Capturing photographs with a long-shutter speed can create movement (Steve Davey)
Article 09 November

Photocrafty: projects to improve your shots

Sue Venables, author of quirky guide, Photocrafty, shares three projects which reveal how to take great outdoor photos, perfect for travellers who want inspiring photos

1. Become a night shooter

Kit:

• DSLR
• Warm clothing
• Interesting subject matter
• Tripod (optional)
• Shutter release cable (optional)
• Torch (optional)

Don’t put your camera to bed just because the sun has gone down. Shooting in the dark brings its own rewards; bright lights twinkle against jet-black skies and long exposure times bring clarity beyond what the human eye can see.

The beauty of night photography is that the long exposure time (using a slow shutter speed setting) required allows any light in the frame to ‘burn’ into the images, revealing more detail and depth than is visible to the naked eye.

How to shoot:

• Firstly, choose an interesting location: fairgrounds, cityscapes, lights on water and busy roads all make good subject matter.

• A tripod and shutter release cable are recommended for stability, but you can make do with just your camera if you use a fl at surface and its built-in timer.

• Remember to compose your shots well – just because you’re shooting at night, it doesn’t mean you can forget the basic rules of photography!

• Always use manual focus when shooting at night because the camera struggles to find focus in lowlight situations. Finding focus in the dark can be quite difficult for humans, too. One solution is to shine a torch onto the subject that needs to come out looking sharp and then set the focus. If you don’t have a torch, guess the distance between the camera and the subject, then look at the focus ring and spin it round to the guestimated distance.

• Select manual mode and set the aperture number to f11. Generally speaking, if you’re shooting a landscape picture, it’s best to set the aperture to as high an f-stop number as possible (f11 and above), so that the maximum area of the photograph is in focus.

• A high ISO setting will create too much digital noise; keep the setting below 800 to maintain image quality.

• Experiment with different exposure times and check your images on the LCD screen until you get the correct exposure. If the image looks too dark and lacks detail, you will need to increase the exposure time. If it’s looking too bright and a little washed out, select a faster shutter-speed setting. Remember to minimise wobble over long exposures: use your tripod and shutter release cable (or timer).

2. Dabble in star stacking

Kit:

• DSLR
• Starry night sky
• Torch
• Warm clothing
• Entertainment
• Compass
• Tripod
• Shutter release cable (optional)
• Computer (optional)
• Digital-imaging software (optional)

Tiny, shiny, silvery slivers (star trails) appear in a photo of the night sky within an exposure time of 15 seconds – all because the Earth rotates on its axis. The slower the shutter speed, the more dramatic the effect will be. By taking multiple long-exposure shots of the night sky from the same place, it’s possible to stack these images into a single exposure and create one amazing image.

Deciding on the best place to shoot your photo is best done in daylight. Star-trail photography is ideally carried out away from busy cities, as the light pollution there can ruin your image over long exposures. The night sky needs to be really dark and clear so the stars are at their brightest. When you’ve chosen a location, try to find some foreground interest for your photo, such as attractive rooftops, trees or skyline. Aim to start your shoot a couple of hours after sunset. Bring a torch with you, and some warm clothing. You might also want to bring something to keep you entertained while you’re waiting for the exposures to happen – it can get boring hanging around in the dark!

To get the most dramatic results, point your camera north or south (depending on which hemisphere you happen to be in). You could use a real compass – or the one on your smart phone – or just use the night sky as your guide: the northern axis of the earth points towards the North Star and the southern axis towards the Southern Cross. So, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, direct the camera in the direction of the North Star (and towards the Southern Cross if you live south of the Equator). By angling your camera correctly, you can capture images that effectively show the Earth’s rotation.

How to shoot:

A cunning way to capture even light trails without any gaps between each exposure is to

• Get the night shooting basics right first: use the lowest ISO setting possible and always use a tripod.

• Select manual focus and then zoom in on a star, adjust the focus as necessary and check your composition – if you’re in doubt, take a shot for some visual reassurance.

• Select shutter burst mode (allowing continual shooting rather than a single shot).

• Put your camera in shutter priority mode and select an exposure time of 30 seconds (the maximum amount of time before you hit the bulb mode on most cameras).

• Attach your shutter release cable and lock it open.

• The camera should keep shooting every 30 seconds until the memory card is full, the battery runs out or you release the shutter.

• While the camera is firing off images, you could pop inside to keep warm. I told you it was cunning! Be careful that there isn’t a sudden rain shower, though. If you don’t have a shutter release cable or shutter burst mode on your camera, you could take a series of images using long exposures (20 x 30-second shots, for example). Or you could take a really long exposure of 30 minutes.

3. Take to the skies: aerial photos

Kit:

• Compact digital camera that records video or camera phone with video setting
• Foam board
• Pen
• Ruler
• Craft knife and cutting mat
• Sticky tape
• String
• Helium balloons
• Kite string
• Helium pump
• Conversion software (such as Final Cut Pro)
• Photo-editing software

Aerial shots are amazing; they offer us a different, bird’s-eye perspective on the world. I love gazing out of the window of an aeroplane as it climbs, watching the fields turn into a patchwork quilt of different shades while urban environments are reduced to toy towns. This is a fantastic project for getting those aerial shots without the fuss of packing a suitcase and queuing at the boarding gate.

This project doesn’t require a DSLR but, in theory, you could use one, if you select shutter burst mode, use a shutter release cable locked open and have one heck of a lot of helium balloons at your disposal! I’m no physicist, but here’s my attempt at being scientific: the tiny rig I made plus the little camera I used weighed a measly 100 grams in total and required 17 (28-cm party) balloons to get it to lift off. It was a damp day, which affects the amount of balloons needed: damp day = more balloons; hot day = fewer balloons.

My hefty DSLR weighs a whopping 780 grams (plus the weight of a sturdier rig), meaning I would need over 130 balloons to send my DSLR up, up and away. So, to save on balloons, it’s best to use a compact digital camera that records video, or buy a little one to do the job, like I did. You could use your iPhone, if you have the nerve: I didn’t! You’ll also need some foam board, a ruler, a craft knife and cutting mat, sticky tape, string, an appropriate number of the aforementioned helium balloons and kite string.

How to shoot:

• Draw and then cut out the design for your rig on the foam board using a pen and ruler. This ‘camera harness’ might need to be adapted depending on the type of camera that you are using. The basic principle is a right-angled piece of foam board for your camera to sit happily on. I tried to keep the amount of foam board minimal to keep the rig as light as possible.

• Cut out the rig shape from the foam board.

• Remove the triangular pieces of board from the back of the rig. (This is to keep it lighter, to use fewer balloons.) Be very careful not to cut through the cross supports.

• Score along the fold before bending it to create a handy hinge.

• Strengthen all key areas with sticky tape to make the rig more robust. (We don’t want it splitting in midair – another good reason not to use your DSLR for this project!).

• Place your camera centrally (you need to have it fairly well balanced) on the bottom of the rig and work out where the lens will go. Remove a circular piece of foam board for your lens to see through. Check that the hole is in the right place.

• Make a small hole in each of the corners at the top of the rig using the pen tip. Thread a piece of string (measuring about 1.5 x the width of the rig) through the holes and fasten each end tightly to the rig.

• Make four holes in the bottom of the rig – one in each of the corners.

• Thread a piece of string (measuring 2 x the width of the rig) through the set of holes nearest the fold and fasten each end tightly, so that the length of string hangs below the rig.

PhotocraftyNew quirky photography guide Photocrafty: 75 creative camera projects for you and your DSLR is perfect for travellers who want to come back home with creative and inspiring photos. Available for £14.95, Photocrafty is brought to you by the Punk Publishing team.