Category Archives: Stuff

How to Remove Spots From Your Pictures

Stop Shooting Auto! is intended as a set of lessons for helping you to understand the basics of exposure, and to help you learn to use your dSLR more effectively. I’ve deliberately avoided any discussions of post-processing, because I believe that a good image is the result of solid technical fundamentals, and that post-processing should focus on minor corrections more than repairing bad shots.

Orange TulipOn the other hand, sensor dust is the bane of the dSLR photographer’s existence. No matter how thoroughly you clean your sensor, you’ll wind up with at least a few dust spots on your image if you shoot at smaller apertures. I’ve cleaned lots of sensors in my time, and while it’s easy to reduce the amount of dust on your sensor I think it’s impossible to completely eliminate it. In case you’ve missed these entries, you might want to review Why are there spots on my picture? and How To Clean Your Sensor for information on what sensor dust looks like and simple instructions for cleaning most of the dust off of your sensor.

Maybe it’s because you forgot to clean your sensor, or maybe you didn’t get all of the dust off, but eventually you’ll wind up with an image that has visible and annoying dust spots. They’ll be most visible when you have smooth gradients, like the orange tulip image that accompanies this entry. As it turns out, dust spots are fairly easy to remove. Every major image editing program should have a spot removal or spot healing tool available to you. Here are some valuable links for how to use them. Also, you want to read all the way to the end of this article, because it contains a tip that may save you from feeling like a complete idiot someday.

Adobe Lightroom spot removal brush
Photoshop Elements Spot Healing Brush
Photoshop Spot Healing Brush
GIMP’s healing tool

For all of these tools, the process is approximately the same.

  1. Select the tool.
  2. Select a brush size that’s slightly bigger than the dust spots that you want to remove– you may have to do this with trial and error, but it’s pretty easy.
  3. Scroll through your image looking for dust spots. When you find one, click it and the software should remove the dust spot and heal it using information from nearby areas of your photo. For slightly larger spots, you can paint over them with the spot healing brush.

There are other ways that you can do this, and occasionally one will work better. You can use a clone stamp, but that can be a pain in the butt. In Photoshop, I’ve recently started using content-aware fill for spots where the healing brush doesn’t quite give me the effect that I want. It’s a little bit more work than the healing brush, but sometimes the results are better. I’ve included a before-and-after photo from the orange tulip photo so that you can see how nicely spots can be removed. This one was probably a tiny little piece of lint on the sensor, judging by the shape of it.

Incidentally, these techniques work well for things other than dust spots– if you shot a portrait and the model has a zit right in the middle of his or her forehead, spot healing is a miracle drug that would put the pharmaceutical industry to shame.

There’s one thing that none of these tutorials tell you, though, and it’s an important thing. In fact, the words I’m about to write may save you a whole lot of frustration and annoyance if you remember them. Are you ready? Here we go.

Before you start removing dust from your photos, clean the dust off of your monitor! It’s such a simple thing, and yet I always find myself clicking on a dust spot over and over like a crazed monkey, wondering why it won’t go away.


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Holiday Gifts For The Digital SLR Owner, 2012 Edition

It’s that time of year when we all shop until our credit cards drop, then shop some more just for good measure. To get into the holiday spirit, I’ve put together a few fun gift recommendations for your favorite dSLR owner.

Happy shopping, and happy holidays!

LensBaby Spark Available for both Canon and Nikon mounts, this is a great little lens for playing around. You can tilt it or squeeze it to change the focus and get all sorts of cool focusing effects.
Crumpler 5 Million Dollar Home camera bag. I love love love my Crumpler bag! It’s the perfect thing for toting around a camera and a couple of accessories. It’s water-resistant, very well padded, and exceptionally well made. The pockets are in the right places and made for the things I want to carry. For more room (and more moolah), try the 7 Million Dollar Home instead.

If you want to go completely crazy, there’s the Brazillion Dollar Home. I want one just for the name!

Giottos Rocket Air Blaster. This is a perennial SSA! favorite. It’s useful for blowing the dust off of your gear, and for cleaning your sensor. You can also use it to blow the hair out of your face, annoy your cat, or any number of things.
DGK Color Tools Gray, Black, and White Cards.It’s always useful to have an 18% gray card in your bag, for setting white balance in difficult or unknown lighting situations. This one also comes with black and white cards as well for handling dynamic range. The set is waterproof and comes with a lanyard. At 4×5 inches, it’ll slip right into your Crumpler bag.

Gary Fong Puffer Pop-Up Flash Diffuser. Pop-up flash stinks, but most digital SLRs have one. This diffuser works surprisingly well for turning that harsh on-camera light into something softer and less obnoxious. I bought one this year when I was lending a camera to a friend, and I was surprised by how well it worked.

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SFGate photographers’ outtakes

SFGate has some excellent photographers working for them.  While I’ve seen the occasional clunker of a photo on their pages, many of the shots are extremely good– well-seen and well-captured, and they often tell a story with few or no words required.

I just came across a couple dozen outtakes of the year from them.  Many of the photos are quite good, and some are just short of being good.  The thing I particularly enjoyed about them, though, and the reason I’m posting this here, is that each of the photos has camera and exposure information in the caption.  Several of them also have the photographer’s thoughts about why they took the shot the way they did.

Many of them were shot at high- or very-high ISOs, including one at ISO 4000.  The photographer was using a Canon 5D Mark II for the shot, which performs brilliantly at higher ISOs.  It’s also my camera of choice these days.

Study the images and think about why the photographer used the settings they did.  I think you’ll find them quite educational.

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Holiday gifts for the dSLR owner, 2009 edition

Last year I published a list of holiday gifts for your favorite camera owner.  I still love all of those recommendations, but here’s a new list for 2009.

The GorillaPod is an incredibly innovative portable tripod.  It’s small enough to fit into a camera bag or backpack, so your favorite photographer can always have it handy.  The articulating legs allow it to be used as a tabletop tripod, or to wrap around the nearest tree branch, street sign, or whatever else is handy.   While it’s not the only tripod a photographer could ever need, it’s incredibly brilliant at what it does.

There are several models of GorillaPod to choose from.  Be sure to choose one that’s right for the camera it’s being used with.  Many of the smaller GorillaPods are designed for small, lightweight point & shoot cameras, and they won’t do a very good job of holding up a dSLR.  The SLR model is excellent if your photographer friend uses fairly small lenses, but step up to the SLR Zoom model (pictured above)  if they use long lenses, or if you aren’t sure.  A little bit of sturdiness won’t hurt.

In the age of the high-tech digital camera arms race it may seem strange for me to recommend a cheap film camera, but hear me out.

The Holga 120N is exactly that– a cheap Chinese-made plastic film camera.  It’s low-tech.  It leaks light like crazy.  It vignettes, and the cheap plastic lens often distorts like nobody’s business.

And that’s what makes it fun!  Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from the exquisitely flawless photography of the digital age and do something messy and imperfect.  The Holga is the classic camera for that. If you don’t believe me, check out the images in this Washington Post article, including an award-winning photo of Al Gore on the campaign trail.

The basic camera above is a great place to get started.  Amazon also sells a Lomographic Holga Starter Kit, which includes a Holga with built-in colorflash, a book, and a roll of film.

The book Light, Science, and Magic is a little bit more advanced than I would usually recommend here, but I’m doing it anyway. It’s a fantastic book!

Photography is all about capturing light, and Light, Science, and Magic is the best I’ve ever encountered about photographic lighting.  There is plenty of material that is accessible to a beginner, but also enough depth that the book will grow with them over time.   This isn’t just one of the best photography books I’ve ever read, it’s one of the best books on any subject.  Really!

If your photographer friend is still trying to remember that they have to take the lens cap off before they shoot, or most of their pictures come out blurry, this book will be a bit too advanced for them.  However, if they’ve mastered the basics of their camera and seem interested in learning to take better photos, this could be just the book they need.

And finally, one thing photographers like to do is show off their photos.  There are so many digital photo frames on the market that I can’t even begin to recommend a specific one.  You can find some that are keychain-sized, and others that are 17 inches or more.

Happy holidays from Stop Shooting Auto!

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Would you like to write for Stop Shooting Auto?

Do you enjoy Stop Shooting Auto?  Is there a subject that you’d like to see discussed here?  Would you like to write about it?  If so, SSA! would love to hear from you.

I’m looking for a couple of guest bloggers to contribute occasional articles to the site.  Articles should fit with the general theme of the site, which is tutorials and lessons to help novice dSLR shooters use their cameras more effectively.  There’s no minimum requirement– you can write one article or several.

Sensor cleaning with a blower bulb You should be able to write clear, engaging articles that can be easily understood by and are relevant to beginning dSLR owners– think clear, simple explanations wtih very little technical jargon.  You should be able to use WordPress well enough to create and publish your articles, though I can help with that if necessary.   If your articles require sample photos or illustrations, you should also be able to provide these.  It goes without saying that you should own the rights to any content you contribute.

Legalish details: you will retain ownership of any material you contribute to the site, and will grant SSA a non-exclusive license to publish it in the blog.

SSA! is largely a labor of love on my part, and the tiny revenue stream that it generates doesn’t even cover expenses.  I can’t afford to pay for contributions, but I can offer the glory of seeing your name in pixels and the satisfaction of helping people become better photographers.  Hey, it’s not much but it’s what I have to offer.

If you’re interested, drop me email telling me a little bit about yourself and what you’d like to write about.  My email address is pattib (at) pattib (dot) org.

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Gifts for the dSLR owner

It’s that time of year– the one where we make lists and give them to Santa Claus so that he can bring us especially wonderful treats. Are you looking for something to add to your list, or are you trying to find a gift for a dSLR owner? I can help!

Here are some of my favorite things for photographers. Most of them are relatively inexpensive, yet quite useful.

The hot shoe bubble level is one of my favorite gadgets. I’m notoriously bad about holding my camera level, and this little gadget helps me do that. It’s inexpensive and unobtrusive, and sometimes it’s extraordinarily useful. Where it really shines for me is when I’m shooting on a tripod, especially if I’m doing panoramic photographs.

The Giottos Rocket Air blaster is the perfect thing for easy dSLR sensor cleaning. While it won’t get stubborn stuck-on dust, it does a fine job of knocking the majority of it loose, and it’s far safer than wet cleaning.

Two of my favorite books are by Bryan Petersen. Understanding Exposure is the grown-up, sophisticated version of this blog, and teaches you more about exposure than I ever could. Learning to See Creatively is less about technical photography, and more about how to find great photos rather than average ones. Both of these books are a must-have for anyone learning photography.

Camera bags are always useful, and it’s often useful to have more than one. I have a large backpack that can hold multiple bodies, lenses, flashes, gizmos, a kitchen sink or two, and my laptop, and when I need all that stuff it’s wonderful. When I just have a camera and a lens or two, it’s overkill. Crumpler camera bags are very highly-rated, and I’m in love with mine.  Plus, how can you not love a company that calls their biggest bag the Brazillion Dollar Home?

GrayClothAn 18% gray card is a useful tool for photographers who understand color temperature of light, or want to get their colors as accurate as possible. Just take a picture of the card under the lighting conditions that you’ll be shooting in, and use it to calibrate the rest of the images. Almost as good, but way cooler, is this 18% gray cleaning cloth. It’s designed to clean the dust off of your gear, but does double-duty as an 18% gray card. Plus, it’s a dirt cheap stocking stuffer.

Most photographers never have enough batteries and memory cards, but make sure you get the right ones for your recipient’s camera.

Happy shooting, and happy holidays!

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Call for interest: Photography Exercises Workshop

I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a hands-on photography workshop, and I’m curious about how much interest there would be.

When athletes study a sport, they don’t just go out and play. They also do drills to improve some technical aspect of their game. Running through tires improves agility. Batting practice improves, well, batting. (If I was the least bit athletic, I would fill this paragraph with a few more examples to support my point and engage your interest. I’m not, so just imagine I did.)

LineupSimilarly, I want to do a workshop of technical photography exercises. This wouldn’t be a class of going to the beach and taking pretty pictures, but rather going somewhere and spending some time working on focused exercises. I make these up for myself and do them, and I find them very helpful in helping me become more technically competent, or in helping me see things in a different way.

Logistics: The workshop would be held on a weekend day somewhere near San Francisco– currently, I’m thinking that either the Alameda Naval Air Station or Treasure Island might be interesting venues, but I’m open to suggestions. My timeframe is sometime in January, 2009. Participants should have some sort of digital camera, for quick review of photos, and a dSLR would be best.  The target audience would be beginning and intermediate photographers, those who have gained basic competence with their camera and want to work on improving their skills.

As this would be an experimental class on my part, the fee would be a small donation to the charity of your choice, and maybe a dollar or two to cover my expenses if I do printed materials to go with it.

Would you be interested? If so, what would you like to get out of such a class? Do you have a suggestion for a location? Is there anything that would make you more or less likely to attend?


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How To Shoot Tonight’s Eclipse

My how to shoot the moon article seems to be getting a lot of hits today, probably due to tonight’s lunar eclipse. I guess this would be the time for me to tell you exactly what settings to use to get a perfect photo of the eclipse.

OK, here goes. I don’t know. I do, however, know how to figure it out.

First off, use the longest lens you have. 200mm is probably the bottom of the range. If you have a teleconverter, use it. Using a tripod or other camera support is also a really good idea, and may be absolutely necessary. Don’t get too hung up on it being tripod– a beanbag or something similar is also good. You just need the camera to hold still.

Your camera’s meter probably won’t be able to deal with the situation with any degree of reason, and autofocus can also be very hit-or-miss. Put the camera in manual mode, and manual focus mode. Set your aperture to about f/8 or f/11 and your ISO to 100. Focus.

Try taking a picture at about 1/125 sec and check it on your LCD to see how it looks. Is it too dark? If so, use a slower shutter speed– try 1/60, and if that doesn’t work try 1/30, and keep trying until you find something you like. If it’s too bright, use a faster shutter speed– try 1/250, etc. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know how to do this already.

Now, bracket bracket bracket. Bracketing is the act of taking multiple shots of the same thing, each with slightly different exposure. It’s very common for photographers to do this, because it leaves them room for error in their exposure. If you think 1/125 is the exposure, always take three shots when you shoot– 1/60, 1/125, 1/250. That way, if you’re slightly wrong then one of the other shots should be usable. I’d even recommend bracketing two stops each way– 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, and 1/500. It’s better to take too many shots than not enough. In situations where I honestly didn’t know what exposure to use, and I really wanted to get the shot right, I’ve been known to bracket three or four stops on either side of my exposure best-guess.

As the earth’s shadow covers the moon, the moon will get dimmer. That means you’ll have to check your exposure again if you come back later. You may wind up using multi-second exposures, and you may even need to open your aperture wider. Increase your ISO if you have to. If you have a remote shutter release you’ll want to use it, or you can use your camera’s delay mode to avoid some of the shake associated with pressing the shutter button at longer exposures.

In a nutshell, what I’ve just told you to do is this: guess, then test out your guess and adjust it as necessary. That’s how I learned to take “hard” shots, and it really does work. When you’re shooting digital, test shots are very close to free, and the feedback is instantaneous.

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Ten Tips For Your New dSLR

Was Santa Claus good to you? Did you find a new dSLR under the Christmas tree this year? If so, then congratulations! You were definitely a good little boy or girl, and you got a very nice treat. You’re probably excited, but also a little bit intimidated by your new toy.

Here are ten Stop Shooting Auto! tips to get you started with your new dSLR:

  1. Read part of the manual. Your camera’s manual is an invaluable guide to your dSLR, and one that you will be referencing many times in the upcoming months. It has lots of great information in it about how your camera works and what all the settings do. That’s the problem– it has too much information for getting started. If you read the whole thing right now one of two things will happen. Either your head will explode, or most of the information will go in one eye and out the other. Read the beginning of the manual now, enough to get you started with the basics, then set it aside and shoot for a while. Come back to your manual later, after you’ve used the camera for a while.
  2. Take some pictures. Pick a theme, something not too hard, and play around. Maybe you want to take pictures of all your friends making funny faces, the tail lights of all the cars in your neighborhood, or the appliances in your kitchen. It doesn’t matter what you shoot, just do it. You probably won’t get any great masterpieces, but you’ll get some practice with your camera in a slightly structured manner.
  3. It’s OK to use automatic modes. Did I really just say that? Yes, yes I did. Any dSLR has thirteen betrillion different knobs and modes and menu settings and gewgaws and whatchamacallits that you’ll need to learn about. Just like reading the manual, trying to learn about all of the settings at once is going to be too overwhelming. Start off by letting the camera do most of the work for you, then gradually take over the settings as you find a need for them.
  4. Don’t obsess over better lenses and equipment. Right now, people are probably telling you that the kit lens (the lens that came with your camera) is garbage, and you have to get a better one immediately. If you’re a geek, you’re probably poring over reviews in magazines or websites so that you can compare specs and find your next lens. Stop it. The kit lens is a perfectly good starting point, and it will be a while before you find it limiting.
  5. Start making a list of small accessories that you want. OK, this is exactly the opposite of the advice I gave in #4, but it’s a different situation. There are probably a few little things that you’ll want to pick up sometime soon, so make a list as you find them. Do you need a spare battery or charger? Is the strap cutting into your neck? You’ll almost certainly want a bigger memory card at some point. You don’t need to run out and stock up on every accessory in sight, but think about the things that will be useful to you.
  6. Handle your camera with care, but not paranoia. Your camera is a complex, high-tech instrument, but it’s also designed to handle some degree of abuse. You don’t have to baby your camera, but exercise some common sense. Don’t bang it around. Be careful not to get dirt inside the camera. Don’t drop it into the bathtub or run over it with your Range Rover.
  7. Experiment. One of the best was to learn about your camera is to just play around with it. Try zooming in and out on the same scene and see how the image changes. Get down on the ground and look at things from a different angle. Try different modes to see what they do. One of the beautiful things about digital photography is that “film” is cheap, and another is that you don’t have to develop the photos before you can see them. You can try out lots of different things to see what works.
  8. Analyze your shots. One of the other wonderful things about digital photography is that your camera records the settings you used. Photographers used to keep notebooks for the shots they took so that they could record the exposure settings, focal length, etc. Today, you just have to look at some information, called the EXIF data, that’s hidden in each file. Here’s an example. You don’t care about all of the data, but Exposure (shutter speed), Aperture, Focal Length, and ISO Speed are all useful data. The software that you use for pulling pictures off of the camera and viewing them probably has a way for you to see this information.
  9. Find a photography buddy. It can be more fun to shoot with a friend or friends, and you can learn together. Flickr has groups for most cities, and many of those groups get together to share information and go shooting. You’ll get ideas from each other, and pick up interesting tips.
  10. Have fun! If there’s a picture you want to take, take it. Don’t worry about not doing it right or not getting a perfect shot. Play around. Climb up on the playground equipment to get a different angle. Take pictures of bright-colored things just because you like them. Break the rules. I promise that the photography police won’t arrest you for it.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and get shooting.


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Where should I go next?

moonI’ve covered most of the basics of exposure at this point, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses. I want to keep writing, but I’m not sure where to go next. Several things have crossed my mind– advanced topics, focusing, some of the whizzier camera functions– but I’m not sure what people are most interested in, or what would be generally helpful.

One thing that I’ve thought about is a series of recipes– “What settings should I use to shoot my son’s softball game?” “How do I take a picture of the moon?”

I throw it open to the floor. What would you like me to write about next?


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