When shooting outdoor photography, there are many factors you must consider in order to capture powerful images.
If these factors aren’t considered, you may end up with washed out images or even an aching back.
In this episode of AskBC, we interview Kevin O’Connor on what it takes to photograph the Sun, Moon, and Earth.
How should you change your approach as a photographer when shooting photography in sunlight? What’s it take to get a great photo of the moon? And what are the must-have (and must-leave-behind) pieces of equipment for shooting landscapes on the fly?
Listen in to learn how to photograph the Sun, Moon, and Earth
Note: These timecodes show how much time in the episode is left, which is how our audio player (above) displays time.
–28:05: How the brightness and location of the sun can change how you approach an outdoor shoot
–23:46: How to optimize your shooting for photography in sunlight
–20:25: Tips for photographing the moon
–16:56: Some tools that are important to photograph the moon
–13:42: How to pack for a landscape shoot and some of the most efficient tools to bring
–09:00: Specific brands of camera bags that Kevin recommends
–06:47: Shooting with camera filters – different types of filters to use
- This episode featured questions from Ryan, Kari, and Kylie.
- Check out Kevin’s post on How to Photograph Fireworks.
- The Color Bible: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.
- Love the show? Have some feedback for us? Leave us a review on iTunes.
Prefer to read over listen? Want to save this conversation for reference later? We transcribe all of our shows for these reasons! Download this episode’s transcription below:
Or, to view a web version of the transcript:
Announcer 1: You are listening to the AskBC podcast – your printmaking questions, answered by the experts!
Justin: On today’s show, I’ll be joined by photographer Kevin O’Connor. Our theme is sun, moon, and the earth.[Music Ends]
Justin: Hey, everybody. This is your host Justin. Welcome to another episode of the AskBC podcast. Have you ever tried taking a picture of the moon with your cell phone? It never quite turns out like anything you’re seeing with your eyes, right? What does it take to get a great photo of the moon? Kevin O’Connor is a professional photographer, and a frequent contributor to the Breathing Color Blog. Today, he’s going to be sharing his knowledge on photographing the moon, working with the sun during outdoor shoots, and some general tips on landscape photography.
These questions today probably came in from people that saw Kevin’s posts on our blog called “How to Photograph Fireworks.” I’m sure we’ll be releasing this post this year for the 4th of July, since it seemed to be really helpful for a lot of people. You can find it anytime on the blog by searching the keyword fireworks in the search bar at the top of the page. Fireworks definitely work in the same way, at least for me, as the moon does. I always try to use my cell phone to capture them and usually get pretty terrible results. It can be frustrating, but also think it can be kind of comforting, at least in our industry, that even with cell phone cameras in everyone’s hands, there still seem to be plenty of images in different subjects that only a really talented and knowledgeable photographer with the right equipment can capture.
Kevin is also the author what we call the Color Bible, which is basically a massive, three part examination of every component of a professional color workflow, starting at dialing in your display, to capturing the way the color, the way you want it to through your camera, all the way down to printing it out perfectly. I’ll go ahead and put a link to those posts in the show notes of this episode as well, just in case you want to check that out. Beware, it is a little intimidating, though, because it’s so long and in depth. I would definitely suggest using the yellow buttons placed throughout the posts, so that you can download all three parts as a PDF and kind of work your way through it at your own pace, which will probably be over a few days, I would imagine.
Anyway, the point is, Kevin is a great guy. He’s super knowledgeable, and I’m definitely excited to hear what he has to say today. Without further ado, let’s go ahead and jump right into my conversation with Kevin.
Hey, Kevin. Thank you so much for calling in for the show today. It’s great to have you back on to the podcast. It’s been a while. I know a lot of our listeners are big fans of your written posts on the Breathing Color Blog. Welcome, and thank you again. How are you doing?
Kevin: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I think we’re going to have fun discussing our topics today.
Justin: We are. On that note, let’s go ahead and jump right into the first question.
This one actually comes from a gentleman named Ryan. Ryan is asking, “How does the brightness and location of the sun change how you approach an outdoor shoot?” He asks, “Is it ever beneficial to shoot directly into the sun?”
Kevin: I think that that’s a pretty broad question in some ways, so let’s start with the really specific answer, that if you shoot directly into the sun and you’re not being really careful, you can damage your eyes and even cause blindness. We want to be absolutely certain when we’re composing a shot that has the sun in it, that we’re being absolutely cautious of that, how we focus, and trying to avoid looking at the sun through the lens. Obviously, you have to do this a little bit to do the composition, but there’s a great danger here that we want to avoid, because, as your mother always told you, you only get one pair of eyes, young man. You need to take care of them.
Justin: The sun is pretty bright, so yeah.
Kevin: Focusing that brightness through a lens would make it even worse. Of course, the longer the lens, the bigger the problem. I tend not to shoot a lot in the middle of the day, because I don’t think the light is very attractive for many things that I would be shooting. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable. For example, a client hired me recently to do a series of panoramic shots in a full 360 spin for their project. Of course, you’ve got the sunlight in the middle of the day, and that’s when it had to be shot. Then it becomes a question of, “what do you do about it?”
My general advice is, if possible, when you’re going to be shooting at a time when you have a lot of sunlight, you want to scout the location ahead of time, if you possibly can. It’s always important to know what you’re walking into when you don’t have control over the light. The second point that I would make, that goes along with that, is that sometimes, especially in the middle of the day, the dynamic range that your camera can capture, whether you’re shooting film or you’re shooting a digital camera, may not be as much as what your eyes can see and make out in detail. When that happens, one of two things should be done to optimize your shooting. I’m going to talk about digital here, because film is a different discussion for another time.
On my digital cameras, there are options to invoke a high dynamic range management tool automatically. For example, my Nikon D800, I can tell it that I want it to do a little bit of dynamic range compression, or a lot, or the maximum. It’s nice to have those scaled steps in the middle, there. When I do that, the camera manages a certain amount of the detail captures, so that when I open the files later on, in Lightroom or in Adobe Bridge, I can pull out the detail in the shadows, having made sure as I made the exposure, that I exposed to capture detail in the highlights. Very often, if you pull out the detail in the highlights, you don’t have any way of pulling it back, even in a raw capture. However, if you pull out the detail in the shadows and you held detail in the highlights, you’ve done a really good job at that point of getting all the detail that your eyes saw.
This works well with all cameras, although different chips and different price points for different cameras are going to cause you to end up with different results at certain times, because all cameras are different, and all chip capabilities are different. This is one where you need to be doing some testing ahead of an important shoot, so you can make sure that you know what your camera is capable of. My best recommendation for this is to go somewhere where you have a lot of dark shadow and you have a lot of really, really bright light, and with the two of them together in the same scene, shoot a series of images, bracketing the exposure, to find out what works best with your meter, your camera, and your particular lens.
Justin: When you are shooting directly into the sun, how do you optimize the shooting for the best possible result?
Kevin: I think that’s a really good question, because we’re all going to be shooting into the sun at some point. If we’re shooting a sunset, obviously, this is one where many of us are doing that fairly frequently. The first part of that is to make absolutely certain that your lens in perfectly clean. Any bit of smudging or fingerprints, or dust on the lens, is going to degrade the image quality. You’re already challenging the lens a great deal by doing that.
The second thing that I think is very helpful is that when you have the option, shooting with a prime lens often results in a slightly better image than shooting with a zoom lens, simply because there are usually fewer elements in a prime lens to capture interior reflections in the lens. A lot of times, if I know that I’m going to be shooting, for example, at roughly 100mm, I will have my 105 micro Nikon lens with me, so that I can shoot with that, instead of shooting with maybe the 200 zoom. I’ll get the same crop, but I will get a better image from the prime lens than the zoom.
Justin: That’s a good point.
Kevin: They’re both good lenses, but it’s important to make that work as well as possible, especially if you’re not enlarging this for the wall.
Justin: It’s back to that pre-planning point, right? Knowing what you’re going to need to shoot exactly, and from how far.
Kevin: Well, I am a lazy man. I only want to do it once. I’m going to go out and scout it and make sure I’m as prepared as possible, so that I can do it as well as possible.
Some other tips to go along with that are that I’m always using cable release when I’m shooting things that allow me to use a tripod, simply because I think it’s important for image sharpness. Studies show that even when you set your camera to a very fast shutter speed, all things being equal, using a shutter release of some kind rather than pushing the button directly, is going to result in a sharper image.
Other things that come to mind are, a good lens hood is essential. If you are shooting in sunlight, but you are not shooting directly into the sun, if you want to minimize the light from the sun striking the front element of the glass. Because I have a bald head, I wear a big hat when I’m out shooting. That big hat is very handy to hold over the lens, to help shield the light hitting it as well. The combination of a good lens hood and a good hat, not tools that you would necessarily think of first for your tool kit, but really essential ones for optimizing the quality for your shoot.
Justin: Big hat. That’s a good tip. Anything else?
Kevin: I think that’s a pretty good start to the question.
Justin: I agree.
Kevin: If our listeners have any more, feel free to post them when you listen to the podcast. We’ll pick them up in a follow-on in another podcast later on.
Justin: Yeah, that’d be awesome. All right, let’s go ahead and jump into the next question. Kari is asking, “Do you have any good tips on photographing the moon? How do you photograph the moon?”
Kevin: Usually the answer is, very carefully.
Justin: Right. That makes sense.
Kevin: It’s funny that this question would come up right now, because I’m planning to shoot the moon in the bay area shortly, where I’ll go up to an area called the Marin Headlands, which is above the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m going to shoot the full moon, shooting back at San Francisco, so that the moon will be rising over the city, through the cables of the bridge, and then over the bridge.
Justin: Nice. Sounds beautiful.
Kevin: This is a shot that is not unique. Many people have done it, but it is interesting to think about what our options are now and what they were when we were shooting film. In the old days, when you did a shoot like this, you would have to expose the piece of film twice. The first time, you shot the moon itself, and you exposed it for a daylight shutter speed and aperture.
By that, I mean there was an old rule that the way that you set your shutter speed on your camera for a particular speed of film was that you made your shutter speed 1 over the speed of the film, as it was rated. If I were shooting in Kodachrome, for example, I would have made my shutter speed 1/60th of a second, to match the ISO 64 rating. I’d have 16. The reason for that is that the sun is illuminating the moon, as if it were daylight. To expose correctly for the moon, you have to shoot as if you were in the middle of broad day and broad sunlight. Of course, the rest of your scene doesn’t have that at all. What it has is night light.
In the old days, we ran the film through twice, being very careful to mark it with a sharpie so we knew where it started on the rollers in our cameras. We shot once for the moon, and then we ran it back for the shot again with the broader landscape. We used different lenses to combine those shots together. We shot only the moon in the first one, tighter up, so that it would only be on frame. Then the second time, we shot the city with a wider lens. This gave some really interesting effects, which you can now do digitally, either in the computer or in the camera.
One of the easiest ways to do this, is simply to take two shots each time. The first one is to expose the moon correctly, the second one is to expose for the cityscape or landscape in front of you. That’s what I’ll be doing when I shoot this in San Francisco. Then for fun, I may put on another lens and shoot the moon later, after it has risen a little higher so that it’s the only thing in the frame. That way, I have multiple options for compositing.
If you’re doing this bracketing, where you do two shots without moving the camera at all, one exposed for the scene and one exposed for the moon, it’s a very easy matter in Photoshop or Lightroom to composite those together.
Justin: You mentioned, obviously a tripod would be pretty handy in this case. Any other tools that you think would be important?
Kevin: I think it’s good to have a variety of lenses when you’re doing a shot like this, because you may find you want to do a spectacular effect, where you’re shooting with a long lens to capture the moon. There was an image published recently, in one of the photo magazines, that showed somebody doing a bridal portrait with an 800mm lens. He posed the bride and groom at the top of a hill, with the moon rising behind them. Because of this lens compressing the visual effect, the moon looked absolutely huge and dwarfed the two people who were doing their portrait. It made for a spectacular image. Now of course, not all of us have access to an 800mm lens, or even a 400mm with a teleconverter, but a longer than average lens is going to give you some really nice perspective effects. Of course, if you’re just trying to isolate the moon by itself, the longer your lens the better.
If we’re going to talk about tripods, we need to talk about cable releases as well, or other kinds of remote release. There is no point to a tripod if you’re not using a remote release.
Justin: Makes sense. Anything else, tool-wise, for the moon, or is that pretty much it?
Kevin: Same rules apply for any time that you have a bright light source in the frame. We talked about keeping things very clean or making them very clean when we’re shooting in sunlight. That’s also true for moonlight. A very clean lens is strongly recommended.
Justin: Yeah, good point. No big hats on this one, I presume?
Kevin: Probably not, but actually, now that you mention it, one of the things that’s very important is to dress in layers. I know from having done the same shot on the same location in the Marin Headlands before, that even in the middle of the summer, the winds can come up and suddenly you are freezing to death.
Justin: Some people might not think of that, good point.
Kevin: Strong recommendation for having a jacket with you. You can always take it off if you’re too warm, but if your teeth are chattering, it may cause vibration in your picture and degrade the sharpness.
Justin: I have one last question here. This one is a little bit longer. I’m going to jump into that one now. This one is from a listener named Kylie. She’s asking, this is kind of the earth portion of this interview, “What are some of the most efficient tools to bring with you on a landscape shoot, to feel prepared for various depths of field, exposures, weather, etc.?” She mentions that she’s a beginner photographer and that she always gets weighted down with too much stuff. She’s, I guess, kind of afraid that she won’t bring the right equipment. She’s wondering how to better set herself up for success. Sounds like she’s definitely probably not scouting the sites well enough, not planning out the shoot well enough; otherwise she wouldn’t need to bring such a large bag of equipment. What are your thoughts on something like that? How do you best prepare for these types of things?
Kevin: As I mentioned earlier, I am a very lazy person. I got this down to a science, because I really don’t want to carry anything anymore than I have to. I use a tripod that is as light as I can get away with, while still providing the stability that I need. In this case, I’m using a carbon fiber tripod, which is more expensive, but it pays for itself in terms of a less sprained back when I’m doing a long shoot. I strongly recommend getting a sturdy tripod, but also one that isn’t going to break your back when you’re hauling it around. Some people like to carry their tripods on a strap, either in a case or just attached directly to the tripod, so that they can sling it over their shoulders and carry it that way, instead of having to carry it in one or the other of their hands.
The second thing that I think is important to do for this, is to have a good camera bag, one that you unpack before a shoot and repack with only the things which you think you’re going to use.
Kevin: When I am doing that sort of a shoot, the bag gets emptied out. A lot of times it gets sponged out with a damp cloth or vacuumed out to make sure there isn’t any extra dust in it. Then the first thing that goes back into it is the lens brush and a lens cloth, to make sure that if my lens is going to need cleaning while I’m out, that I can do so right there. I also have a sensor cleaner, which is a very gentle little adhesive gel on a stick. It’s called a sensor gel stick. If I end up getting dust on my sensor while changing lenses out in the field, I can take it out right then and pull that little spot right off the sensor, without damaging it.
The third thing that goes into the bag is only the lenses that I expect to be using. Generally, when I’m out shooting like this, I will think about what I’m going to shoot and try and figure out, for each lens, if I don’t bring this, will I miss it? The answer more often than not is no, I’m not going to miss that, because it doesn’t meet my shooting needs for the particular thing I want to do. When I’m out in the field, I usually have an 80-200mm zoom lens. Sometimes I will bring a 200-500mm zoom, when I know that I need that level of close-up or that level of effect. I almost always have a micro lens with me, either 60mm or a 105 micro. Then I will have either the 17-35 zoom lens, or I will have the 24-120. One of those has a faster maximum aperture than the others, so it depends on the time of day and the lighting I expect to encounter.
I have a bunch of other lenses that I could bring, but there’s no point to carrying all of that along, unless you’re auditioning to be a pack mule, which many photographers find themselves doing much more often than they should.
The next thing that goes into the bag is a remote release for the camera. I make sure always to have extra cards with me, in case I find some stuff that I really had to shoot that I didn’t expect to shoot, so that I’m not running short of space. Finally, I always have a plastic garbage bag in my camera bag. Most often, I have two. If I get caught in the rain, I want to be able to cover both the bag, to protect the equipment as best I can, and sometimes, cover myself as well. I’m kind of holding the bag and making this makeshift poncho if I’m caught in the rain.
That’s where that big hat comes in again, because I’m always going to carry the big hat to protect from sunburn on my bald head, to protect in case of rain, and to protect against sunlight hitting the lens.
Justin: Right, good point. Any specific brand of bag that you recommend, or preference?
Kevin: I can tell you what I’m using currently. I found that the side bag that I had carried for a long time over one shoulder, slung bandolier-style onto the opposite, was getting too heavy. My neck was letting me know about it. I started looking for a backpack-style bag that was designed for photographers, but would, at the same time, have a sufficient amount of room so that my gear that I wanted to carry would fit in it, but also, if I were to go on a plane, that I could still carry it on to the plane.
The one that I’m currently using is a Tamrac, and it’s part of the Explorer series. I got the biggest one I could get that would still meet carry-on requirements. Then I discovered something very interesting. When you fly in the United States, and you have a carry-on bag like that, as long as it fits within the bag sizer at the airport, there’s usually no problem to carry it on the plane, in regards to your equipment.
However, when you travel in Europe, I found out the hard way that they weigh your bag. And of course, a fully loaded camera bag is going to be way over the limit that an economy seat is going to be allowed, in terms of weight in the bag. The other piece of equipment that I recommend to people fairly frequently, is some kind of jacket, where you can put some of those heavy pieces into the jacket, either a photographer-style vest, or there are actually a couple jackets designed now with modules that let you zip on these huge pockets as you need to, or you put a big zoom lens into one of those pockets and actually wear the jacket onto the plane.
Justin: Oh, awesome. That’s a good idea. Perfect. Any other thing you can recommend for a beginner, like Kylie, that we haven’t already talked about? You covered it pretty well.
Kevin: I think that Kylie would probably benefit from investing in a couple of filters. I always carry a polarizing filter with me. There are a whole series of other filters that might be of interest to her. Some of them are very inexpensive, and some of them cost a great deal of money. One of the things to know about these tools, is that a lot of times it’s either easier to shoot it, rather than to try to put it in digitally later on. Sometimes it’s actually impossible to successfully put something in later, so you’ve got to shoot it in camera. While there is a plug-in, the Google Nik plug-ins include an option for the polarizing effect, and it works reasonably well, I’ve found that I almost always prefer to shoot it in the camera with a good polarizing filter first.
There are other filters that are worth investigating. If you like putting starburst effects into reflections, for example, that almost always works better being shot in camera. As long as you promise not to do it too much, Kylie. There’s a rule that says just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Justin: That’s a great rule.
Kevin: Yes, this applies both in shooting and in Photoshop and Lightroom.
The next thing that I think it worth looking at down the road, there are some filters from a company called Singh-Ray, s-i-n-g-h, and they make some really interesting filters for intensifying color, be it the full spectrum or just parts of it. They are very expensive filters, but they’re worth checking out if you find that you’re, for example, selling landscapes on a regular basis. These will enhance your work and help you set it apart.
Finally, the last filter that I would add in that is a really good thing to have, is a neutral density filter. People use these to photograph, for example, moving water, so that they can make the water blur while everything else is sharp, running at a very slow shutter speed, but allowing people to capture the light in a perfect exposure.
Justin: Fantastic. Anything else?
Kevin: I’m thinking that sometimes there are people who do not want to carry a tripod, but they’re going to be out shooting in areas where they’re going to be hiking anyway. There are a couple of walking sticks that have been designed so that the top comes off and you spread it, so that you can put a camera on it. Sometimes, I’ll carry one of those along when I’m walking and use it as a substitute for a tripod.
Justin: That sounds pretty awesome.
Kevin: It’s a really useful tool sometimes. To further stabilize it, I have carried along, from time to time, the short end of a mostly used roll of duct tape. When I do that, I tape the walking stick up against something, something preferably that doesn’t damage it, and when I do that, I’ve got basically a makeshift tripod in the field, because I didn’t carry a real tripod with me.
Justin: That’s a handy tip. That’s a little MacGyver-esque.
Kevin: A little bit, but it’s a very useful one. Mine came from LL Bean, and I really like it. The one that I bought was made of aluminum. They’ve since replaced it with one that’s made out of carbon fiber that’s even lighter.
Kevin: Strongly recommend it be considered.
Justin: Yeah, that sounds like a pretty cool tool, pretty useful tool. Well, it sounds like we’ve given Kylie a pretty good list of things to consider the next time she goes out, hopefully to pack a little bit lighter. That was actually the last question I have in this sun, moon, and earth series that we’re covering today.
I want to just thank you again for taking the time to join us. Always appreciate having you on the show. You clearly have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to photography, color management, and other things like that. Thanks again. If our listeners want to find out more about you, where should they go?
Kevin: Unfortunately, at the moment the best way to find out more about me is to simply do a web search that looks for Kevin O’Connor and color management. They’ll find articles that I’ve posted and a whole series of blog posts on Breathing Color’s Blog, and a magazine called Out of Chaos, which is distributed free through the iTunes and Android stores. The latest issue just published last week. Lots of things that are out there. What you’re really hinting at is that I should have a website. You know, one of these days, if I ever have time, I will.
Justin: I’ve heard that line a few times now.
Kevin: Yes, indeed.
Justin: Getting there, right?
Kevin: It’s no less true. Yes, little by little.
Justin: Awesome. You’ve got a ton of in-depth articles on the Breathing Color Blog, so I definitely recommend people check those out. Like I said, thanks again for joining us. Can’t say thank you enough. We look forward to having you on again in a future episode. I hope you have a great rest of the day and a great weekend.
Kevin: You as well. Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Justin: All right, there it was. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Kevin O’Connor today. If you’d like to hear more from Kevin, he’s going to be returning to the AskBC podcast soon. He’ll also be sharing more of his knowledge over on the Breathing Color Blog in the coming weeks and months. The best way to stay up to date is to head to breathingcolor.com/blog right now, and click About in the header. That page will give you the opportunity to opt into our blog mailing list, and join over 20,000 subscribers that are receiving updates whenever we release new content.
Thanks for listening today, and a huge thanks to Grant Taylor, Kim, and George, Area Array, and Lightscapes, for recently rating and reviewing our show on iTunes. That’s a huge help for us, and it gives us a boost in exposure in the iTunes store. If you haven’t reviewed yet, just head over to iTunes, do a quick search for the AskBC podcast, and then click “Write a Review.” As always, if you want to hear your print-making questions featured on the show, just head to ask-bc.com and fill out the question form there. It can be about photography, printing fine art, using software like Photoshop and Lightroom, anything to do with the process of creating and printing art.
That’s all I got for you today. We’ll see you next time!
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