This seems like common sense but so many of us have an aversion to hauling our tripods around with us. Live and learn though and you’ll start noticing how much sharper all your images are once you start using your tripod more often and not just for macros.

Note that if you have image stabilization on your camera, turn it off when using a tripod. Here is a link explaining that: “Image Stabilization: When to Use it and When to Turn it Off.”

Use the live view function on your camera

Using the live view helps you see exactly where you want to focus so much better and many cameras have the capability to zoom 1x, 5x and 10x magnification when shooting with live view. Zooming in allows us to really see what is in focus and if it’s in focus. I’ve actually even taken that a step further and used an eye loupe on top of the live view screen to get even closer (maybe I should just put my reading glasses on).

Use a remote shutter release

You can use cable, wireless or a phone app — the less interaction you have with your camera the less opportunity to move or shake it.

Hold your breath

Don’t move. Leave the room. Step away from your tripod. Again, the less movement in or around your camera the less movement and possibility of vibration you’ll have.

Photographing macro on a budget

I always hear photographers say they wish they could shoot macro but can’t afford or don’t want to buy a macro specific lens. There are other options in shooting macro that are quite inexpensive and in my opinion push you to learn a bit more than slapping on a macro lens and just shooting.

Reverse Ring Adapters

Reverse Ring Adapters are a very inexpensive way to give macro a try. They generally run around $12 to $20 for the standard screw on type adapters.

There are higher end adapters available that will allow you to transmit the lens information to the camera and also offer magnification rations that prime macro lenses are not capable of.

Macro Extension Tubes

Extension tubes are another way to create macro images without an actual dedicated macro lens and can run anywhere from $20 to $200 depending on quality and whether they are manual or automatic/electronic.

Telephoto zoom as macro

If you already own a telephoto/zoom lens you can use it for macro type work as well by just zooming in on the detail you want to capture. Is this actually considered macro? Are the people looking at your images asking? Does it matter if you are getting the shot you want?

Crop

If you can’t figure out any other way to get the detail shot you want, take the image anyway. Most cameras have enough megapixels to allow you to crop in to create the image you wanted.

Think outside the flower box

We tend to associate macro photography with flowers. While flowers are beautiful macro subjects, there is a whole world out there waiting to be discovered close up.

As always, experiment, play, ask what if, try things and most of all have fun. No matter how you capture your macro shots or with what equipment you use, capturing the details around you is all part of telling the overall story.

Birds and bridge cameras

A friend asked if it’s possible to make nice pictures of birds with her Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H300 bridge camera. I already knew the answer to that question but I wanted to illustrate my point. Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. I have a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ47 that’s similar so I setup a demonstration.

Panasonic Lumix, Canon 7D Markk II, Canon RP and a Canon EOS R for this example

The light was awful. It was 1:00pm on a sunny day — perfect for the demo. I wanted to compare the results with a selection of professional cameras. This included a Canon 7D Mark II with a 70-200mm f/2.8, a Canon RP with a RF 24-105mm f/4 and a Canon EOS R adapted with a Sigma 150-500mm. I metered for 1/640s, f/5.6 and ISO 200.

The Panasonic Lumix has manual control and a histogram that displays in the viewfinder — very handy. I set some bird seed on a rock about 20 feet away and waited. Eventually a blue jay dropped in for a snack.

Panasonic Lumix

As a rule of thumb you need the inverse of the focal length for a photograph to be acceptably sharp when hand-held. At full extension this is the rough equivalent field of view of 600mm on a full-frame camera. That meant 1/600s or faster.

In reality, the sensor is the size of a Chiclet so a little faster is even better. I made these pictures in the bridge camera’s manual mode. Yes, it can be done.

Set your expectations

It’s a JPEG camera so there’s almost no latitude for boosting shadows or recovering detail in the highlights. I’m taking fun pictures of birds with a bridge camera that I bought for $400 in 2011. Can it be done? Yes. Is it pro quality? No, but the goal is to enjoy. It means knowing how to achieve that goal, but it can be done.

Canon 7D Mark II

This is my outdoor sports camera. It gets a lot of shots per second, is good quality, and it’s built like a tank. The crop sensor gives the impression that the focal length is longer than it really is. The results are an improvement over the Panasonic Lumix. I setup differently for this camera because I had the 70-200mm at f/2.8. The resulting shutter speed is much faster but the idea is the same.

Canon RP

I included my Canon RP for giggles. I wanted to see how it did with the RF 24-105mm. It’s a much shorter focal length but it did fine when I crop the image. The jay is in there, honest.

Canon EOS R

Now The Big Kahuna: my Canon EOS R with the adapted Sigma 150-500mm. The sensor is much larger and the actual focal length is much longer. The results are of course oodles different. I’m taking nice pictures of birds with a 10 year old $400 JPEG bridge camera and a two year old $1799 mirrorless Canon. All things considered, the bridge camera held up really well.

Light painting 101: Five easy steps to illuminate a glowing barn interior

During the day, I saw this incredible barn. I knew I wanted it to glow from within, shining through the gaps in the wall. I also wanted a couple of the signs in the front-illuminated for good measure. I’ll tell you how I illuminated this in just five easy steps.

Step 1: Setting the light for maximum brightness

I set my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device to its highest setting. I also set it for a warm white light. If you do not have one of these, you certainly can use a regular LED flashlight that is bright. If you want a slightly warmer light, you can hold a gel or something warmly colored over it.

Step 2: Illuminating the interior

I activated my light after stepping inside. This allowed me to see where I was going and, of course, begin illuminating while not shining any lights outside.

Illuminate

Step 3: Illuminating the front room elements

The very front had some walls and various equipment. I illuminated those first. I stood from the left of the door and swept across their surfaces, being sure to “paint” them with light evenly.

Step 4: Keeping the light moving

I then walked through the downstairs and upstairs. I made sure to “light paint” all the walls and the roof. I wanted to do this evenly. To do this, I kept the light moving so there wouldn’t be “hot spots,” or parts that were glaringly bright.

I knew that if I illuminated everything very evenly, it would shine through the cracks of the wall evenly and look beautiful. I also of course shined the light back at the wall to make sure that it would create shadows on the ground in front.

Step 5: Highlighting the signs

I wanted the front of the barn to be dark. The one exception was the Texaco and Coca-Cola signs. How would I illuminate these only from so far away? I simply cupped my hand over the light to direct the beam of the light toward the signs.

I also blocked the light from inadvertently shining into the camera lens by shielding the light with my body. I only spent several seconds on each sign. Nothing more was necessary. I kept everything else dark.

I sent a photo to the owners. They absolutely love it and say they have never seen their barn like that before.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below! I hope you have fun trying your hand at light painting.

How to prepare your photo for printing

I wanted to print a 16-by-24 inch color print of a finely detailed Milky Way photo through Xpozer. This was the first time I had printed such a detailed photo. Most people do not use printing or calibration software. Therefore, for this article, I decided to keep it simple and easy.

General preparation

Prints don’t always need to be 300 dpi (dots per inch). Xpozer specified that it wanted a minimum of 80 dpi. I prepped the photo by making sure that it was at least 80 dpi (dots per inch), which it was. This can be done by just about any software by checking the image size and resolution.

Brightening

I feel like every time I go to print a night photo, I need to prep it so it’s approximately 20% brighter than what it appears like on my computer monitor. So that’s what I did. This is something to bear in mind for any photo that has darker shadows. Printing so often comes out darker than anticipated unless you are experienced at printing or have special calibration software.

Above, I used Adobe Camera Raw to increase the exposure while dropping the highlights, so I would not blow out the Milky Way highlights too much.

Having my photo checked

I noticed that XPozer checks photos for free. I was curious about printing such a dark photo, so I decided to try this.

I filled out the above form. A day later, I received a friendly email. The person said that everything was fine but that I might want to make it “slightly brighter.”

The scientific definition for “slightly brighter” is 5.6708952% more (just kidding). I increased it by .30 on my slider — almost a third of a stop — using the same method as above. Then I sent it off for printing.

The print arrives

Several days later, the print arrived in a well-packaged triangular package. The print was vivid and detailed and wonderfully free of noise or artifacts.

I hung it in place of another photo. Xpozer gives you a screw and anchor. However the photo, including the frame, is so unbelievably light that I didn’t feel I needed to do that. I simply reused the nail that was already in the wall.