When Traveling, Embrace High ISOs
My recent trip to Europe confirmed something I already knew, travel photographers need to embrace high ISOs. Sure I took my tripod along on the trip, and I used it frequently. But mostly when outside buildings. Most museums and other indoor attractions prohibit tripods, often monopods, and even selfie-sticks (not that I have one – I use my tripod or monopod instead). There are a few exceptions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for one (see my previous blog about tripods in New York), but more and more it seems tripods are a no-no (and don’t even get me started on places that prohibit photography entirely, where people left and right are using their cell phones to take photos (often with flash), but if I get my DSLR out, I get a stern warning).
When planning a trip, I usually try to research whether tripods are allowed in various attractions I want to visit, but in this case, I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare and failed to do the research. Further, traveling with my mother-in-law, I didn’t figure I’d have a lot of photography time (and I was right). But even if you have time to do such research, it is often had to find rules related to tripods on the internet, and worse, sometimes the information is either wrong or incorrectly enforced at the attraction. For my recent trip, I just assumed tripods weren’t allowed in any indoor attraction I visited – an assumption that was usually confirmed by signs at the various attractions.
There is another consideration. I can’t even imagine trying to set up a tripod in Sainte Chapelle in Paris (which doesn’t allow tripods; the featured image above, by the way, is Sainte Chapelle taken at ISO 6400, f/5, 1/30 sec), there was barely room to stand. Even if tripods are allowed, due to the number of people visiting, it is often impractical to use them. For example, in Seattle, tripods are allowed at Pike Place Market and in the Seattle Aquarium, but due to crowds, can be hard to use.
Of course there is the final consideration about just carrying it around. There were places on my recent trip where I could have used a tripod, but didn’t have it with me because I didn’t want to lug it around with me. Sometimes it was because I was visiting another attraction in the same day that didn’t allow tripods; other times it was because I was too lazy (I know, my bad).
Yes, it is best to use low ISO with long exposures and a tripod to minimize digital noise, but often that is not an option. Luckily, the high ISO capabilities of today’s digital cameras are quite good, and getting better with each generation of camera. During my recent trip, I found myself shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400 quite often. I even got up to 25,600 several times; the digital noise was horrible, but it was that or not get the shot. That’s what it came down to, getting a shot or not. You be the judge, was it worth using high ISO to get the shots accompanying this post?
Worst of 2015 and Lessons Learned
If you have followed my blog for over a year, you know that I have started a tradition of, rather than posting a best of the year, posting the worst of the year. Well, they probably aren’t really the worst of the year, those get deleted immediately, but rather are generally bad photos that weren’t total mistakes (such as accidentally tripping the shutter). These are photos I actually had some rationale to take, though when looking back, sometimes I’m not totally sure what that rationale was. You can find great looking photos all over the web (and perhaps even on my blog), but you can sometimes learn more from the poor images. That is why I present this bad images; they provide an education to me, and you perhaps. I’m a true believer in learning from one’s mistakes, though as you will see if you go back to the 2014 and 2013 posts, perhaps I need to keep re-learning some of the same issues over and over. So without further adieu, here are some of my worst of the year images from 2015 – both the images out of camera (with default Lightroom processing) and, in some cases, with Lightroom processing in an attempt to save them (though most are not worth saving).
In January 2015, Tanya and I went snowshoeing at Blewett Pass in the Washington Cascades. One image from that trip made the Robinson Noble calendar this year. The above image did not. In fact, looking back on this image, I’m at a loss as to why I took it. And it is underexposed. There is apparently no subject. Perhaps I was just happy to be out under semi-blue skies (as much of the trip to Blewett Pass was through rain). But if that was my motivation, it failed in the image. Lesson learned – most photos need a subject or at least something of interest; many feelings are hard to translate into an image, and I need to work harder (rather than just snapping away) if I want to show those feelings in my images.
February took me to Washington, DC. I hadn’t been there and many years and was excited to photograph on the mall. I took this shot of Washington Monument with the snow-covered reflecting pond. I’m not sure why I tried this composition, bulls eyeing the monument and including tracks in the snow. Not to mention being underexposed (starting to seem like a theme). It was partly saved in Lightroom, but only with a significant crop. Lessons – 1) putting the subject dead center in the frame rarely works, and 2) look for distracting elements in the frame.
I have not horrible shots from March, largely because I barely took the camera out. But April brought this “gem.” I was photographing at the waterfront in Gig Harbor when a rainbow appeared. I had to get a good foreground for it, but this was not it. At least it wasn’t underexposed! After the excitement of seeing the rainbow wore off, I ended up getting a few better shots than this one. Lesson – when you see something exciting, don’t forget good composition.
Since there is no March imge, I’ll give you two for May. The first are koi in a pond at the Chinese garden in Seattle. Fuzzy fish, small fish because I didn’t zoom in enough. Sorry, no processed version because there is no saving an out of focus image (I tried hand holding at 1/20 second, and it didn’t work). The second image, the historic train station in Dayton, Washington. But talk about a blown out sky! Again, no way to save that with processing. Lessons – 1) hand holding at slow shutter speeds usually doesn’t work – use a tripod or up the ISO, 2) when the sky is too bright compared to the subject, minimize it in the frame.
In June I went to Discovery Park in Seattle to take some images for my up coming book. This shot didn’t make it in the book. I was trying to show Mount Rainier along with driftwood on the beach. I was close to the driftwood and used a wide-angle lens. This made Mount Rainer look like a little white spot. Processing helped a little, adding a bit of definition to the mountain, but the image still belongs in the reject pile. Lesson – wide-angle perspectives shrink the background; be sure to check the size of objects in the background if they are important to the image.
In July I went backpacking on the beach in Olympic National Park. There were a lot of bald eagles around, and I tried (and failed) to get a good shot of one. This was shot with my zoom maxed out at 300 mm. Still too far away. Even cropping in Lightroom doesn’t help much. Lesson – when shooting birds, you either need to get close or get some big glass.
In August, I took some images at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, again for my upcoming book. I like the glow of the setting sun on part of the building and attempted to capture that with this shot, partially blowing out the sky in the process. Was I really blind to those wires? At least I got most, but not all, of the street sign out of the shot. I was able to save the sky some with processing and remove the sign remnant with cropping, but only a lengthy session with the cloning brush in Photoshop could remove the wires. Not worth it. Lesson – sometimes there are too many distracting elements to make it worthwhile.
September brought me to Alaska to do a little salmon fishing, where I took this shot. The only thing worst than the poor exposure is the bad focus – nothing is in focus in this shot. Seems my camera was set to a stop under exposure from a earlier image and I didn’t reset it. There is no processed version because Lightroom still doesn’t have an unsuck brush available. Lesson – 1) pay attention to your camera settings; if you make a change from your normal settings, reset it immediately; 2) pay attention to focus, it really is necessary!
In October I was at Silver Falls State Park. I liked the leaves in the creeks, so made this shot. Do the leaves look like the subject to you? They sure don’t to me. After this failure, I took a few more compositions at the same location that were slightly better, but honestly, the whole series of shots will never be shown except here. I haven’t include a processed version because just like Lightroom doesn’t have an unsuck brush, it also doesn’t have an add-a-subject slider.
In November I took some images of the sun rising over Mount Rainier from the Fox Island Bridge near Gig Harbor. Beside shooting the mountain, I liked the mist on the water and took this shot. It seems that underexposure was one of my major problems in 2015. Processing in Lightroom did save the shot, but the digital noise is worse than it should be. Lesson – exposure is actually important!
My son, Brooks, and mother-in-law, Maxine joined Tanya and I on our trip to Europe last month. We started with a quick stop in Chicago, where this image was shot. Brooks and Maxine are toasting our the start of our vacation, and I captured the moment. Except for that underexposure thing again; oh, and the glass of beer in Brooks’ face; and oh, only Maxine is in focus. Processing helped the exposure a bit, but there is serious digital noise. Luckily, I realized my error and took a second shot that is much better. Lesson – really watch your exposure with backlit situations, and pay attention to where the beer glass is!
That’s it, a set of bad photos. Let’s hope that some of these lesson stick with me in 2016. I hope this new year brings you many wonderful photos (and that Adobe adds that unsuck brush to Lightroom).
Iceland Winter Lessons
Granted, spending five days in Reykjavík over Christmas does not make me an expert on Iceland in winter. Further, my vacation was a true family affair (besides Tanya, our son, Brooks, and Tanya’s mother, Maxine, joined us on the trip), making time for photography difficult. However, I did learn a few things, not the least of which is that I want to go back and spend a lot more time there. If you are thinking of going to Iceland in winter, here’s some things I learned.
- The light is incredible. The blue hour starts a full two hours before sunrise and lasts until two hours following sunset. And in between the blue hours, the entire time the sun is up, is the golden hours. When I was there, the sun was never above 3 degrees above the horizon. The light was magical.
- The light is short. Even with the long twilight hours, there isn’t a lot of time for photography. On Christmas day, for example, the sun rose in Reykjavík at 11:22 a.m. and set at 3:32 p.m. This is the perfect time to visit for photographers who like to sleep in.
- Expect a lot of contrast. Even with the great light, there is still a lot of contrast. Iceland is made of volcanic rocks, which are black. There will be snow – it’s Iceland after all.
- Be ready for wind. Though it wasn’t windy every day, when it was windy, it was very windy. With the low light levels and the wind, a tripod is absolutely necessary.
- Don’t like the weather, wait a day. The weather seemed to be totally unpredictable. Our first full day in the country, the high was just above freezing, it was mostly cloudy, there were a few scattered rain and snow showers, and there was no wind. The second day, a day we decided to do a day trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it was below freezing, there was fog and low clouds, and even though it didn’t snow much, there were blizzard conditions with a steady wind over 30 mph (48 kph). The following day, Christmas, it was cold, a high of 16 degrees F (-9 C), but mostly clear with no wind. The day after Christmas had a high temperature a few degrees above freezing, with a partly cloudy skies and no wind. And our last day in the country, it was rainy with strong winds (strong enough to nearly blow our rental car off an icy road). The moral – keep your plans flexible as the weather.
- It’s expensive, but so what. Yes, prices are high, especially for food. But with a little prudence, you can keep to a budget. Try an off-brand rental car for instance; we paid about $280 for a 5-day rental of a mid-sided all-wheel drive SUV (a Ford Kuga) at Saga Car Rental (run by Thrifty, which, by the way, was at least $100 more), the equivalent at Hertz – about $700. Besides, chances are you are on vacation, worry about your bank account when you get home.
- Skip the tour and do it yourself. Rent a car (see above) and drive the Golden Circle by yourself. You’ll be on your own schedule, giving more time for photography. However, before doing so, critically consider your winter driving skills. On our trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we came upon one unprepared rental car drive who was blown off the road.
- It probably goes without saying, but dress warmly in layers. The wind chill can be brutal.
- If you speak English, don’t worry about the language; nearly everyone speaks English.
- Take your whole photography kit. You’ll find lots of opportunities to use your wide-angle as well as your telephoto lenses.
- Be prepared. Research before you go as well as when you are there. I recommend the photographer’s road map of Iceland by Michael Levy. Want to see the aurora, check out this website with real-time northern lights forecasts. The site also give temperature and wind forecasts.