Shoot INTO the sun - it’s magical!

So I’ve been trucking along with my camera for about six months now and feel like I’m making some solid progress in the quality of shots I am taking and my ability to intentionally take good shots. One of my last hurdles I’m jumping over is knowing how to use that dang ball of fire in the sky to my advantage. My previous belief was if the sun is out its high time to take some pictures. I remember back to what my good friend and wedding photographer, Cory Thoemke, told my wife and I when we were planning our wedding day though. He suggested we take photos during the early morning or later in the evening. Afternoon sun was our enemy. 8 years later I finally understand why :)

Last month when My wife and I were setting up for our family photo shoot we were so excited about the location we chose because of the great beach scenery and view of the olympic mountain range across the Puget Sound at Golden Gardens park in Seattle. We got there nice and early so the beach wouldn’t be crowded and I thought back to that advise about shooting early in the morning. It couldn’t have been a better location to capture our girls as they turned 1 and 4. We had a pretty quaint set up with a beach blanket, a little bench chair and some of their favorite instruments. Man, I was excited. As I started taking a few test shots as my wife was setting up I was not happy with how the lighting was turning out. What the heck? The shadows were harsh and everyone was squinting. This was not going to work. I ended taking a few shots that worked like this one.

Penny Playing the Uke

After a few more shots I decided to starting moving around the other side of them to see if I could do anything with the sunlight and the shadows. I hit a point where I was looking almost into the sun and every instinct I had told me not to take that shot. I was sure it was just going to be a muddy under exposed mess since my only other point of comparison was taking photos with point and shoot cameras and iphones where this would underexpose the subject and expose the sky. What happened next was nothing short of magic. I started taking a few shots and saw the harsh shadows on their faces go away and the sun gave a beautiful glow to the photos. 

Penny and her morning cup o' milk

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I was so excited about how these were turning out and I have a few tips that helped me.

1. Change your camera metering to spot metering (or partial metering if your camera doesn’t have spot metering).

That changes your in-camera light metering to a single spot as apposed to averaging the entire scene and making your camera guess what the best exposure should be. I was pointing the single meter point at their face so I could expose for their skin and eyes. 

2. Try to shoot as close to the “golden hour” as possible. This is the time right after the sun rises and right before it sets. The Sun gives a nice golden color to your photos and just plain ol’ looks like magic. You are also able to get a more natural angle since the sun is closer to the horizon.

3. Don’t shoot directly into the sun. Now that I’ve said that let me immediately contradict myself. you can shoot directly into the sun, it looks amazing. The only issue is controlling the lens flare and potential blowout as well as you cameras inability to focus on anything when its staring directly into a enormous ball of fire in the sky. If you want a bit more of a predictable shot I found shooting with the sun just out of frame or at about a 30 degree angle from the sun worked best. 

And with that I will leave you with some of my recent favorite “golden hour, shooting into the sun” shots :)

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The little mermaid

If you read all the way down here you should high five yourself or someone around you! I hope this inspires you to go out and shoot into the sun! 

Dont feel like you need to shoot in manual just because you have a DSLR

Let me be honest for a second. I have had my DSLR for 5 months now and just recently (in the past two weeks) started shooting in manual mode somewhat comfortably. This switch to manual was something I was working towards and my main justification for not shooting manual is because of speed. I wanted to be able to control what I needed without over tweaking everything to capture a shot. I wanted to focus on shooting not focus on my camera and I think that is ok. 

I have talked to numerous casual photographers over the past few months who sheepishly admit that they don’t know how to shoot in manual mode and just stick to the half of the dial with pictures of the type of scene they are trying to shoot. The lack of understanding of what is happening when they shoot and the lack of control over the outcome of the photo often drives them  to opt to use a different camera instead of their DSLR because they feel intimidated or don’t have the time to learn. For some reason that bums me out every time I hear someone say that and want to make it my personal mission to get them to pick their camera back up and start to learn the basics. Here is my Plea:

Don’t over complicate it and don’t shoot in manual. 

Think of your camera as a bike. When you learned to ride a bike most of us needed training wheels and there is nothing wrong with that - it helps you learn the basics of balance and motion. there are two very basic things you need to think about when photographing something that you can think of as your two training wheels. Shutter speed & Aperture. There is obviously a few more but these are two great starting points that you can learn a ton from.

If you want to only control depth of field (amount the background blurs) and see how that affects the look of your shot I recommend shooting in aperture priority mode (AV).

This puts everything in automatic except your aperture. This is where I started and spent most of my time with shooting portraits and landscapes. It’s a great exercise to to go from one extreme to another and stop a few places in between and see what happens to your photos. I learned quite a bit just doing this. for instance, when shooting one person you can crank the aperture all the way open (my lens goes to f 1.8) and get some really dramatic shots where the eyes are the only thing in focus

but if you are shooting two or more people its best to stay above f5 or so otherwise you lose focus of one of the faces.

 I would have never learned this in Automatic mode but also didn’t need to be in manual to figure this out. Here’s an example of how the same scene could look just by adjusting the aperture in Aperture Priority mode. 

and if you are curious what is happening in the camera as you spin the dial here is a really helpful chart: 

Next, if you are shooting a fast moving subject, like a child, you may want to try shooting in Shutter Priority mode (most cameras call this out with a TV or S on the dial). You can mess with keeping the shutter open a while longer and getting some nice motion in your shot or dial it in to make the shutter fire as fast as possible with the light available for a nice crisp shot. Here’s an example of the same scene at different shutter speeds. 

I hope this helps and give you a good starting point to pick your camera back up and start shooting again! I am happy to answer any question from anyone so feel free to leave a comment below. 

Start simple - my thinking behind my camera set-up

Let me start first by acknowledging that I am a collector. My first instinct when I get into something is to get everything right away and then find ways to get even more. When I read comics as a teen I didn’t want just a few, I wanted them all. When I started playing guitar I didn’t want just one, I wanted as many as I could get my hands on along with all the effects pedals and fancy accessories possible.
I feel like I have grown past that urge to collect a bit as I’ve gotten older but this lingered with me a bit when I started thinking about trying my hand at photography. I talked to a lot of people that told me all the cool things to buy, which DSLR body was the best, which lens would make my photos amazing, what flash I should get for indoor photos and on and on. After all that I made a very intentional decision to start simple.
First of all, buying your first camera and any accompanying gear is REALLY nerve racking. What if I spend too much? What if I don’t spend enough? What If I find out I don’t even like taking photos with a big DSLR?! Because of this I decided to simplify what I was looking for to one basic use case. I’m a dad and I wanted to capture nice photos of my kids that were better than my iPhone could take (that’s not to say that I don’t still love my iPhone camera and use it all the time, because i do). I really liked the way DSLR’s create depth of field. This helped me focus in on what type of camera and lens to buy and whose advice to listen to. I was no longer interested in figuring out what setup the photographer from national geographic used or the super pro mega photographer who took glossy studio portraits. That’s not to say that these people don’t have awesome set-ups, its just not what I was looking for.  
Focused now on photographing my kids and family I heard there was little difference in what DSLR body you get but it really is up to the lens to determine how your photos look. Taking this advice I landed on the Canon EOS Rebel T3i . This camera was somewhere at the bottom of the spectrum of DSLRs but was still able to do what I wanted. The two features that sold me on this model over the t2i and the t3 was that it does full 1080p video which I figured would come in handy and It also has an articulating screen so you can swing it out if you are shooting at different angles (this has proven to be a handy feature when shooting low to the ground).  

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Now to the lens. This was the fun/scary part. Do I just go with the kit lens that comes with the camera or do I start with a different lens? what the heck do different lenses even do? Does it really matter that much? After reading up for weeks on lenses I ended up opting not to get the kit lens but instead I bought a Canon 50mm prime lens which is a fixed focal length lens (means it doesn’t zoom).

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After reading about this lens I got super excited for a few reasons. #1: Almost every pro I read about has this lens in their bag and raved about how awesome it was. #2: It is actually one of the cheapest lenses you can buy ( usually around $100). #3: I really like the idea of constraining myself to a fixed focal length. I thought it would be a really nice challenge to figure out how to set up a nice shot without relying on zoom. This constraint would help me focus on one thing at a time. 

Here’ another good article regarding the 50MM Prime lens. 

here are a few sample shots I’ve taken with this set up. 

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and you can see more on my flickr page.

as always, happy shooting and I hope this might inspire you to go take some sweet photos!

How to photograph a waterfall with slow shutter speed in daylight using a Neutral Density filter

As soon as I bought my DSLR there was one type of shot I wanted to try to take. We’ve all seen those super cheesy awesome posters from the 90s with inspirational quotes. Confession, I always thought those photos were awesome, especially the ones with waterfalls and rivers that looks like magic sauce. I assumed it was a really hard type of photo to shoot and took really expensive equipment and lenses to shoot but I found out I was wrong. its super easy and inexpensive. All you need to get this type of shot is an Neutral Density Filter which you can get off Amazon for about $15.

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The way it works is it essentially acts as a pair of sunglasses for your camera and blocks out light so you are able to hold your shutter open a bit longer to get that blurred motion of the water. here is an example of the the same shot without a Neutral Density filter:

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and here it is after adding the filter onto the lens. 

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Hot tip: This type of shot requires a tripod as well since the shutter will stay open for a few seconds and you don’t want any extra movement. 

Hot tip #2: make sure you buy the right size filter. My first time buying this I made a bad assumption that the most popular one would just fit on my lens. I was wrong. you need to look for this symbol on your lens and lens cap: 

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Thats it! Hope this inspires you to go and take your own Successories photo :)

Learn DSLR basics in a browser based first person game called CameraSim 3D

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if you’re a video game lover and want to better understand DSLR photography there is a really cool looking new first person photography game coming out from a company called CameraSim. It aims to give you a fun new way to learn about all the features of a DSLR camera and puts you in situations to teach you which settings are right for different shooting environments. Check out their promo video to learn more about it:

One thing I’m really excited about is it will let you trying out equipment that I don’t have. You can swap lenses to see how it would affect your shot and show the strengths and weaknesses of wide angle lenses versus telephoto zoom lenses. 

It says it will have the full feature set of a DSLR so you can control ISO grain, depth of field, motion blur and even gets into some deeper features like exposure compensation. 

And last but most importantly they say they will be rolling out new scenes to shoot in continually so it will be worth checking back often to see what’s new. 

The beta is going right now, go check it out

Photo editing on the run

I have had a few people ask me what I use to edit my photos so I wanted to share an app that I have been using a lot lately.

there are a few programs I use when I have a lot of time to sit and edit like photoshop and lightroom but when I am strapped for time (which is almost always) or just antsy to start editing there is one app that is my go to. Its a free mobile app called VSCO Cam. you can download it for iOS or android. To me its the grown up version of istagram. Way more control and features if you want them or quick filters to play around with if you want to quickly see if your photo can be salvaged. instead of getting into a lengthy explanation of why its amazing I found a video with an appropriate amount of dubstep to express the coolness. 

Here are a few of my favorite photos I’ve edited with VSCO cam:

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you can see the rest of my photos I’ve edited with VSCO cam here: http://nate-mueller.vsco.co/

Finding inspiration

I know as well as anyone that inspiration is the most powerful thing that drives us to create and its often a well in risk of drying up. When I starting getting into photography I knew that I would need to constantly challenge myself with new things so I wouldn’t lose steam and get bored. I have seen the daily photo challenge blogs, I had tinkered with some other ideas to keep me going but there is one site that has kept me challenged in new and exciting ways on almost a daily basis. its called Snapwire

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The idea to Snapwire essentially flips the paradigm of stock photography on its head. How normal stock sites work is a photographer uploads anything and everything they have that they think someone might want to buy in hopes that they will sell. Its all pretty much a shot in the dark which I think perpetuates what I call “crapstock”.

Snapwire differentiates themselves in a super interesting way where they have buyers tell you exactly what they are looking for and then photographers can either go and shoot for that specific ask or submit photos they have that works with the ask. You also know exactly how much the request is paying so it helps you figure out if its worth your time. 

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There is also a great open line of communication between the buyer and the photographer. You have a set amount of time that the request is open where you can ask any clarifying questions about the ask and also get feedback on photos you’ve submitted. To me this feels like a way better way to shoot great stock photos. 

see my collection on snapwire  

I encourage you to give it a try if you are looking for a new challenge. 

A little bit about me (and photography)

I figure its only polite of me to tell you a little bit about myself if I expect you to read anything I have to say about photography and take it seriously.  If anything, I hope you can relate to my story and find inspiration to get out and take some pictures.

I have had a fairly long history with photography and up until a few years ago I had relatively no interest in it in any serious capacity. I went to art school and took all the mandatory photography classes where I was first introduced to pinhole cameras, SLR cameras and general photography principles. Ohh ya, and that dreaded dark room.

My schooling was focused almost entirely on film (since digital was relatively new). I recall the anxiety I had shooting over a week for an assignment, taking the film up to the dark room, going through the process of developing the film only to pull the strip of film out of the drying rack to find out I messed up somewhere along the way and ruined my entire roll. An entire week down the drain not to mention the cost of the film. If I wasn’t ruining my film role I was in the dark room going through endless sheets of expensive development paper just trying to see if my pictures were any good.  This whole process was not good for a person with a short attention span and a college student budget. Needless to say I was very turned off by the “process” of film. (Hot tip for students who still have to shoot film, take your roll to Target and get it developed the way the rest of society does, your teacher will be sure to compliment you on your development skills. I swear I never did that). 

a bit later, circa 2004, I purchased my first digital camera. It was a $40 off-brand camera sitting on a clearance rack at Target. Not anything to write home about but I do remember the feeling of freedom it gave me. taking a picture and seeing it show up on the little screen on the back was amazing. No more developing, no more dark rooms, this was going to be amazing. My only problem now was figuring out what to do with these glorious 2 megapixel photos after I took them. At this time all I had ever done was blast some light on a negative in a darkroom to make the photo magically appear. from there I was clueless. 

fast forward to 2009. This was the year I got my first iPhone. This may be unimpressive or cliche but this was definitely the camera that started to change the way I approached photography. The fact that the “camera” was in my pocket, with me at all times, was something very new to me. Previously photography was something I thought had to be very intentional but the iPhone allowed me to be spontaneous. In 2010 Instagram came out and again changed the way I saw photography. You could add filters that instantly made your photo look cool and intersting with the tap of finger. I was sure this was cheating but man it was awesome. Right about now the gears started spinning in my head that photography was actually kind of cool. It was becoming this way to capture random authentic moments and edit them in a way that could bring interesting new perspective and meaning to a photo. 

After wearing out every filter on instagram (or at least the good ones, alright, just Nashville) I moved on to a few other apps like hipstamatic and camera+ and found some fun little nuggets that I liked in each but was starting to feel the limitation of my iPhone. I reached the point where I didnt want to just add fancy filters to pictures anymore. I wanted a camera that could add depth (literally and figuratively) and would work a little harder for me and give me the flexibility to control how I am shooting. After all this I had come full circle back to the SLR that I had dreaded years ago only now it was different. No more darkrooms, no more expensive film. Just freedom to capture essentially limitless photos without anxiety. Beautiful photos that only an SLR can give you.

From here on out I hope I can share a bit of what I do with my iPhone and my DSLR that gets me pumped and hopefully will get your creative juices going as well. 

If you made it all the way to the end of this post we should high five because you’re amazing! *slap*

How to make an ordinary picture pop using Adobe Lightroom and the golden spiral

Recently on a walk with my family at a local park I came across a small man-made pond with some ducks in it and thought I would try to take a few pictures. Not something I would have thought would produce a great photo but none the less I thought I would give it a go and I must say I was pretty happy with the outcome.

here is the final picture after edits. 

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First off let me show you the original picture that came out of my camera:

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As you can see its pretty overexposed and not that interesting. I saw some promise in it and decided to bring it into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 and see what I could do. I am fairly new to Lightroom and am still trying to figure out my workflow but I will tell you what I did. 

To start I am using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 but this should pertain to older versions as well. First, in the develop tab I went and in brought down the exposure a bit to fix the blown out look. I then went into the tone curve menu and gave it a medium contrast curve. This was to help make the picture not looks so flat and bring in some darks. 

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I then went into color saturation and tweaked some of the colors to make them pop a bit more. I really wanted that beak to pop so I cranked the yellow all the way to 100%. 

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At this point I was feeling pretty good about how this picture was turning out and thought it had some promise. 

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I wanted to crop in on the ducks a bit and get rid of the cement edge of the pond in the foreground and get rid of some of the dead space in the upper right corner.  In doing so I discovered something awesome. under the crop tool it by default gives you grid lines that breaks your photo into thirds which is really nice but if you hit “O” key a few times it will toggle through some other grid systems one of which is the golden spiral. 

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Now im not going to go into much about the golden spiral  or golden ratios and why they are one of the most mystical and magical things that occurs in nature that has influenced design throughout the ages. You will just have to trust me that its awesome or if you want to geek out read the wiki page.

Finding this tool in lightroom was pretty exciting. I started out cropping in on the ducks eye to give it a more intense and effective focal point

I then leveled out the photo a bit using the leveling tool

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and added a little bit of post-crop vignetting to help draw the eye in even more

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After that I called it finished.

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Equipment used: 

Canon EOS Rebel T3i  | Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens | Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5