Lightroom Tip - Beyond the Rule of Thirds

I have no illusions of grandeur, when it comes to my Lightroom skills and knowledge, but I thought I would share with you something that I find very useful, easy to use, and a tool that I use on every image I produce. I use a Mac, so any shortcuts I describe will be for Mac.

The Crop Tool, and more specifically the Crop Overlays that you can use with the Crop Tool. To use the Crop Tool you will need to be in the Develop module. To set up how the crop tool displays Overlays go to the Tools Menu and select Tool Overlay. This will give you options on when the overlays are shown. Your options here are “Auto Show”, “Always Show” or “Never Show”, I leave mine set to always show. This way when I am in the Cop Tool, the overlay is always there to help me create an effective and pleasing crop. I have Lightroom set up so that the Rule of Thirds grid overlay is displayed by default, but you have other options. Seven of them to be exact.

The options are: Grid, Thirds, Diagonal, Triangle, Golden Ratio, Golden Spiral, and finally Aspect Ratios. When you are in the crop tool you can easily scroll through the options by pressing the letter O. Also, by pressing “Shift O”, you can change the orientation of the overlay.

When I am in the process of editing my images, I am always looking to increase the compositional appeal of the image. This usually involves cropping the image to improve upon the overall composition. One of the Crop Overlays that I use frequently is the Rule of Thirds. The key to using this is to try placing important elements of the image on intersecting lines.

When there is a strong diagonal aspect to an image I like to toggle to the Triangle Overlay. This guide is a diagonal line plotted between two corners, then two other lines meet it at right angles from the other corners. You can use the triangles to separate areas in the frame, or position points of interest where the lines meet. Don’t forget that you can hit Shift+O to change the orientation of the diagonals.

Another of the overlays I use frequently is the Golden Spiral Overlay. This spiral overlay is based on the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci sequence. The use of this overlay is about placing important point in your image at the centre of the spiral (the animal’s eye), and spacing other points of interest using the curved lines as a guide.

The last Overlay that finds its way into my workflow on a regular basis is the Aspect Ratio Overlay. If you need to crop your image in different ways, for different purposes, the Aspect Ratio Overlay allows you to see several different ratios at once. You can customise which ratios are shown under Tools>Crop Guide Overlay>Choose Aspect Ratios.

While the crop overlay tool is not necessarily something that will speed up your workflow, or correct for bad exposure, it is a useful tool to visualize compositional rules. I find that by playing around in post production with the different overlays has allowed me to visualize them when I am in the field, and has expanded my understanding of some of the Rules of Composition.

I hope I showed you something new that you can use in your workflow.

Aperture Priority Mode for the Fastest Shutter Speeds

I was taking images of ruby Throated Hummingbirds the other day in variable lighting and another photographer asked me how I had my camera set up. It took awhile for me to explain my answer so they understood. What I do may sound counter intuitive, but it works.

When I need to shoot with the fastest shutter speed I can get, I switch my camera to AV or Aperture Priority mode. Yes you read that right. I don’t switch to Shutter Priority or Manual Mode, but Aperture Priority. Let me explain how I set this up, and why it works.

As I’m sure you are aware, there are three sides to the exposure triangle that we can adjust to get the correct exposure. they are Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO. I generally like to keep control of at least 2 of these. SInce I am letting the camera pick the shutter speed when I am in AV, I will select the aperture and ISO. Here’s how.

  • Aperture Setting: Since I want the fastest shutter speed, I will set this at the largest aperture that I can. This may be f/2.8, f/4, or f/5.6 depending what lens I am currently using. The number is not really that important to the other settings, just make sure that you are using the largest aperture you can. By choosing the largest aperture, you then can use the lowest ISO for the lowest noise, and the fastest shutter speed.

  • ISO Setting: Since I am letting the camera determine the correct shutter speed, and I have the largest aperture my lens is capable of selected, the ISO setting is very important to make this technique work. You have to select an ISO that will allow your camera to select a shutter speed that is in a range that will be appropriate for the situation. This is where experience, and knowing your camera and subject comes into play.

    • You need to know what the acceptable max ISO is for your camera. That is the highest ISO that will give you grain that you can live with. This is different for every camera, and every photographers taste. For me, on my Canon 5D MKiv, I will go up to ISO 6400. There are techniques to control the grain at higher ISO, but that sounds like a good topic for another post! The important thing here is to know what your limit is for the camera you are using.

    • You also need to know what shutter speed range is correct for your subject, and the shot you are trying to create. Since this started with my taking shots of hummingbirds, I will stick with that. For hummingbirds, It’s all about getting a nice blur in the wings to show motion, but having a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the rest of the bird. This will be @ 1/1000 sec. in most cases. So how do I pick the appropriate ISO? I will take an exposure reading off of something that is in the same lighting conditions that I expect the subject will be in. Grass, or green leaves work great. I then adjust the ISO to a level that will give me @ a 1/1000 sec shutter speed.

Now that you have the aperture and ISO set, your camera will give you the fastest shutter speed possible to give you what it thinks is a correct exposure. You may be asking; But what if the lighting changes on your subject, or the background? How do you quickly override the camera’s exposure? Both good questions. What I do is use Exposure Compensation to quickly make adjustments to the exposure, without changing any settings. On my Canon 5D MKiv, I can quickly turn the command dial on the back of the camera to under or over expose the exposure the camera has calculated.

Here is an example. Let’s imagine that I have set up my camera as described above, and suddenly the hummingbird flies into a bright shaft of light coming through the branches, but the background is still in shadow. This will probably cause the camera to overexpose the hummingbird, since the bright area, the bird, is too small to affect the overall exposure of the entire frame. All I have to do is turn the command dial three clicks counterclockwise to override the camera’s exposure by -1 stop. I don’t have to take my eye away from the shutter to do this, and since I know that every click on the dial is 1/3 of a stop, I can make an appropriate adjustment fast enough to even keep up with a hummingbird!

This technique takes practice, and a very good understanding of you gear, and how to use it, but once you get use to it, I bet you find it one of your go to techniques when the fastest shutter speed possible is what is needed to get the shot.

If you have any questions on this technique, please leave a comment.

Creamy, buttery, delicious, Backgrounds

Clean, Smooth, Buttery, Creamy, Delicious Backgrounds! Backgrounds? Yes backgrounds. In wildlife photography the background is just as, if not more important, then the subject. In most situation, the background is what separates a great wildlife image from just another snapshot. So how do we get those buttery backgrounds?

To get nice blurry out of focus backgrounds we need to understand how to control depth of field, then how to use that knowledge to our advantage. The depth of field is the area in the image that is in focus. Everything closer to the camera, or further from the camera, then this distance will be out of focus. Another thing to remember is that the further away from the area that is in focus the blurry it will be.

The first way, and the one most photographer use to control depth of field is the lens aperture. The basic rule is the wider your aperture or the lower your f-number is, the shallower the depth of field. In my photography I generally want as small of a depth of field as possible, so I use the widest aperture possible with my equipment. A 300mm lens focused at 5 meters at an aperture of f/22 will have a depth of field of close to 40 cm, but by just opening up the aperture to f/2.8 we can reduce the depth of field to just 5 centimeters! One benefit of this is it allows me to use the fastest shutter speed possible to freeze any movement.

The second , and less know way to control depth of field is through the focal length of the lens. The longer the lens, more millimeters, the narrower the depth of field will be at a given aperture. For an example of this, let’s take a look at the difference a 50mm lens and a 600mm lens at an aperture of 5.6 on a full frame camera set to focus at 5 meters. The 50mm lens will have a depth of field of approximately 4.25 meters, while the 600mm’s depth of field will only be .2.3 centimeters! This is why it can be difficult to get tack sharp focus on the eye of a small bird. If the camera focuses on its beak the eye will be soft.

The third thing to consider is the distance between your subject, and the background. The greater the distance between the limits of your working depth of field and the background, the more out of focus and soft any elements in the background will be.

So let’s look at how I use this information in the field. Imagine that I am looking to get an image of a Red-winged Blackbird singing on a cattail. After locating a subject I would then look for an angle that would allow me to place any background element as far away from the Blackbird as possible. I would then set my aperture to its largest setting and adjust the shutter speed and ISO to get the proper exposure for the bird. This setup would allow me to seperate the bird from the nice creamy, out of focus background.

One more tip. Most birds are creatures of habit, and will usually return to the same spot to sing, or area to feed. Take your time, asses the situation, find these spots, and then decide which one will give you the best background. Then set up the shot, and wait for the bird to return.