Taking photos

I take at least 95% of my photos with a tripod. Over time I just got so used to be able to use any exposure I need, just by having one. The resulting photos are so much better, and since I’m also forced to set up the tripod, I tend to get better composition in the end. But there are of course instances where this is not possible. There are more and more places where one can no longer use a tripod. Or you don’t have one available. Maybe it’s because the airline lost your luggage (like happened to me) or something similar.

So how does one get a nice photo in those occasions, where you just have to shoot handheld. Today I will share with you few tips for that. Also, if you have a steel grip, and you can hold a few second shot handheld without problems, this is not for you :)

Taking photos without a tripod

  • Place the camera on something – If you can, put your camera on something, a bench, wall, pillar, anything with a flat top. Then push your camera down so it stays firmly in place when you are taking the photo.
  • Brace yourself against something – If you can not place the camera on anything, try bracing yourself against something. Lean on a railing, pillar, sit on a bench, on the floor. The less your body is moving, the more stable will you be able to hold the camera.
  • Hold your camera close to your body – Your body is always moving, holding the camera away form the body will transfer much more movement to it. Hold it close to you, so minimizing this movements.
  • Use a timer – Pressing the shutter button will move your camera. Even on a tripod this can cause movement. Set your camera to a two second timer, so it takes the shot automatically. The less movement the better.
  • Underexpose your photo – If you shoot in a RAW format, you can easily underexpose all you photos by 1 to 3 stops (depending on your camera) and still get a good photo. You just overexpose it later in post-processing. Each stop down splits in half the time needed to take the photo, so one stop down is 1/2 the time, two stops is 1/4 of the time needed and 3 stops is 1/8 of the time needed. So for instance, if you need a 1s exposure taken handheld, just by underexposing by 3 stops, you shorten this to 1/8th of a second.
  • Set minimum exposure time – On some cameras you can set up the ISO speed settings. This is an option where you can set the longest exposure time the camera uses in automatic modes. So if you see that you just can’t hold a 1/25s or 1/50s steady enough, you can set you camera to always use a shutter speed shorter than 1/125 or 1/250 and similar. You of course limit this by the max ISO you set in the camera. If you set this up, you can be sure that you camera stays in faster shutter speeds, so you have better chance of sharp photos.
  • Take multiple shots with the same settings – Don’t take just one photo, take multiple photos with the same settings. You can put your camera into burst mode, and just hold the shutter down. If you take multiple photos, there is a bigger chance one of them will be good. If you take only one, you just have to be lucky.
  • Forget about bracketing – Bracketing exposures in pointless when shooting handheld anyway. I know photographers that do it, but I personally never been able to get a really good result by doing so. Even in very bright situations. The shots never align anyway. Rather, take multiple same exposures, or underexpose the shot. By using RAW you will get enough information most of the time anyway.

This one is one of the very few photos I took without a tripod. Here I pout the camera on wall, and hold it down to keep steady.

Taking photos without a tripod

Luminosity selections and masks

Last week, I shared with you, what are luminosity selections and masks, and how to create them in Photoshop. Today, I will show you, how to use them when you are editing photos. There will be another post about this topic, where I will show you how to use them to blend images.

But before you get into today’s guide, I suggest checking out this post on understanding masks in Photoshop here, and the post explaining luminosity selections and masks here.

Editing photos using luminosity selections

Let’s start with a photo in the state we left in the last post. Go into the channels window, and create the Bright 1, Bright 2, Bright 3 and Dark 1, Dark 2 and Dark 3 channels. Each time from now on, when we need to select a certain one, just go back to selections and Ctrl+click on the one you want to select.

There are two ways we can approach editing from here on. Either we want to effect the whole selection, or just paint in a part of it, exactly where we need it. The process is a bit different for both of these, so let’s look at them now.

Global edits on whole selection

When you want to effect the whole selections, the two steps you have to do are:

  • Select the luminosity selection you want to use – Go into the channels window, and Ctrl+click on the selection you want to use. Go back to the layers window afterwards
  • Add the edit you want to use – Create new fill or adjustment layer, by using the button (circle icon, half white, half black) in the bottom right. You can use any adjustment you need. The selection will be automatically added a layer mask to the new layer and you can then edit your adjustment.

Let’s look at an example to understand this. For this photo, I want to brighten the shadow areas and I want to darken the highlights. Let’s start with the shadows.

  1. Go into the channels, and select a Dark selection. The more restrictive selection you choose, the less efect your edit will have. So if you go to Dark 3, or even 4,5 and higher, you effect only the very dark areas in the photo. For this example, let’s choose Dark 2. Ctrl+click on the channel with that selection
  2. Go into layers and add a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer (one can use also other adjustments, like curves or levels to get the same effect). A new layer will be created with the mask applied to it.
  3. Now in the properties of that layer, adjust brightness to make the shadow areas brighter. You will see, that the bright areas of the photo are not effected at all and only the shadows are brightened.

Going to the second edit, darkening the highlights, just do the same, just change the selection and the adjustment. For instance, select a Bright 2 selection, create a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer and lower the brightness. And you have darkened the highlights of the photo.

Don’t limit yourself to just darkening and brightening a certain area. You can use this to change the color balance, saturation, detail, white balance and much more. Just use the adjustment layer you need. Also, one note about changing the brightness. Each time you brighten a dark area or darken a bright area, you photo looses contrast. A good practice is then, that every time you do this, to add a bit of contrast to the same area. If you use Brightness/contrast, add a bit of contrast, in levels, move the mid-tones a bit, in curves, create a S curve. Like this, your edits will look natural and photos will not become grey and flat.

Local edits by painting in the effect

If you don’t want to use the whole selection, the process is a bit different. The steps you have to follow then are:

  • Create an adjustment layer – In the layers window, create the adjustment layer you need, and set it to parameters you need. It will effect the whole image, but that is OK for now.
  • Add a black mask to it – We need to hide this layer for now. So click on the white mask next to this layer, and press Ctrl+I to invert it to a black mask
  • Make a luminosity selection in the Channels window – as before Ctrl+click on the Bright or Dark channel that closely matches the part of the image you want to edit. This will create a selection for you.
  • Paint in the edit – now go back to the layers window, choose the Brush tool, white, 0% hardness. Select the black mask you inverted before and start painting in the areas you want the edit to have effect. If the marching ants of the selection are distracting or in the way, you can hide them by pressing Ctrl+H. The selection will limit where you can paint, so you will only effect the area you need to.

Let’s go back to our example. Let’s say I still want to brighten the shadows, but not everywhere. I want to just brighten them around the buildings in the middle of the photo. I will use levels in this example

  1. create and edit a new adjustment layer – With the button in the bottom right of the layers window, create a new levels adjustment layer. Brighten the photo by moving the white triangle to the left
  2. invert the mask – Select it’s mask, and press Ctrl+I to invert it. Now the adjustment layer will have no effect on the image
  3. create your selection – Go into channels and let’s select the Dark 2 one by Ctrl+click on it
  4. paint in the effect – go back to the mask, hide the selection with Ctrl+H, and with the white brush start painting around the are you want to brighter. The more times you paint over a spot, the stronger effect the adjustment will have on it. But it’s all limited by the selection, so for instance the bright castle in the middle will not be effected at all.

If you ever add to much, just switch your brush to black color, and paint over the same spot. By switching back and forth between white and black, you can add or remove the effect until you are satisfied with your result. If you see that you selection is too narrow or broad, delete the layer and start again. Don’t forget you can use this with any other adjustment. You can paint in saturation, detail, colors, brightness, contrast and anything else you can put on a layer.

That’s all for today, next time I will share with you how to use these same selection to blend multiple exposures together.

Deleting photos

Is it just me, or do you also find it hard to delete photos? If I look at my Lightroom Catalog, it currently shows 281 809 photos. That’s probably most if not all the photos I took from 2008 until now. And I think I could delete half of them, without even loosing anything. But I find it always hard to delete them. It’s these feeling of loos, getting rid of something I made. But there is a thing I noticed looking at my library. The longer I take photos, the less of them I take. And today I will share with you my thoughts on this, and how you can prevent taking too many photos.

Keeping fewer photos

  • Don’t take photos you know you will not like. Sometimes the camera can just stay in the bag. Once you taken enough photos, you just know. Happens to me sometime. I look at the scene, look at the conditions, and just don’t bother. I know I will not like the results anyway. And trying to force it usually does not result in great photos also.
  • Don’t take many versions of the same composition. I have a bit of problem with this one sometime, and should try more to fix this. One does not need the same photo over and over. Take one or few, if you want to be sure to have a good one, and move on to a new composition. Like this you maximize you chance to get a great photo. I would make an exception here, for sunrise and sunset photos. The conditions change so quickly then, that even staying with the same composition can produce different results.
  • Limit the number of brackets. I tend to say, better safe then sorry, but one can also overdo it. You don’t need 9, you don’t need 7, mostly you don’t even need 5 brackets. If you are not shooting into the sun, 3 brackets is mostly enough. Try a sequence and check the histogram directly on the camera. If you see that you are getting the whole dynamic range in fewer brackets, adjust your settings accordingly.
  • Delete technically bad photos immediately. You can’t always tell directly on the camera if a photo is bad. But often there are problems that you can spot immediately, and you won’t be able to fixt them anyway. Maybe you bumped into your tripod. Maybe there was a strong wind. Maybe you used the wrong settings and over/underexposed you shot complletely. Maybe you forgot to turn off autofocus, so your focus is completely off. This and other problems can be seen immediately on the camera, and it’s pointless to keep those photos. Easier to delete them right when you checking the preview.
  • Mark the photos you like. I do this usually if I’m doing photos at an event. I tent to go through all right away, as I have to deliver them to a client, and mark the ones I will edit and send. When I’m done I wait for 1-4 weeks and then just delete the unmarked photos. I keep the ones I deliverd, as in my experience, there does not exist a company or a person that does reasonable backups. I had clients coming back to me after years, taht they lost the photos.
  • Be decisive. When you look at a photo and you dont like it and don’t need it, delete it. If you are undecisive and not sure, you will probably just delete it sometimes later, or just keep it for nothing. The thing is, the first feeling about it is usually the correct one. You can’t force yourself to like something even if you try.
Deleting photos

Luminosity selections and masks

I use luminosity selections and luminosity masks in all my blending and editing, and today I will try to explain to you what they do and how to create them in Photoshop. But before I start, there is one requirement for understanding this guide. That is, you need to understand how layer masks work in Photoshop, as I will not go into their basics here. Please check this post about the basics of layer masks here to understand those.

Understanding Luminosity selections

In short, Luminosity masks are masks created from luminosity selections. These are selections based on brightness of pixels. The most basic luminosity selections would be then:

  • Bright – This selection selects every white pixel by 100%, every black pixel by 0%, and everything in between based on their brightness. So the brighter a pixel is, the more it is selected. So 25% grey pixel would be selected by 75%, 50% grey pixel would be selected by 50% and 75% grey pixel would be selected by 25%.
  • Dark – This is the inverse selection to the bright one. A white pixel is selected by 0% and a black pixel by 100%. Everything in between is selected based on how dark it is. So 25% grey pixel would be selected by 25%, 50% grey pixel would be selected by 50% and 75% grey pixel would be selected by 75%

These two selections split an image into two parts. The part that is mostly dark and the part that is mostly bright. A pixel with a 50% grey color, would be right in the middle, selected by 50% in both. I know it’s a bit hard to get the understanding of this, so let’s look at a very basic image, that illustrates this. This is a just a gradient from black to white.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

If we do the Bright and Dark selections here, there results would looks like this (this is already shown as a mask, as you can’t display opacity graduation in a selection, white means 100% selected, black means 0% selected).

Bright selection
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Dark selection
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

As you can see on the Bright one, everywhere where it was bright in the original image, there is a shade of grey up to white. On the Dark one, you get the inverse, and it affects the areas that were dark. Let’s looks at one more example, this one with a regular photo.

Original photo
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Bright selection
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Dark selection
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

You see the same effect. The Bright selection selects only the bright areas (clouds, snow), the Dark selection only the dark ones (mostly mountains).

There are also Midtone selections, which are created by subtracting Bright and Dark selections from a photo, but I will get to those in a separate article.

Refined Luminosity selections

You often here these selection being referred to as Bright 1, Bright 2, Bright 3 … Dark 1, Dark 2, Dark 3… and so on. In this context, the Bright selection I mentioned would be equal to Bright 1, the Dark to Dark 1. All others are refinement of these selection. By creating an intersection of a selection with itself, you create a new, more restrictive selection. So the higher the number here, the less is selected. On the gradient image I shown you earlier, the restricted masks would looks like this:

Bright 1
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Bright 2
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Bright 3
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Bright 4
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

Creating Luminosity selections and masks in Photoshop

Ok, now that you hopefully at least have an idea on how luminosity selections look, let’s go into Photoshop and create some.

Open you image in Photoshop, and go into the Channels window. Here you will see 4 layers. The RGB, Red, Green and Blue. We want to work with the RGB one. Hold down Ctrl and click on it. This will create the Bright selection. Click on the Save selection as channel button in the bottom right (white square with black circle in the middle) and this will create a new channel. Let’s rename it to Bright 1.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

We will now work with this one. You should still have your selection active. Hold down Ctrl+Alt+Shift (a small X should be next to your cursor) and click on this new Bright 1 channel. The selection will change. Save it again as a new channel. Name the new channel Bright 2.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

You can now continue like this and create further, more restrictive selections, Bright 3, Bright 4, … and so on. If you ever loose your selection, just Ctrl+click on the one you want to restrict further, and the Ctrl+Alt+Shift+click on the same one again. Doing so on Bright 1 will create Bright 2, on Bright 2 will create Bright 3 and so on.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

Now onto the Dark selection. Go back to the RGB channel and Ctrl+click on it. This will create a Bright 1 selection. Now hit Ctrl+Shift+I on your keyboard (or select Select/Inverse from the menu). This will change the selection to the Dark 1 selection. You can create a new channel from this selection and call it Dark 1. To create all the other ones, just follow the same steps as when creating the Bright selections.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

If you want to avoid having to do this all the time, you can make it easier on yourself. Create actions that makes these masks, or buy Raya Pro or TK actions. Both of them create all the masks for you in one button press.

Once you have these channels, just choose one you want to work it and create a selection of it with Ctrl+click. If you want to make it into a layer mask, go back to layers with the selection active, choose the layer you want to use and click on Add layer mask (button looks the same as the one we used to create channels, in the bottom right of the layers window)

That’s all for today, next time I will show you how to use this in editing and blending of images.

Evening and night photos

When you do late evening and night photos, you very quickly run into the 30 second exposure time limit. For some reason camera manufacturers still insist on sticking to this stupid limit, that should have no place in modern digital cameras. But they do. So once you hit this limit, but your photo is still dark, what do you do? You have to change the aperture or the ISO. Today I will share with you my thoughts on which way to go and also possible solutions how to get around it. Please note, this is mostly for landscape and cityscape photos. Photos where you want to keep the depth of field high.

Higher ISO or bigger aperture?

So which one? Both approaches have their problems. When you use a bigger aperture (smaller F number), you loose the depth of field and sometimes also sharpness. When you use higher ISO, you are getting more noise and sometimes, when you go too high, you may loose small details completely.

I look at it this way. You can remove noise in post-processing, you can’t change a blurred area into a sharp one (OK, Topaz Sharpen AI can partially do it, but the results are not the same). As cameras are getting better and better and have less noise in higher ISO, the approach here is quite obvious.

Try different ISO settings on your camera, to determine the highest one you are still comfortable to use. I prefer not to go more than 400 to 800 ISO on my camera. I know that a higher one would still give a nice result, but I prefer to stay a bit lower. So once you can no longer use ISO 100 or lower, stick to the F stop you want to use first. Then raise your ISO until the ceiling you determined for your camera, and only after that start going to bigger apertures.


This photo was underexposed by around 3 stops when it was taken.

Different solutions

  • Manual focusing. If you focus manually on exactly what you want, you can get away with using a bigger aperture, without loosing the depth of field you want. Having a look at focusing using Hyperfocal distance will also help you to maximize it.
  • Underexposing a photo. A way to get over the 30s limit, is just to underexpose the photo. When you shoot in RAW, you can get few exposure stops from it. So you can take a photo that is 2 stops underexposed and then just overexpose it in post-processing. Can save you a lot of time in the field.
  • Bulb timer. You can stick to your ISO and aperture, and just use a very long exposure. Some cameras have bulb timer build in, for some you need a remote. Bulb timer is a great solution if you have a lot of time to spare. But that’s often not the case. For instance, taking photos during a short blue hour. It’s just over so quickly. If every photo you take takes you 5 minutes, you take only very few.
  • Focus blending. Depending on the scene you are capturing, you can try doing focus blending. Instead of one long exposure, do multiple shorter ones, with bigger aperture and different focus points. Then blend them into one in post-processing.
  • Tilt-shift lens. One of the ways one can use a tilt-shift lens, is to tilt the focus plane. It’s mostly used to get a shallow depth of field, but you can also go the other way. You can use it to get a bigger depth of field, while still using a bigger aperture. Like that you can use a shorter shutter speed and lower ISO.
  • Magic Lantern firmware. If you have an older Canon camera, you can use the Magic Lantern firmware on it and so remove some of the camera’s limitations. It provides a build in bulb timer and also allows for longer than 30s shots when doing bracketing. Overall, it gives so many features, that’s it’s worth a try.

Blend of two photos with different focus points.

So these were my thought on this topic, and I hope you find them interesting and maybe helpful.

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