Padlock Focus Technique

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While I was in Valley of the Gods Utah, the forecast was for clear sky overnight, so I thought I would give night photography a try. So thinking I would need to have an idea as to where infinity was, I took my camera out during the day focused on a distant cliff and with a skinny sliver of electrical tape I marked where the infinity loop crossed on my lens. I was now ready for night photography.

That night I set up my camera, pointed towards the Milky Way and, with my 14-24mm set to manual focus and the infinity centered on my mark, I set my aperture to f/2.8, ISO to 6400 and a shutter speed of about 20 seconds, and took a shot.  To my surprise when I looked at my image in live-view, it was blurry.

Back at home, I did some research, and found that there were three established ways to focus a camera for night star photography. 1. Set up your camera during daylight and focus then, and leave the camera set-up until you are ready to shoot. 2. Make a mark on the lens over the infinity mark and align to that before shooting. 3. Use live-view and focus on the stars.

Number one—focusing during daylight—seemed unrealistic as it required you to hang around several hours waiting for the night sky, and since the camera is mounted on a tripod and pre-focused, you can’t even use the camera.

Number two—making a mark over infinity—I had already tried without too much success. I suspect it has something to do with parallax (the position of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions) there was definite space between my mark and the focus scale under the glass window. I suppose I could make this work as long as the focus alignment was done from the same position every-time, before composing for the shot.

Number three—using live view—looked promising, as I do this all the time during daylight landscape photography. In this scenario, you zoom in on a star and focus until the star appears as a point. 

On my next trip to Zion, I decided to give night star photography another try. I set up my camera and zoomed into to find a star. But my camera was too dark, so I decided to decrease the shutter speed  until I started to see stars and then try to zoom into one of them. The problem is that as I decreased the shutter speed, I increased the noise. As I started to see the stars, the noise made it difficult to determine what was noise and what was a star. I decided that stars where white and the noise has some color. This would actually work, but time-consuming trying to distinguish between sensor noise and star. 

I think I found a better way to focus but first we need to understand how an Nikkor AF-S lens works.

If you have ever played with a Nikkor AF-S lens, you may have noticed that the focus ring does not stop when you hit either end of the focusing range. What happens is the gear between the focus ring and the lens decouples and focusing stops as you continue turning the focus ring in the same direction. Stop, and reverse the direction of the focus ring, and the gears immediately engage and focus resumes until you hit the other end of the focus range. The moment you change direction of rotation (no meter where you are) focus will resume. What we need to do is establish a common stopping point to change directions to arrive at the infinity focus point.

Knowing this I was able to develop what I am calling the “Padlock Focus Technique” like a padlock which you have to rotate your combination dial several time before stoping at the first number (the stop-mark) then reverse direction to arrive at the next number in the combination (the focus-mark). Albeit this is only a two digit combination, so you can forgo the “pass the first number” bit.2016-03-31-22.34.16-Stack

Things you will need:

  • Camera with Live View
  • AF-S Lens
  • Tripod
  • Colored Electrical Tape
  • Exacto Knife
  • Straight Edge
  • Cutting Surface
  • Clear Skies
  • Moon During Daylight Hours

You will be placing three marks (color electrical tape) on your lens one inside the groove of the focus-ring, and two short marks (the stop-mark and the focus-mark) along the out-slide edge of the focus-ring which you will be aligning the focus-ring to. The focus-mark and the stop-mark will be very close together—within a quarter of an inch of each other.

Step 1: Determine a good spot on the lens to place the padlock focus stop-mark. Although the first stop spot is arbitrary, it is a good idea to choose a place where you can see the mark, and align with it, in both the horizontal and vertical camera orientations.

Step 2: Cut 3 skinny slivers of the electrical tape. The thickness should be just small enough to sit inside the focus ring grooves. Two short ones (focus-mark and the stop-mark) that will be placed just out-side the focus ring, and a longer one one that will be recessed into one of the grooves on the focus ring.

Step 3: Place the long strip inside one of the groves on the focus-ring, it does not matter which one any-one will do. Trim to tape to the height of the focus ring, making it easy to identify, and easy to align with the outer marks.

Step 4: Place the stop-mark, where you decided in step one along the out-slide of the focus ring and in a position where it will be easy to align to the one on the focus ring.

Step 5: Place camera on a tripod, and point to moon. If using a zoom set it to the smallest focal-length, set f-stop to widest setting (the smallest number 1.4, 2.8).

Step 6: If your camera is configured to focus when you press the shutter button (not using back-button focus) turn camera to manual focus.

Step 7: Turn on live-view and zoom into the moon as much as posable.

Step 8: Turn focus ring one complete revolution clock-wise and then on the second revolution align with the with the stop-mark.

Step 9: Slowly turn the focus ring in a counter-clockwise direction to focus on the moon. You can  fine-tune the focus by moving in both clockwise and counter-clockwise directions as long as you don’t cross the stop-mark.

Step 10: Once focused, place the focus-mark on the lens, aligning with the focus ring mark.

Step 11: Defocus, and follow the “Using the Padlock Focus Method” below to test, and familiarize yourself with the method.

You’re done!

Using the Padlock Focus method, with your newly marked lens:2016-03-31-22.34.16-Stack

  • Set up you camera and align to the night sky and foreground you intend to photograph.
  • Set your aperture to its smallest focal length and widest aperture.
  • If your not using back-button focus, set your focus to manual.
  • Rotate the focus ring in a clock-wise direction one complete revolution,
  • On your second pass align to the stop-mark (passing the focus-mark).
  • Slowly rotate counter-clockwise to align with the focus-mark.

You are now set to infinity.

Texas State House – B&W

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This was my third visit to the Texas state capitol. After spending a couple of hours touring the building and walking the grounds, I was scouting for compositions I wanted to return and shoot the next morning. It was this shot using the Capitol’s Extension Open-Air Rotunda to merge the architecture of the original 1880 building with the 1993 underground extension that really intrigued me. I love the way the symmetry of the rotunda balances with the capitol building, and how the new and old blend together seamlessly. I was hoping that the early-morning light would bathe the building with beautiful morning colors.

But when the alarm rang the next morning, it was raining. I don’t know why I didn’t give up—perhaps that old saying was haunting me; bad weather makes for good photography. I did manage to take a shot. I actually took a single set of 9 bracketed exposures from this location. The single color shot from this location was uninteresting.  Processing all 9 shots with Photomatix looked quite good, although it did have an HDR grunge look. What I particularly liked was how the sky and building balanced adding mystery to this  ominous feeling image. In the end, the color had to go as I felt it was more of a distraction.

I used Photomatix Pro to process the 9 exposures, Photoshop to clean-up the image of dust spots, and remove the police car that was parked on the left side of the Rotunda. Finally I used Nik’s Sliver Effect to convert to black & white.

Camera: Nikon D3s
Lens: Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 @ 14mm
Exposure: Manual ISO 100; 1 sec @ f/11 (initial exposure)
Bracketed exposure: 9 shots; 1/3 stop increments.
Shooting Mode: Continuous High Speed on a Tripod.

I See You

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McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet Multirole Carrier-based Strike Fighter.

At first glance, one would think that I took this image being escorted by military officials in an environment where the average photographer would never get access. Yes it was taken on an Air Force Base, and yes I did have a competitive advantage. Most people would never go to an Air Show when it is cold, raining and overcast. It’s miserable, you’re getting wet and no one is flying!

ISeeYouROrigThat’s my competitive advantage! Since it was cold the attendance was down, giving better access to to the display aircraft without the crowds. Since it was overcast people weren’t trying to use the wings as sun-shields, making it easier to get more of the aircraft into the frame. Since it was raining, there was this sheen that enhanced aircraft.

I’d like to say that when I saw this carrier based McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet aircraft that I was drawn by its unique geometric shapes, and spent several hours waiting for others step out of the frame and took hundreds of photos before settling on this particular one. But no, I was actually on my way to get in line for a tour of the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and stopped to grab a snap shot. I actually only took one photo at this perspective, 3 photos total; the other two were of the nose and the intake part of the jet. What can I say, “it was raining,” and the line for the C-5 was forming underneath the wing of its enormous aircraft.

What actually drew me to this particular perspective was the symmetry of the fighter. The circles and inner circles of the engines looked like eyes, and the arresting hook looked kinda-like a nose.

In post processing: the color in the photo was a distraction, so I enhanced the photo in Lightroom to pull as much contrast as I dared, I then used Nik (now Google or should I say Alphabet) Silver Effects to convert to black & white. With all that; the majority of the editing was done in Photoshop to remove the feet of the spectators as well as all the tie-down flags and the oil leak catch bucket. The editing was not all that bad because of the symmetry of the aircraft I was able to select portions of the photo from one side, flip and use it to recover what was hidden by the obstruction I was trying to remove.

The result is a rarely photographed perspective of the back-end of this magnificent aircraft that kinda looks like the face of an Owl.

Location: Barns Air National Guard – 104th Fighter Wing, Massachusetts
Camera: Nikon D2x
Lens: Nikkor 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 @ 30mm
Exposure: ISO 100; f/4 @ 1/250 sec.
Tripod: none

Trinity River Flood – Dallas Skyline

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Before attempting to photograph the Dallas skyline, I did my homework, looked at other’s photos and then went to Google Earth to determine the best vantage point.

I arrived in Dallas at the perfect time, I found a place to park, although not exactly the best part of town!  I headed down to the Trinity River bank to set up. But where was the Trinity? It was more of a stream then a river. I must have walked a good 45 minutes looking for a spot that included a good reflection of the city — I did not find one. I finally settled on a spot near the road. I did not get a good shot that day.

I surmised that the photos I found, on the web, were taken after a hard rain where the photographer found a large puddle. I even thought that the water and reflections were fabricated in Photoshop. I attempted to use a photo from nearby Lake Grapevine to provide  the reflection for the buildings.  The result just looked fake.

What I didn’t realize is how the river and levi systems in Texas work, and that Dallas was in a drought. I was thinking that the likelihood of getting a good skyline photo was pretty much a lost cause.

This year spring rain flooded the area to the point of highways being shut down and I had to return to capture this elusive photo of the Dallas skyline. What I thought was parks and hiking / biking trails had filled with water.

For this particular photo I used my 70-200mm lens and took 6 shots in the portraits orientation to create this panorama. The final print has amazing detail — you can even see if people are in the windows. 

What I learned from this was not to give up on a photo, but to understand the environment and conditions that are needed to make a beautiful scene.  Be ready to return when those conditions are presented to you.

Time: June 19, 2015 @ 9:00pm
Camera: Nikon D810
Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm @ 98mm
Exposures: 6 Panels at ISO 64; f/8 @ 1.3 sec.

 

PhotoSlate – the movie slate app for digital still photographers.

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Have you ever found yourself looking at your photograph archive and wondering “Where did I take that photo?” or looking at a photograph and trying to plan the best time to go back to that location?

Perhaps you took a single shot of a landscape, and then decided you should also take a couple of sets of bracketed exposures, and you even shot a set of images for focus stacking. You move your composition slightly and repeat. Back in the digital darkroom, you’re trying to figure out which images belong together.

In the past I used a cue-card system to solve these issues. It’s really quite simple; I would carry a stack of index cards, and write down pertinent information about the photograph I was about to take. I would first photograph the cue-card then photograph the subject—I even had an END cue-card to mark the end of a sequence. The movie industry has been doing this for quite some time to keep track of their takes using what is commonly referred to as a Movie Slate or Clapper Board.  This syncs sound and provides other pertinent information that is needed in post-production. 

For the past few years I have been searching for the “movie slate” app for digital still photographers. An app that would provide location information GPS, Compass Heading, Location Name, Address, as well as the type or sequence and the number of images that make-up the sequence. 

I have yet to find one…

So, I created my own.

AlwaysPhotographing is proud to announce PhotoSlate. A pre-production in-field application to capture the photographic meta-data that your camera doesn’t.

Start up PhotoSlate and in a few seconds, PhotoSlate will get your GPS location, heading, and using reverse geocoding will also find the location name and address of where you are standing. Tap the SHOT and FRMS fields, and quickly change the type of photo sequence and number of frames. Tap the LOC or ADDRESS fields, and you can provide your own location name and address. Return to that location in the future and PhotoSlate remembers your inputs and uses them.

In a location where there is no internet or cell service? Although PhotoSlate will be unable to reverse geocode, as long as the GPS is functioning, you can still manually enter your location and address information, and when you return to the same spot in the future, PhotoSlate will remember your information and will reverse geocode using your local data.

Additional Information PhotoSlate.

Link to the PhotoSlate Manual.

PhotoSlate

Version 1.0

Handheld Multi-Row Photo Stitching

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Dallas County Courthouse (Texas)

The old “Dallas County Courthouse” was also know as the “Old Red Courthouse,” is currently the home for the “Old Red Museum”

Sometimes I find myself wishing I had brought additional equipment for an unexpected subject. On this occasion, I wasn’t planning on any serious photography — just snapshots. I brought only my D3s and an all-purpose AF-S Nikkor 28-300 f/3.5-5.6. When I came upon this building I did not have a lens wide enough, nor did I have a tripod. I decided I had to try to capture the building anyway.

There were a couple of problems in capturing this picture

  1. I didn’t have a lens wide enough to capture the entire building in one shot
  2. I didn’t have a tripod, much less a  multi-row panoramic Head
  3. The traffic made it hard to shoot this from the street

I decided to try, a technique I am calling “Handheld Multi-Row Photo Stitching” The trick is to move the camera; not your body when composing for each section of the building. This is similar to what a “multi-row panoramic Head” would do pivoting around the lens nodal point—somewhere in the center of the lens where the aperture leaves in the lens would be.

HandStacking-ImagesI waited for the next red light, and then took series of 8 shots in a zigzagging pattern in one continuous motion

  • top tow left – top tow right,
  • row 2 right – row 2 left
  • tow 3 left –  row 3 right
  • bottom row right – bottom row left

The idea is to minimize the movement of the camera while overlapping each photo by at-least 30%.

 

The processing was 4 basic steps:

1 – Combine photos using Microsoft’s ICE

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2 – Fix perspective using Adobe’s Photoshop

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3 – Enhance Image using Adobe’s Lightroom

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4 – Make Final enhancements and remove foreground Lamp Pole using Adobe’s Photoshop

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Time: February 17, 2014 @ 2:22 pm
Camera: Nikon D3s
Lens:  Nikkor 28-300mm @ 55mm
Exposure: 8 exposures – ISO 200; f/8 @ 1/500 sec.

Globe Life Park – Texas Rangers – Infield

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I had tickets for game two of the three game series Boston Red Sox against the Texas Rangers at the Globe Life Park played May 9, 10, 11 2014.

I had always wanted a panoramic shot of a professional baseball field — like the posters that you see at the team sporting shops. I alway thought that you had to be the park official photographer sporting a special pass. A more practical approach, I thought, was to purchase the optimal stadium photographic seat in the park (if you could figure out what seat that actually was). I had neither. The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox tend to draw large crowds in Texas, so I was lucky enough to have a ticket to a sell-out game.

I wanted a panoramic HDR shot of the field behind home plate after the sun has set.  The game started at 7:05, so I thought I would have to wait for the third or fourth inning before I attempted the shot. The good thing was that by then everyone has settled down and is engaged in watching the game. Also the section seating attendants have stopped denying access to fans trying to get into sections they do not have a seat in.

I headed up to the upper level of the park and peaked into each section until I found the section looking over home plate. I then went back out and set up my camera and monopod and got all my camera settings ready for my rapid fire HDR sequences. I then went back in, and politely asked the section attendant if I could take a photo. To my surprise he said “Sure, just don’t block anyone and don’t stay too long.” I then went to the top of the stairs and took three sets of nine exposures, left, center and right. I did this two times, then moved to the railing overlooking the park and repeated the process.

Camera: Nikon D3s
Lens: Nikon 14-24 mm f/2.8 @ 14mm
Exposure: ISO 1250; 1/250 sec at f/5.6 (initial exposure)
Bracketed exposure: 9 shots; 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, +1, +2, +3, +4 stops
Shooting Mode: Continuos High Speed at 12 Frames a second on a monopod.
Total  27 images (9 left, 9 center, 9 right).

I processed the photos first in Photmatix Pro, I started with the center section to get the look I wanted, then I saved the settings as a preset and used it to process the left and right HDR sets of images. I then used Microsoft’s ICE software to stitch the the 3 HDR images together.

Globe Life Park – Texas Rangers – Outfield

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Being a Bostonian transplanted to Texas, the arrival of the Red Sox for a three game series inspired me to photograph the Ranger’s ball park. Unlike Fenway, Global Life Park is situated in a big field making it easier to get an external shot. I had tickets for game two, but I decided to go out to the field for game one to get some evening external shots with the lights on.

Researching the the location before hand using Google Maps, I noticed that the field had two ponds located on the north and west side of the field. I wanted an evening photo with the glow of the stadium lights. The slight water vapor in the air would be good for the dome glow effect. The pond on the west side of the stadium was ideal as the sun setting behind me would not interfere with the lights from the stadium. The trick is to get the sky dark enough so that we can see the glow from the stadium lights, but with enough ambient light to illuminate the exterior facade.

I got to the park about an hour before sunset, and scoped out the best shooting location. It was a bit windy, so I decided that a long exposure would be best to soften the ripples in the water. Initially I used the Tiffen Variable Neutral Density ND Filter – 2 to 8 Stop Light Control; ISO 100; f16 – 22 for 30 second exposures. As it got darker, the need for the ND diminished; and the stadium lights kept getting better. This final print came from my last shots.

The final image is comprised of three images ISO 100, f16 10s, 15s, and 30s. They were merged together using Photomatics Pro software. Final edits in Lightroom using the gradient filter over the ball park to enhance to lighten and cool down the color of the glow hovering just above the stadium. I used the dodge tool to brighten up the trees in front of the stadium and added a slight Orton effect. Finally a little vignette to darken the edges to highlight the stadium.

The Boston Skyline

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I find that the Rose Wharf view from the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse very picturesque. I have attempted this photograph several times. My past attempts were with a Nikon D2x using the 12 – 24mm f/4 lens (which was barely wide enough to capture this skyline).

An issue with my past attempts was that I was not paying close attention to the buildings and their orientation. I was too focused on Rose Wharf. In past photos the Custom House Tower, an important Boston landmark, was hidden behind the foreground buildings. As it turns out, there are only two spots along the waterway where the Custom House Tower is not blocked.

The key to a good night skyline shot is choosing a week day evening where the sun sets early enough so that people at still working after sunset. Around winter solstice would be best, but I was not due to be back in Boston until Christmas/New Year. I was planning on taking this shot on Thursday, but the weather was not cooperating which forced me to take this shot on Friday evening. Sunset was at 4:19pm.

Finding the light for this photo took patience. I only had 4 sheets of film with me (and I left my digital camera home). At sunset the sky is way too light for a night skyline shot. And if you wait too long the red glow would be gone. I waited so long that most of the other photographers there were gone. This shot was taken about two hours after sunset; after I pack up and started started to leave, I was thinking that I took the shot too early.

For this shot I used a 4×5 camera with the Rodenstock 90mm f/6.8 Grandagon-N Lens. The final image is actually two images stitched together. I almost gave up on this photo using Adobe Photoshop CC, but for some reason, I stumbled upon Microsoft’s ICE software while looking for alternative stitching software; it was free so I thought I’d give it a try. To my surprise it is very fast and does a remarkable job.

Time: December 27, 2013 @ 7:00pm
Camera: Toyo 45AII
Lens:  Rodenstock 90mm f/6.8 Grandagon-N
Film: Kodak Professional Ektar 100 4×5 sheet film
Exposure: IOS 100; f/22 @ 16s

Top 10 Photo Tips

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© Richard Cox

Ever want to get excellent pictures. Well here are ten essential tips you need to make it all happen. This is the top ten tips suggested by most of the professional photographers. With these tips you too can be a better photographer. Get out there! Here are some quick tips to get you started:

1. Change your position

Many casual photographers simply take the picture from where they stand. This is not always the best angle for the picture. Try to move about the subject in order to get a different perspective. Imagine that you are an electron spinning around the nucleus of an atom — change not only your angle, but your distance from the subject. You cannot be sure that you’ve got the best possible shot until you’ve considered all the options!

2.Get in close

All too often, the photographer stands too far from the subject when they shoot, and the resulting picture makes the viewer feel detached from the subject. Close in on the action, including just enough relevant subject mater to communicate the event. For example if the subject is blowing out candles on a birthday cake, frame the picture to include only the subject and the cake. It is best to capture human or animal subjects when they are look at the camera.

3. Have your subject take up the whole picture frame

Before making the exposure, make sure the subject fills the frame, without being cut off in ways that are unintentional.

4. Compose some of your photos vertically

Camera designs and TV and movie screens predispose us to product horizontal images. Many photographic subjects are better captured in a portrait (vertical) orientation. Remember to take pictures of your subject in both orientations, the one that you prefer may surprise you.

5. Use a flash

What many people don’t know is that a flash on a sunny day can be very effective. Harsh shadows create uncomplimentary photos and a flash fills in the shadows, creating a pleasant photo. Remember, your flash will carry no more than about 30 feet, so do not expect it to help you with subjects that are too far away.

6. Use a tripod

Read our detailed tripod article on this subject.

7. Take plenty of pictures

The more time and effort it takes to prepare and get to a photo location, the less you should worry about “wasting” film (okay, this article was re-posted form back in the film days). When conditions are perfect, be prepared to derive full benefit from your good fortune.

8. Carry camera with you wherever you go

You never know when an opportunity will reveal itself to you. Have a camera with you and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. You may have very little time to setup the shot.

9. Plan

Try to determine beforehand what you will be photographing, and try to plan how you will be photographing this subject or event. Do research on what you would like to photograph and where you need to be positioned to capture it. Consider event agendas and think about scenes that you’d like to capture. See our article on Planning a Picture for information about finding the best natural light conditions.

10 Enjoy

That’s what it’s all about!