Photography

Photo of Salzburg, Austria for the Photography area of StephenWBrock.comWelcome to the Photography area of the Explorations section of the site. Here you’ll find new techniques I’m trying and sharing so you can try them too.

Be sure to get my free Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photographs to help you explore your worlds even better.

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How to take better sunset photographs

If you want to take better sunset photographs – and who doesn’t, particularly when you’re on a trip? – it helps to know a few tips. Here are ten lessons I’ve learned over the years on how to take better sunset photographs.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - San Gimignano sunset

Don’t make the sunset the star. Have other objects – buildings, trees, birds, people, etc. – be the main subject of the photo. Let the sunset be a nice background addition. Or even better, look behind you. Sometimes the best images at sunset aren’t of the sunset but what the sinking sun illuminates in its warm, glowing light and colors. Always ask yourself, “What story am I really trying to show?” or “What’s the real subject here?” or and then pursue that story or subject incorporating the sunset but not fixating on it.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Sunset MonteverdeFrame the sunset. Even when the sunset itself is the main attraction, use other elements – trees work particularly well – to frame your image. If you want to take better sunset photographs, concentrate on composition and lighting as much as on just that big orange ball that’s quickly sinking. The worst sunset images (and the most common) treat the sun like a target you’re centering in on with nothing else in the frame but the sun, the horizon and maybe some waves.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Sunset at ArchesAdd lens flare. This one is subjective. Some photographers see lens flare – those rainbow-like blocks or circles created by shooting directly into the sun – as a distraction or a mistake. For me, I like the added visual element…in moderation. To increase your chances of capturing lens flare, shoot toward the sun at a high F-stop (like F11 or higher if your camera allows aperture priority settings). Higher F-stops (and thus depth of field) can also make the sun’s rays more pronounced as in the above image.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - sunset and pierUse a tripod. This is critical if you want to make a better sunset photograph by the ocean and you want the waves smoothed out via a long exposure. You can also make images long after the sun has set when the light is often at its best.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Sunset and Fountain

Apply the rule of thirds. Don’t shoot with the sun in the center of the image and the horizon in the middle of the picture. That’s just boring (see point 2 above). Try to locate the sun either a third of the way up or down and a third of the way from one side. It’s more visually dynamic and interesting. One of the best ways to understand this is to go online and look at how others have taken sunset photographs. You’ll quickly see that the most compelling shots are not symmetrical images of the sun alone.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Sunset and grassKnow your camera and filters. Learn how to bracket your shots meaning, for example, you take one photo at the correct exposure, one a stop overexposed and a third a stop underexposed. Then, on your computer, use software to merge the three so that your foreground subject isn’t too dark you’re your sky isn’t too light. Many cameras today even allow you to do this by making an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image in the camera itself. Or go old school: Use a graduated neutral density filter on your lens that darkens the sky without making your foreground too shadowy.

 

The light at the end of the day: Post sunset

In many ways, this image is too underexposed and dark. But it is still more interesting than if it had been too light.

Underexpose. If none of the previous point made any sense to you, don’t worry. Just try and make your sunset shots darker than normal. They tend to “read” better and our eyes accept a sunset image where the sun isn’t too bright and the surrounding scene is darker than usual in a photograph.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - rock climbing at sunsetPlan ahead. You usually only have about 30 minutes of great light during and after the sunset. You can get apps for your phone that tell you exactly when sunrise and sunsets occur wherever you are. Use them to be there and be set up knowing the scene you want to capture before you miss your moment. You want to be set before the sun does.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Piazza after sunset

This technically isn’t a sunset photograph…but it is. Note the luscious light right after sunset.

Wait. Similarly, once you are there, don’t be in a rush to leave. As noted, the best light usually occurs after the sun has set. Wait for it. You may not have the actual sun in your photo, but you’ll have a better photo.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Purple cloudsFollow the clouds. This is probably the most important tip of all: sunsets are pretty boring without clouds. Some of the best sunset photographs occur right after a storm or on really cloudy days. Clouds are the secret to making better sunset photographs.

That’s a start. How about you? What’s your secret to taking better sunset photographs?

This ends my three-part series on sunsets. The other two are The Light at the End of the Day and Why Sunsets Move Us.

 

10 reasons why paying attention matters

The value of paying attention

Not far from my house sits a field. A small trail runs through it. I rarely see anyone on it because the trail, like the field, is both ordinary and out of the way. The other day, as my wife and I walked our dog through this field, I was struck by the beauty there, suddenly aware of the stunning flowers that I rarely notice. It made me wonder.

Why do I let the world around me fade into a blur of familiarity and under-appreciation? Usually it is because I’m too busy, preoccupied  or simply apathetic. I let the cares of life blind me to the joys of it. But on this day I decided not to miss out on the little details that add so much to life.

What follows are 10 reasons why paying attention matters. Not in some abstract, philosophical way, but to you and me personally. I’m accompanying each reason with a photo I made in that field, a reminder to all of us of the beauty that lies around us if we but take time to notice.

Paying attention - Foxglove

 1. Paying attention adds value to others.

It used to be that money was our most valuable commodity. Then it became time. Now? It’s our attention. We give it so rarely to others. But when we pay attention to people, it shows we value them. Not for their words or the cleverness of their comments, but for who they are.

 

Paying attention - Oregon Grape

 2. Paying attention adds value to you.

A client told me that he reminds his sales people all the time to, “Be more interested than you are interesting.” In other words, pay attention and listen to your customer rather than showing how fascinating you are. For when you do, they notice and appreciate it. Best of all, you learn so much more when you listen than when you talk. And that makes you wiser.

 

Paying attention

3. Paying attention enhances your creativity.

Last time we looked at how creativity is this combination of collecting, connecting and sharing. Simply put, the more you notice, the more you collect. You gather a greater amount of raw material for creative ideas. And the more you collect, the more you’re able to make connections that others don’t. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings compares collecting and connecting to working with LEGOs: “The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become.” Read her insightful piece on this here.

 

Paying attention - Red Hot Poker

4. Paying attention provides focus.

Rather than filling your mind with needless worries, pay attention to your surroundings. Concentrate on useful matters and sharpen your observation skills. Even if your looking around produces no aha discoveries this time, you’ve built your capacity to focus and observe for the next time.

 

Why paying attention matters: California Poppy

 5. Paying attention gives you purpose.

When you go out into the world noticing, every trip becomes an adventure. Even a neighborhood walk can become a treasure hunt for what is new, interesting or useful. You’re never bored when you’re open and looking.

 

Paying attention: Dandelion

6. Paying attention fosters gratitude.

Probably the most important aspect of paying attention is that we value what we notice. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies to virtually all the important things in life that we simply cease to appreciate. I guarantee that if you begin to give your full attention to even the most common object or familiar person and seek to see it or them as for the first time, you can’t help but appreciate them more.

 

Paying attention to wonder: Poppy stem7. Paying attention reveals wonder.

We plan expensive trips to pursue novelty and wonder without realizing that wonder is all around us. Paying attention makes us aware of the mysteries of people, places and things that, if displayed in a museum would likely awe us. But familiarity reduces wonder to the level of “so what?” The photo above may not be wonder to you, but I’d never realized before that poppies leave this little ring or cup on the stem after the petals have fallen. It may not rival the aurora borealis, but wonder comes in all shapes and sizes.

 

Paying attention - coreopsis

8. Paying attention encourages curiosity.

I didn’t care about any of these flowers’ names until I made photos of them. Now, I want to know more about them. I also want to understand why the flower above has water drops on its petals whereas no other flowers around it are wet. The more curious you are, the more you will likely see and the more you see, the more connections you will make.

 

Paying attention - Primrose

9. Paying attention expands your perspective.

When you pay attention, you see a different side of things. You make unlikely connections you didn’t before. For example, in the photo above, I never before realized how the petals look exactly like crumpled paper or fabric. It makes me want to try out some new art projects based on this in materials I’ve barely worked with before. In short, paying attention broadens your possibilities.

 

Paying attention - Daisy with bugs

10. Paying attention reminds us that little things matter.

I used to think that with all the big issues going on in the world, why bother paying attention to the small things? But if I can pull away from the distractions that hammer me, I come to realize that the small things ARE the big things. The taste of a favorite food. The smell of fresh coffee. The touch of a loved one’s hand or the sound of their voice. Another sunrise. Another breath. Paying attention helps us value the small moments and realize that they matter far more than we normally realize.

 

How to use textures in Photoshop for better photos

Istanbul - Texture 3

A photo from a trip to Istanbul becomes something completely different when you add textures.

Learning how to use textures in Photoshop has been one of the best ways I’ve found to add interest to some otherwise so-so images. In particular, applying textures in Photoshop to travel photos can add depth and meaning to your trip images. How? Because you’re able to add associations to the image that may convey more of how you felt when you captured the image than the photo itself reflects.  Or, you might add new meanings – associations with nostalgia or historical references or simply create something of great beauty.

So what do I mean by “textures?” Textures are essentially the same thing as many of the filters you’ll find on Instagram and other photo apps. These filters or textures change the nature of the photo by blending in a secondary image, usually one of some texture. Common examples for texture backgrounds are photos of old parchment, painted surfaces, weathered wood…anything that adds visual interest.

In future posts, I’ll explain how different textures can create different emotional effects. For now, however, let’s jump in and learn some basics so you can try this for yourself.

Knowing how to use textures in Photoshop starts with knowing Photoshop

You can do this in Photoshop Elements or any program that provides you with the ability to blend layers. I’m using Photoshop CS5 for this example, but any version should work.

I’m going to assume you know at least the basics of Photoshop. However, I will try and explain the process step-by-step since there are some important tips I’ve found to make it work well and fast even if you’re just a Photoshop novice.

Istanbul - Hagia Sophia

Istanbul – Hagia Sophia: This is the original image with no texture.

 

Textured border photo

This is the texture image we’ll be blending into the photo above

The concept is simple: Open both images in Photoshop, move the texture onto the original photo (in this case, the image of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul), then select one of the blend modes (more on that in a moment).

How to get started with using textures in Photoshop

You need to start with a textured background. You likely don’t have one just lying around if you’ve never done this before. So where do you get a textured background? Try this highly technical maneuver: Google “free textures for photoshop.” Here’s a screenshot of the top results under Images:

How to use textures in Photoshop: List of texture images

How to use textures in Photoshop: List of texture images from a Google search

You likely won’t run out of choices. For my style of photography, I prefer ones with darker borders so they have sort of a built-in vignette. But the best way to learn is to try a half dozen different ones and see what works for you. And remember: You can actually use multiple textures for a single blended photo. Your file size gets pretty huge, but the results can be stunning.

The particular texture I used in this example came from here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hanne_exurban/4304057519/in/set-72157622112724335 or go here for H. Adam’s full range of textures.

Once you download your textured photo, you’ll need to open it and your original at the same time. Do this by using File > Open for each. Then, I select Window>Arrange>Tile to get both images on screen at the same time like this:

How to use textures in Photoshop: Floating tiles in Photoshop

 

Unfortunately, the images aren’t the same size. So do you rotate the texture image and hope it will fit? Resize each image? Crop the larger down? You might get those to work, but there’s an easier way.

Start by dragging the texture image onto the main photo. When you try that, you may get this message:

How to use textures in Photoshop: Depth difference message

It means that my original photo was taken as a 16-bit image but the texture is only an 8-bit image. You don’t need to know about bits to get around this. Just go to Image>Mode>16 Bits/Channel and check that (assuming your texture image was only 8-bits and your main image was 16. In one case, I had the reverse situation, but the process is essentially the same). If you’re lucky, both images will be the same depth and you will never see this message.

Once you drag the texture image over on top of the original (and you always want to make sure the original image is the background or base image NOT the other way around or this won’t work as well), you should see something like this:

How to use textures in Photoshop: Moving texture image onto background image

If you have trouble doing this, be sure you’ve got the move button highlighted (it’s the top button on the left side menu on my screen) AND you’re holding your mouse down as you drag and drop the texture onto the main image. When you do, you’ll see you now have a new layer on top of your background image layer.

At this point, I either close the texture image that is now floating all alone over there to the top right or just maximize the original image so as not to be distracted by the texture file if I want to use this texture for another photo after this one.

Back to the size difference, here’s the easiest way I’ve found and it works great. Just do this: click on Edit>Free Transform. You’ll see the little “handles” appear the textured image. Just drag each side until each aligns and covers the main background image. In the screenshot below, I’ve dragged the bottom left corner into place and am in the process of dragging the top right to cover the background image. When done and it covers, select the check mark at the top of the screen to confirm.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Free Transform

 And now it gets interesting…

All the hard work is now done! Now it’s time for some fun. It’s the closest you’ll come to magic without a wand and white rabbit…

All you do now is experiment with the blend modes. If you’ve never used them before, they are located over above your layers with the default “Normal” mode showing. Click on the the little drop down arrow next to “Normal” making sure your Layer 1 (the textured image) is highlighted. You can rename it if you want with something completely original like “Texture 1.” This really only matters when you have multiple texture files in place and you need to differentiate between them at a glance.

My “go-to” choice is Overlay. It works probably 70% of the time. But not in this case, I don’t think:

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Overlay blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Overlay blend mode

It’s just not very interesting as is. But check this one out when I use “Multiply:”

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Multiply blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Multiply blend mode

Much more interesting. I won’t show you all the variations here, but try each of the blending modes out and see what works.

A few last pointers:

  1. Use the Opacity and Fill sliders (to the right of the blend mode drop down) and adjust those. Normally, I find just changing the Opacity is enough. And sometimes, what looks horrible at 100% can look spectacular when dialed down to say, 45%. So be sure to play with those extensively.
  2. You may have to make other adjustments to fine tune your blended image. In particular, I usually have to play with the Color Balance adjustment (it’s the one with the hanging scales as an icon directly above the blend mode area) if the textured image has a color cast like this one does. In this image, I like the yellow cast because it looks like old parchment, but often you’ll want to adjust that and perhaps your saturation, levels or curves as well.
  3. You may want to crop the final image. I like the crop on the original, but the heavy black in the Multiply version above is too much but if I try to lower the black by lowering the Opacity, it turns light gray and that looks funky. So instead, I’d likely crop out the main part of the border above so it isn’t so heavy. But that’s just me.

That’s it. When you’re done, save the new file as a TIFF, PSD or JPEG (if you don’t plan on working on it any more and want a smaller file).

My final word of advice: You only appreciate the power of textures by trying them and experimenting…a lot. I do find this general rule of thumb, however. My best images don’t always work well for textures. In fact, textures take away fine details. Instead, the best images to use with textures, to me, are ones with blah looking skies or open areas where the texture adds that…texture…to an otherwise bland background. But try a bunch of different types of photos and see.

Examples of how to use textures in Photoshop

Just for fun, here are some of the variations I tried using just the above two images and different settings. You begin to see the possibilities of using textures in Photoshop…

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Overlay blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Overlay blend mode

In the image above, I did go back and use Overlay, but I lowered the Opacity to 90%, adjusted the saturation down and also cropped off the blue sides to make it cleaner.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Linear Burn blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Linear Burn blend mode

The one above uses the Linear Burn blend mode with Opacity at 96% and Fill at 83%. I also adjusted Saturation, Color Balance, Curves, Levels and even Vibrance. I probably didn’t need to do all those, but I was just playing…and that’s how we learn.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Multiply blend mode and Hue adjustments

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Multiply blend mode and Hue adjustments

I love the purple color of this one. It feels like a storybook image. This was done on Multiply with Fill at 90% but I lowered the Saturation and adjusted the Hue to get the purple tint.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Multiply blend mode and color adjustments

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Multiply blend mode and color adjustments

Here I used Multiply, kept Opacity at 100% but lowered Fill to 90% and did some adjustments to Color Balance, Levels and Curves.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Difference blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Difference blend mode

In the above, all I did was use the Difference blend mode and changed the Fill amount down to 77%. It reminds me of an illustration or something. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the colors, but I like it a lot. I especially appreciate how it looks like a dreamy illustration except for the cars near the bottom. Interesting juxtaposition.

So there you have it. How to use textures in Photoshop to create several very different feeling images all from the same two photographs blended together in different ways.

Have fun with this and remember to try all kinds of combinations. You never know what will happen…

Also, if you want another take on the process and see what it looks like using textures on people shots, take a look here.