This past May I went to make this same photo of the San Diego skyline with the harbor in the foreground. The conditions were not ideal as there was a significant haze in the air which greatly reduced visibility. You can view the photo and read about it here. During a recent trip to this location a rainstorm had passed through the area the day before and caused all the small particulates to be removed from the atmosphere. As a result, conditions were much better with visibility so great that even the distant mountains were visible. I think you will agree that the photo with clear skies turned out much better.
Like with my past trip to shoot this location, I set up midway up Lucinda Street in Point Loma and pointed my camera due east towards Downtown San Diego. The harbor in the foreground is around 1/4 mile down the hill and the small land mass you can see in the midground camera right is North Island Naval Air Station, around 2 1/2 miles out. Downtown San Diego is around 4 miles east of where I was standing and you can now clearly make out the mountains which are around 16 miles out.
The first shot was made around 30 minutes prior to sunset. In this shot both the skyline and harbor are fully lit. As the sun began to set, the harbor went into shadow. I had to wait until the sun had fully set before I was able to shoot the second shot so that both the city and harbor were in the same light. Both images were taken at f/8 since this is the aperture that I could get edge-to-edge sharpness on the lens I was using and also since the closest object was around 1/4 mile away and this aperture gave me sufficient depth-of-field.
After finding this gem of a spot after my last trip to La Jolla, I knew it would not be long before I returned. Unlike the previous trip however, conditions were better with high clouds in the sky which I knew would light up near sunset.
I arrived around 45 minutes prior to sunset to give myself plenty of time to set up and stake out my spot. The conditions were great and since it was a weekend, I figured that many photographers would be out taking photos. As it turned out, only a hand full of shooters were out that day.
Although the skies were mostly clear with a nice set of high clouds, the horizon towards the ocean was starting to show the signs of a marine layer coming in. On my last several trips out, due to weather conditions, I was unable to get a nice sunset shot, and the marine layer was looking to spoil it for me during this trip. Luckily there was a break in the clouds and just for a few minutes, the sun peeked through to give the rocks a golden glow.
With the sun still around 25 minutes from setting it was still quite intense since the light did not have to make its way through as much atmosphere as would be the case if it were lower on the horizon. Therefore, the foreground exposed around 6-stops lower than the sky which also had the sun in the frame. I would normally either live with a slightly underexposed foreground or overexposed sky, shoot the scene as a composite of sky and horizon each at their proper exposures or more rarely, shoot an HDR image. However, since I had just purchased a 4-stop graduated neutral density (ND) filter and had another 3-stop graduated ND filter with me, I decided to stack the two filter, something I had never done before. I liked how it turned out and therefore I may use this technique more often.
While other parts of the world are fortunate enough to see the annual changing of colors in their neighborhood or even their own backyards, in Southern California, it often takes a drive up to higher elevations. Oak Glen is one of our favorite spots to go enjoy fall like conditions and partake in pumpkin picking and chestnuts collecting. Many Southern Californians feel the same and during the months of October and November, the area can get quite busy as visitors enjoy the cooler fall like weather and conditions, as well as visit the various small shops selling unique and handmade items.
The photo above was made at the Snowline Orchard in Oak Glen. Several maple trees dot the picnic area at the Orchard and on this day they were radiating bright red and were at the peak of their fall colors. It is quite easy to be in awe at a not-to-often seen subject by Southern California standards and to simply put your eye to the viewfinder and start snapping away. The key to getting a photograph instead of just a snapshot is to take the time to look for pleasing compositions and think about what you want to achieve with your shot. Before making the photo, first mentally envision how you want the scene rendered as a print.
I chose to isolate a particular group of leaves and shot at a large aperture to get a nice dreamy feel to the photo. I also paid particular attention to what was in the background so that I would get a nice creamy bokeh. Below are some tips to get a photo with a nice out-of-focus background that I hope you will find useful.
1. Aperture. This is the setting that many of you probably already know and is most associated with getting a shallow depth-of-field (DOF). Using smaller f-numbers means your lens is at a larger aperture and this results in creating a shallower DOF.
2. Focal Length. Have you ever noticed how those Sports Illustrated covershots seem to have the players just pop out of the background? Some of that has to do with the focal length these photographers are using, usually in the 400 – 600mm range for outdoor sports such as football, baseball and soccer. Everything else being equal, the longer the focal length, the smaller the depth-of-field.
3. Subject to Camera Distance. Have you ever noticed the razor thin depth-of-field on some macro shots? This is because as the subject to camera distance decreases, so does DOF. If you really want to get that nice out-of-focus background, bring your subject closer to the camera.
4. Subject to Background Distance. If you want to really make your subject pop, just make sure that they are far away from the background. A bush 5 feet behind your subject will still have some definition whereas if you put that same bush 40 feet behind your subject, it will render as a creamy green background with no clear definition.
5. Sensor Size. If both are framed identically with the same aperture, full frame sensors will give you a shallower DOF compared to a APS-C or crop body sensor by a factor of around 1 1/3 stops. This extends down to 4/3″ and smaller sensors as well. The primary reason that point-and-shoot cameras are not able to get shallow DOF even at large apertures, is due to their tiny sensor sizes. This is one of the reason why professionals and advanced amateurs prefer full frame cameras such as the Nikon D600, D700, D800, D4, D3 and Canon 1Ds, 1Dx, 5D and 6D series of cameras.
Here is a resource that helps determine the depth-of-field that you might find useful. DOFMater is not only a great tool, but the website also explain some of the theory behind DOF.
One of the places I like to shoot most is the La Jolla coastal areas. There is no shortage of unique rock formations which make for interesting foreground objects. I have quite extensively shot the coastline from La Jolla Shores down to Windansea, but I have somehow managed to miss this particular spot until this past weekend. I must say of all the spots along the La Jolla coast, this one is the most interesting and dramatic.
Like almost all landscape shots, the best time to shoot is either 30 minutes before sunrise/sunset or 30 minutes after sunrise/sunset, or the so called Golden Hour. During this time you get great color and direction of light as well as avoid the overly contrasty conditions of shooting during the middle of the day.
Must have equipment to successfully shoot during these times of day are a sturdy tripod and a set of graduated neutral density filters. The tripod is necessary due to the long shutter speeds you will be using due to the low amount of light during the Golden Hour and the large f-stops typically used in landscape photography to get the entire scene in focus. The graduated ND filters are necessary to balance the exposure of the foreground with the bright skies. Due to the limited dynamic range of even today’s best sensors, shooting these scenes without a graduated ND filter would result in either a blown out sky or an underexposed foreground. An alternative to using filters is HDR or High Dynamic Range techniques of blending multiple exposures into one. I like to get my images in one shot and get it right in camera, so elect to use filters instead of HDR, but either technique will give great results when performed properly.
I was drawn to the composition since the rock formation served to lead the eye into the scene. I also like the movement in the water on either side of the rocks and I was also careful to include the left most rock formation in the frame since it gave the image more dimension and depth. An aperture of f/16 was used since the foreground was only about 2.5 feet from my camera and I wanted to have everything from the rocks to the horizon in focus. The image was taken around 15 minutes before sunset. Although there was a marine layer present, there were still some high clouds that were lit up by the setting sun.
When we got to the rodeo I was surprised at the sheer amount of amateur photographers in the stands. There were literally 20-25 shooters with about 7-8 wielding Canon 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS USM lenses with another 5-6 using 70-200mm lenses in different varieties. There was also a mix of the Canon Big Whites along with those shooting with consumer lenses. Bodies ranged from 1-Series down to Rebels with the majority shooting with 7Ds with a few 5D Mark IIs and IIIs mixed in.
The large turnout of photographers, at least in part, was because Canon was one of the sponsors of the event and they teamed up with a local camera shop to provide instruction and use of some of Canon’s super telephotos. This also explained the dearth of Nikon shooters, of which I only counted three. The official event photographer, though, was a Nikon shooter and he was shooting inside the arena with a pro body and a 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II lens.
I have shot enough outdoor action to know that shooting back lit subjects is not only a challenge for exposure, but also can render AF less effective. So prior to purchasing the tickets, I Google Mapped the rodeo grounds to determine which direction I should be shooting to get front lit subjects. It also helped out that Canon was sponsoring a photo workshop, since they would most likely be situated where their class would get the best photos. This turned out to be the South bleachers near the West facing gates.
When shooting an event such as this one, and in general really, I shoot in Manual mode and set my exposure prior to the start of the activities and keep it there for the entire event only periodically checking exposure throughout the day and adjusting if necessary. This is advantageous since panning is required to track the action and as the backgrounds behind your subjects change, so can your camera’s meter reading. Shooting in Manual mode ensures that I get good subject exposure despite what might be in the background that might influence the meter reading as would be the case if I were in one of the automatic modes such as Shutter or Aperture Priority.
The general rule for sports photography is to use a shutter speed of at least 1/500s in order to ‘freeze’ the action. To get this shutter speed I shot wide open at f/2.8 (this also helps with subject isolation due to the shallow depth-of-field). Since I was using a polarizer, this aperture gave me a shutter speed of 1/640s to 1/800s at ISO 100 depending if I was shooting North or South. In hindsight, I should have either taken the polarizer off, thus giving me 3 – 4 times the shutter speed I was at, or bumped up the ISO along with the shutter speed. Even at 1/800s, at 100% view, there is still some motion blur on the subjects.
I shot most of the day at high shutter speeds to try and freeze the action. For the barrel races (photo below), I wanted to capture the speed at which these ladies were riding, so I slowed my shutter speed down to 1/100s and panned my camera with the rider. This resulted in an image with the horse and rider against a streaking background. The image is more dramatic IMO and gives a better sense of speed than a shot of the horse and rider frozen.
Later in the afternoon when the structures on the west end of the arena started to cast a shadow on the gates, I had to switch to spot metering and put my camera into Shutter Priority mode and Auto ISO since the riders went in and out of shade and full sunlight (photo below). Using the center spot to meter the scene allowed me to get proper subject exposure despite the rapidly changing conditions.
After getting shutout of the Salk Institute due to restricted access during non-business hours (I really want to shoot Salk and it is one of the remaining iconic San Diego places that I have yet to shoot!) I went across the street to UCSD to make a photo of their unique Geisel Library.
I arrived approximately 40 minutes before sunset, but due to the library being situated at a slightly lower elevation compared to the buildings to the west, it was already partially in the shade.
Given the defined lines and symmetry of the building, I wanted to shoot it at one of its axis to get a mirror image of the structure. To exaggerate this effect I composed the library in the center of my frame. I chose to shoot on the diagonal plane since it looked more dynamic compared to shooting this building straight on. My aperture was set to f/8, which gave me plenty of depth-of-field since I was at least a couple of hundred feet away. Due to the building being in partial shade and the foreground being in complete shade, I had to use a 3-stop graduated ND filter to balance the exposure.
For whatever reason, when I got home and was working on the photo, the color image just did not work for me. I tried to process the image in a variety of different ways but was not satisfied with how the image was looking. Perhaps it was the fact that the structure was only partially bathed in semi-golden light or maybe it was something else, but the image just didn’t have the impact I was going for. In the end I converted this photo to black and white, and guess what? I liked the result.
A reader asked for the color version, so I updated the post with the version below.
This post is a slight continuation to my post yesterday regarding my photos on display at Westfield UTC. The same client had expressed interest in doing a surf themed 5 photo collage so my wife and I headed down to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas to attend Wavecrest, the largest Woody gathering in California to grab some photos. Due to the requirements of the display cases, the photos are cropped as a square.
For those not familiar, Woodies have a strong connection with the surf culture of the 60’s here in California. They can be seen in various movies including classics such as “Ride the Wild Surf” (1964) and “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965) with surf boards either attached to the roofs or sticking out of their tailgates. They have also been immortalized in songs such as “Surf City” by Jan & Dean and “Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys.
Shooting events like this is always challenging. You have to deal with what I call the “Three C’s”, Crowds, Clutter and Crappy light.
When you go to the largest Woody show in California, you have to expect crowds. Our plan was to show up early before the swell of people and hopefully get some clean compositions. Unfortunately, this did not work out and we arrived shortly after 10am where there were already hundreds of people and an average of 4 to 5 individuals checking out each of the cars. Similarly, “clutter” is everywhere, either in the form of other cars you are trying not to include in your composition, tents people set up to stay cool or the various flags, poles, advertisement banners and houses from the surrounding areas.
When faced with this type of situation, it is often best to shoot from a low perspective so that you can use the sky and palm trees as your background. You also have to learn to be patient and wait for the right time to trip the shutter when everyone has left the frame. In addition, you need to really pay attention to what is both in your background and at the edge of your frame. Carefully look to see what is behind what you are shooting. See that ugly red tent? Moving over a couple of feet or shooting from a lower angle will probably get rid of it. “Hey that looks like a cut off arm in my shot, and why is there is a floating head in my photo?”. Pay attention to your borders and don’t trip the shutter unless you are 100% happy with what is in the frame and maybe just as important, what is not in your frame.
This takes us to the final and probably most important “C”, crappy light. These events almost always take place during the middle of the day, and in this case from 8:30am to 3:00pm. I had to deal with the harsh mid-day sun for most of my shoot. The number one weapon I found to combat this is through the use of a polarizer. Depending on the angle of the sun in respect to your camera, you can darken your skies and, most importantly, reduce or eliminate reflections off of the objects you are trying to photograph. In this case, photographing shiny cars and polished surfboards and getting good color saturation would have been next to impossible without the use of a polorizer. Generally speaking when I am shooting outdoors during the day, I have a polarizer screwed to the front of my lens about 80% of the time.
There is one drawback to using a polarizer though, and that is the 1.5 – 2 stop reduction in light. This of course means you are using a 3 to 4 times slower shutter speed compared to shooting without a polarizer, and if you are shooting hand held as I was doing this day, and at large f-stops without the benefit of an image stabilized lens, it can lead to some less than sharp photos.
If you are going to purchase a polarizer, I recommend using a high quality multi-coated one such as the B+W Kaesemann or what I use, the Hoya HD2 line of circular polarizing filters. Granted, they are not cheap, but the final output from your lens is only as good as its weakest link, and there is no sense in putting a $30 polarizer on the front of your $2000 optic.
Mark is a scientist living in San Diego, CA. He loves being outdoors and traveling. Always with him is his Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Mark has been shooting since 2009. Join him as he documents his travels and everyday life. Learn more about Mark click here.