Tag Archives: Photography

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/500 @ f/8, ISO 100

Why are my photos blurry? Understanding and fixing motion blur

Posted by on June 8th, 2012

Canon 40D, 50mm, 0.8 sec @ f/8, ISO 100

One of the questions I get asked most about photography is, “Why are my photos blurry?” It’s a good question because it gets right to the heart of photographic technique and deals with fundamental concepts like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  In this post I’m going to talk about one of the most common causes of blurry images — motion blur. (Blur can also be caused by images that are out of focus and some people would call sensor noise a type of blur, but I’ll save those for another post) Before I dive into the exact techniques countering motion blur, I want to define a few basic terms.


Shutter Speed: The amount of time your camera’s image sensor is exposed to light is known as “shutter speed.” A fast shutter speed lets in less light but stops action better and a slow shutter speed does the opposite. On your camera shutter speed will show up as a number or fraction of a number. If your shutter speed is set at 10, that means your sensor will be exposed to light for 10 seconds (a slow shutter speed). If your shutter speed is set at 1/2000, that means your sensor will be exposed to light for 1/2000th of a second (a fast shutter speed).

Aperture: Out of the three terms we are discussing here, aperture is probably the most complicated. The reason for this is the aperture number (or f-number) displayed on your camera has an inverse relationship to what is actually going on inside the lens. But before we go into how aperture is controlled, we need to explain what it is.

While shutter speed is the amount of light allowed in by the camera body, aperture is the amount of light allowed in by the lens. This is controlled by a set of blades inside the lens that open and close to allow more or less light through the lens. See the photos below for an example. The first shows a lens “wide-open” or at it’s largest aperture. The second shows the same lens “stopped-down” to it’s smallest aperture.

The photo on the left shows an aperture of f/1.4 and the photo on the right shows an aperture of f/22.

Where this process becomes confusing is when you start dealing with how apertures are named. The “wide-open” photo above shows an aperture of f1.4, while the “stopped-down” photo shows an aperture of f22. The confusion being a “large” aperture (literally a large hole) is denoted by a small number and small apertures correspond to big numbers.

ISO: The “ISO number” (usually starting at 100 and going up) determines the sensor’s sensitivity to light. As the number gets higher, more light is absorbed by the sensor but this also causes images to appear noisy at higher ISO numbers.

(Because every camera is different, please consult your camera’s user manual for information on changing these settings.) 

The Balance

If it isn’t already clear, the main purpose of all three of the above terms is to control the amount of light in a photo. But changing one will likely have an effect on the others. If we were to look at this as a simple math equation, it would read something like this:

Light allowed in by the shutter + light allowed in by the aperture + light allowed in by the sensor (ISO) = total light in the photo.

Change one and you’ve changed the result unless you balance it by changing one of the other settings.

Fixing Motion Blur

To fix motion blur, first we need to know when we are dealing with motion blur. The telltale signs of motion blur include photos that look shaky, streaks of light, and an overall “smeary” appearance. If the photo looks out of focus, it probably isn’t motion blur.

Motion blur is caused when the camera’s shutter speed is not fast enough to capture the action. There are two main types of motion blur; one is caused by camera shake and the other is caused by objects moving too fast to photograph clearly.

As a general rule, camera shake becomes noticeable when the shutter speed drops below 1/100th of a second (although with telephoto lenses or when taking photos on the move, motion blur can occur at faster shutter speeds).  With steady hands, it is possible to shoot photos with a shutter speed around 1/30th of a second but not much slower.

When a moving object is blurry but the rest of the photo is not, the problem is likely that the shutter speed is too slow to capture the movement. As an example; a shutter speed of 1/125th will capture people walking. A shutter speed of 1/500th will capture sports. A shutter speed of 1/1000th will capture moving cars. And a shutter speed of 1/2000th will capture motion faster than the human eye.

Fixing Motion Blur Option 1: As mentioned above, the easiest solution to motion blur is speeding up your shutter.  But remember, the faster your shutter, the less light is getting into the camera. You’ll need to compensate for the loss of light by using a bigger aperture, a higher ISO number, or a combination of the two.

To photograph this seagull in flight, I had to use a super-fast shutter speed. Canon 40D, 200mm, 1/8000 @ f/4, ISO 320

Fixing Motion Blur Option 2:
If you subjects aren’t moving (family portraits, landscapes, etc.) put your camera on a tripod. The stability it provides is far better than even the steadiest of hands.

A tripod is essential for long exposure photographs. Canon 40D, 10mm, 30 sec @ f/3.5, ISO 400

Tip: If your tripod has an extendable center column, generally avoid it. Extending the center column raise the center of gravity and detracts from stability. 

Fixing Motion Blur Option 3: If your subject is moving and you can’t increase your shutter speed, try the photographic technique known as panning. This will blur the background but keep your subject sharp. To achieve this effect, you must move your camera with your subject. Most cameras will flip up the mirror or shut off the screen while they are taking a photo, so you will have to estimate the correct speed. This technique is simple to learn but hard to perfect.

Both images have a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second. The photo on the right demonstrates panning.

Tip:  Panning works best when your subject is moving perpendicular to your line of sight. 

Fixing Motion Blur Option 4: If there isn’t enough available light to speed up your shutter and you can’t use a tripod, consider employing motion stopping technology like flash and image stabilization to cure your blur. Flash (from your camera or an external unit) will freeze motion and add more light to your photos. Lenses with image stabilization features will help correct camera shake but will not help you capture fast-moving objects.

(Have more questions? Something isn’t clear? Drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer!)

Free Facebook Cover Photos

Posted by on May 31st, 2012

I’ve had a few people ask me to make them some cover photos for their Facebook timeline, so I decided I’d post a bunch of them on the blog for everyone to use. Choosing just the right photos for the project was fun. They had to work as panoramic crops, be compelling, and have most of their visual mass in the center or right side. I found a couple I really enjoy and I hope you will too.

To download the photos, first click the thumbnail, then right click on the image and select “save as” or “save image as.” Save them to your desktop (or somewhere else you’ll remember) and then upload them to Facebook by hovering over your cover image and clicking the “Change Cover” button. Or you can download them all by clicking here.

Make your own:

While creating these photos, I came across some useful tips on optimizing your own cover photos for Facebook. First check out these guidelines. The most important thing I learned is that you want to upload an image that is exactly the size of the cover photo area (851 pixels wide by 315 pixels tall). Uploading a photo with different dimensions will result in Facebook automatically resizing it and the results are pretty awful. You’ll likely end up with a photo that is blurry, muddy, or overly grainy.

Step 1.

Choose the right photo
To finish with a great cover photo, you need to start with a great photo. Choose something that will crop well; landscapes, a photo with lots of empty space, or macros work great. Choose a photo that is visually striking because Facebook will compress your photo and you need to have something that will work well even if it gets slightly muddy. Choose a photo with most of its “visual weight” centered or on the right. This will keep the cover photo from clashing with your profile picture.

Step 2.

Using your favorite photo editing software, resize the image to 851 pixels wide. Then use the crop tool to set the height at 315 pixels tall.

Step 3.

To overcome the ugly compression that Facebook uses, apply sharpening to your image. I found that the “high” setting in the export panel of Lightroom gave me the best results.

Step 4.

Another way to get around Facebook’s unattractive compression is to do the compression yourself in a program like Photoshop, Pixelmator, or GIMP. Instead of saving your .jpg at 100%, try lowering the quality. You goal is to get the file size just under 100mb for best results.

Step 5.

That’s it, you’re done! Congratulations, if you’ve followed these steps you probably have a decent cover photo. Pixel-peepers will likely notice some ugly compression artifacts but the end result should be much better than simply uploading an image straight from your camera.

Postcard Rumira-6

Postcard: Rumira

Posted by on May 29th, 2012

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/500 @ f/2.2, ISO 200

Last week I finally got a chance to get into a high Andean village. On Wednesday I traveled with a team from the NGO Threads of Peru to document a dye workshop in the community of Rumira, which is about an hour’s drive outside of Ollantaytambo on the eastern edge of the Sacred Valley. Roadwork meant walking about 20 minutes uphill out of Ollantaytambo to catch a bus that would take us the rest of the way up dirt road to Rumira.

If I hadn’t spent my childhood bouncing along mountain roads in my dad’s old Baja Bug, the ride might have been a little frightening, but as it was I just took in the scenery; the mountain streams, scraggly wildflowers, and ancient terraces build by Incan hands. The only real adventure we had on our way up was pulling another van out of a rut.

The van was on it’s way down the road when it hit a muddy patch and got wedged against the side of the mountain. All in all, I’d say getting stuck against the mountain was better than falling the hundred or so feet off the opposite side of the road. The rest of the ride was almost uneventful. In one spot we had to wait for some sheep to move off the road and in another we spun our tires a bit getting up a hill. Oh, and we also ran over a cat — our driver thought it was rather funny.

I was warned that the women in Rumira might be camera shy so I began slowly. I did a lot of listening and observing of the dyeing process, which at the time I arrived mostly consisted of lighting fires to boil water over. The photography I did do was mostly through my long lens (70-200mm). Once the fires got going and the water was hot, the real work got underway.

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/800 @ f/2.5, ISO 200

The woman used several different natural dyes to create a number of colors from yellow to purple. Some of the dyes included crushed insects and various minerals. If you’re interested you can read more about the dyeing process on Threads of Peru’s website and you can also check out the three-part series I’m writing for Threads’ blog (see links below).

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/1000 @ f/2.5, ISO 200

At one point I asked our guide, Urbano, to introduce me to each woman so I could shoot a posed portrait and have names to go with the faces. When we did this, the women’s shyness was apparent — Rumira is close to major tourists attractions but it is also fairly traditional and not often visited. I got a few decent shots but mostly a lot of hiding.

I took a ton of photos during the day — close to 650 — and filled up 8GB of memory cards. It didn’t take very long for the women to start ignoring me and allowing me to work closer. I’ve fallen in love again with my 50mm f1.4 and I used that for most of the day.

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/1250 @ f/2.5, ISO 200

In some places (my mind goes to northern Zambia) you can get really great posed portraits, but in others shooting candids is the best bet; the villages around Cusco fall into the latter category.  Of course shooting candid photos can yield some great results.

Being foreign and male, my interaction with the women was somewhat limited but I did get to spend some time learning about the dyeing techniques from Daniel Sonqo, Threads’ master weaver. The results he and the women were able to achieve using only natural ingredients were impressive.

I did a little exploring in Rumira, which is actually two villages divided by stream, and got to know some of the kids. Most of them wore bright orange and red ponchos, and were either camera-shy or complete hams. One kid seemed to have a sixth-sense and would instantly strike a pose when he felt my camera pointed at him — even if I was shooting from 20 feet away.

Canon 40D, 200mm, 1/1000 @ f/4, ISO 400

The skies were overcast all day and rain fell a couple of times. Standing outside by the dyeing fires was cold, smoky, and often damp, but I loved it. There is something powerful in these mountains; watching damp clouds slowly wash over rocky heights and seeing sheep graze in alpine meadows that slope steeply down.

We stayed in the community from about ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. It was a quick visit but enjoyable and productive all the same. I had the pleasure of shaking the hand of one of the older weavers before we left. We both exchanged goodbyes in our second langue; Spanish (many people outside Cusco learn Quechua as their first, and sometimes only, language).

On the way home I sat facing backwards on a bench behind the van’s driver. We left Rumira the same way we entered, but the landscape was still new and exciting. I remember passing through a striking valley with grey walls that crumbled into grey boulders along the road. Along the valley’s floor grew a scrubby bush with small yellow flowers and near the bushes flowed the same river we worked by in Rumira. The unsaturated tones of the rock made the hues of the flowers even more brilliant.

We arrived in Ollantaytambo a little before four in the afternoon and caught a taxi back to Cusco. The drive between the two cities takes a little more than an hour and passes through some of the Sacred Valley’s most spectacular vistas, made all the more brilliant by the setting winter sun.

Cusco is an interesting city; full of history, colonial architecture, and compelling traditions. But after spending the day in the Sacred Valley, it’s hard not to notice the dust, the noise, and the smell of urban life. I’m grateful that I get to live here and I’m even more grateful for the chance to get out.

(My work in Rumira will be posted as a three-part blog on Threads of Peru’s website. As the stories post, I’ll link to them here:)

The Color of the Andes Part 1: Getting There

The Color of the Andes Part 2: The Process

The Color of the Andes Part 3: The People


Photos of Cusco 58 Years in the Making

Posted by on May 20th, 2012

La Compania was undergoing heavy restoration during the filming of the Secret of the Incas. Today it's one of the city's major landmarks.

In 1954 the movie Secret of the Incas hit movie screens in America. It’s probably best remembered as a huge inspiration for the Indiana Jones series. There’s even one scene where beams of light are reflected through a series of mirrors to reveal a treasure — just like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the movie itself is interesting for a number of other reasons; one of them being the early looks at Cusco and Machu Picchu on film.

Last week I was had a conversation over at the South American Explorers Club about how much Machu Picchu has been rebuilt since it appeared in Secret of the Incas, and that got me thinking about how Cusco might have changed too. I watched the film again (it’s available on Netflix) and looked for all the scenes with exterior shots of the city.

When one flashed on the screen, I captured it for later reference. Once I had ten photos, I loaded them onto my Kindle and went out on a photographic scavenger hunt. It was surprisingly easy to track down the locations because Cusco hasn’t changed much in 58 years. From 1954 to 2012 the most noticeable changes are the streetlights and trees which now fill the plazas.

In my photos, I wasn’t going for exact copies of the scenes from the film (in some cases trees now block the view or replicating the shot would require standing in the middle of a busy street). What I wanted to show was a clear before/after view of the Cusco landmarks.

Below you can find the results of my scavenger hunt along with the some interesting tidbits about how things have changed. You can view a map of these locations here. Continue reading

Moonlight illuminates Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley.

On Assignment: The Sacred Valley

Posted by on May 8th, 2012

Moonlight illuminates Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley

After more than a month in Cusco, I recently got the chance to get out of the city and explore the surrounding area. Over the course of three days I documented a festival, Incan ruins, and an agro-tourism project for Apus Peru, an adventure travel company based here in Cusco. The stories and photos I worked on for Apus will appear on their blog in the next few weeks.

My first adventure happened last Thursday when I reported on the Cruz Velacuy  (Vigil of the Crosses) festival. It was difficult to track down information on this event and I was at a loss until I discovered that one of Apus’ staff members had an aunt who was organizing festivities in a town about 45 minutes outside of Cusco. She also had a brother, Jhon, who agreed to act as my guide.

Early in the morning we caught a bus out of Cusco which took us to Izcuchaca. There we rode a moto-taxi from the city center to his aunt’s house where preparations for the fiesta were already underway. At least a half-dozen women and a couple men were preparing food for later in the day. Jhon and I estimated that there must have been three whole pigs in various stages of preparation.

The next several hours were a blur of parades, Mass, and dancing. When we arrived back at the house, it was time to eat. First up, big hunks of fried pork with brown bread. Being included in the meals and fiesta was incredibly humbling, as most Peruvians are not exactly people of unlimited resources.

A hearty tripe soup followed the pork. When I felt like I couldn’t take another bite, they brought out the chicha, a kind of fermented corn drink. If I learned one thing from this trip, it’s that I am incapable of partying like a Peruvian. Jhon and I took our leave right as the dancing (and drinking) was kicking off.

Domingo, our awesome guide to the Sacred Valley.

On Saturday, I left Cusco by a slightly different route and my wife, Sonya, also got to come along. After picking up another photographer who is working for Apus, we made our way to the Moray. This is an ancient agriculture project nestled high in the mountains above the Sacred Valley.

The Moray is made up of a series of circular terraces once used to preserve rich top-soil. Now the site attracts more tourists than farmers and a lot of those tourists find the appeal more spiritual than agrarian. Convinced that the geometry of the place has mystical properties, they are often spotted holding hands at the lowest level and occasionally participating in some scream-therapy (the place has great acoustics).

Our second stop was a series of evaporating pools used for harvesting salt. These pools are carved into the side of a narrow canyon and predate the Incas. The salt comes from a saline spring and reaches the pools via a series of channels. The flow is controlled by placing rock barriers at critical intersections along the channels.

After a long day of exploring we drove to the town of Ollantaytambo. This quaint village is the last stop before trekkers take to the Inca Trail and as such, is well stocked with all the camping equipment, woolen headgear and walking sticks you could shake a… well… walking stick at.

Night brought out the stars and the “super moon” bathed the rugged mountains in blue light. After dinner we took time to admire the city’s ruins under nocturnal illumination. Getting away from the noise and exhaust of Cusco’s streets was a nice change. I’ll take the splash of streams over the grunting of buses any day.

The next morning we had a little more time to explore Ollantaytambo before going to the Chichubamba Agro-tourism project located near Urubamba. Here we got to visit several artisans’s houses and learn more about their craft.

I thought the handmade ceramic demonstration was particularly interesting. It probably goes without saying but Sonya was pretty fond of the chocolate making portion of the tour. After lunch, we rode back to Cusco and took the rest of the day to relax and start editing photos from the trip.

Chacán Cave

Postcards: Chacán Cave

Posted by on April 20th, 2012

This past week we finally had a chance to escape the cobbled streets of Cusco and get some of that fresh (and thin) Andean air. Sonya and I hiked out to a place called Chacán Cave in a valley near Cusco. The place was pretty amazing and we got to catch glimpses of local life along the way. If you happen to read this blog and also be in Cusco, you can see a detailed trail report here. It should give you all the information you need to retrace our route.

Chiang Dao-2

Postcard: Chiang Dao

Posted by on January 2nd, 2012

Our travels (and blog posts) have slowed down during the last few weeks. We rendezvoused with family in Chiang Mai where we spent the holidays enjoying company, eating good food, and seeing the sights. There is plenty to tell about Chiang Mai but I’ll save that for another time.

The only real travel we’ve done since arriving was a two night excursion into the Northern Thai countryside near Chiang Dao. Our first stop was an elephant training center that offered treks through the jungle via pachyderm.

The only other time I’ve ridden an elephant was at the circus. I was young and my memory is foggy but I have a vague recollection of a dark tent, a sad elephant that walked in small circle, and crying because I thought I was going to fall off. Continue reading


Postcard: Bangkok

Posted by on December 20th, 2011

I’ve been to Bangkok twice on this trip. The first visit was an off kilter race through the city shrouded in the haze of jet lag. The second, slower-paced visit, lasted about five days. I spent the first half of that time in bed, Sonya did the same with the latter half. Between the jet lag and our collective infirmities, there was a single day of clarity in Bangkok. A day when we got out, saw the sights, ate the food, and managed to remember what we were doing.

Seeing the city that way seemed almost appropriate — maybe even metaphorical. Bangkok is a place blanketed in haze, darkened by the shadows of tall buildings, and obscured by the blue smoke of the motorized masses. The maze of roads, alleys, and canals is disorienting. Here, getting lost in the crowd isn’t an existential worry but a very practical one. When the moments of clarity do arrive, it’s like wiping away a fine layer of soot from a wall, what’s buried beneath seems all the brighter.

When I try to wipe the soot from my own memories, they come back in short vignettes. Grey buildings pass by train windows. Tuk-tuk drivers shout over the roar of busy streets. Gleaming temples reach to the sky while piles of flood debris are strewn around their white walls. Pop music thumps from smokey bars where tourists gather to look at other tourists. Everything moves fast, everything is loud, everything is intoxicating.

I remember riding on the skytrain, looking out the windows while grasping yellow handrails. Below me a war raged on the streets. Taxis, buses, motorbikes, pedestrians, and bicycles scrambled forward, jostling for every inch of pavement and sidewalk.

I remember stepping out of the skytrain into oppressive heat. I remember the smell of food, smoke, and still water rising from the streets. It’s daytime and the sun scorches the pavement in front of me. I wait for someone, anyone to cross the road, thinking it suicide to go alone. A monk in saffron robes steps into the street, I follow him. I reach the other side alive. Continue reading

Siem Reap-11

Postcard: Siem Reap

Posted by on December 13th, 2011

When the throngs of tourists leave Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is about the only place to go. It’s a small town turned bustling city by a steady flow of dollars from eager travelers putting checkmarks on their bucket lists. That influx of cash has made Siem Reap something of a boom town where luxury hotels rise from dusty streets and waves of scooters break around Range Rovers.

For tourists, most activity centers on Pub Street. Located a short walk from the river, Pub Street loosely defines a collection of restaurants and shops that spill into side streets and line pedestrian alleyways. French, Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian restaurants compete for diners and proudly display their specials on chalk boards. “Free beer after 3:00.” “Buy one cocktail get one free.” “After they taste our food, they come back.”

I’m not sure that last one was a special, but it might have been. On the roads around Pub Street, tuk-tuk drivers prowl like sharks circling a school of fish. “Helloo sir, you want tuk-tuk. No? Maybe tomorrow? Very good price.” This ritual repeats every few feet, only punctuated by the occasional offers of having tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet. In case the thought of putting your feet in a fish tank is unappealing, most have “no piranha,” written on the side. How comforting. Continue reading


Postcard: Angkor Archeological Park

Posted by on December 12th, 2011

The Angkor area is crowded. The road in is a little like an L.A. freeway if all the cars were replaced by motorcycles pulling carts and the trucks by aging Korean minibuses pumping out clouds of diesel exhaust. The temple area itself is a lot like Disneyland; overpriced food, lack of shade, a souvenir shop always within sight.

Even the people look the same. A group of retired Japanese or Korean tourists wearing matching hats and khaki vests follow a bouncing flag. An American with his gut spilling over nylon pants, wheezes up a nearly vertical staircase. At Disneyland you can plunge fifty feet into water from Splash Mountain, here you can plunge fifty feet onto sandstone from one of the unguarded ledges. Continue reading

Road to Camboida-4

Postcard: The Road to Cambodia

Posted by on December 8th, 2011

The do-it-yourself, budget minded, live out of a backpack kind travel is sometimes like playing with a yo-yo. When it’s up, you find your self in amazing places, meeting interesting people, and having once in a lifetime experiences. But when that yo-yo drops, things can go from amazing to amazingly difficult quick — and when the place you’ve just left was close to paradise, it can seem like a long way to fall.

Our travels to Cambodia started rocky, literally. When we left Koh Kood the waves were bigger and the boat smaller than when we arrived. Our speedboat battled its way through the rollers for two and a half hours. Two taxis and a bus ride later we reached the city of Chanthaburi, famous for fruit and gems, or so Lonely Planet says.

When we flopped our backpacks down in the River Guesthouse lobby we were dead tired. Desperate to get off the road and failing to learn from our experiences in Trat, we gave one room a quick glance before plopping down $7 to stay the night.

When we walked back to the room, we saw what we were really in for. The pipes in the bathroom were broken and leaked badly. To keep the bathroom from flooding, I had to turn the water on and off at a small valve behind the toilet before we could use it, the sink, or the shower. When the water was on, it carried with it a festering septic smell. Dark mold rotted in the bathroom, eating the ceiling and door. Continue reading

Kho Kood-7

Postcard: Koh Kood

Posted by on December 5th, 2011

I’ve spent the last week on a tropical island with white sand beaches and turquoise water. When I was adventurous, I hopped on a motor bike and explored the jungle. When I was hungry, I ate amazing food and drank lovely frozen fruit drinks. When I was lazy, I floated in the middle of a shallow bay for hours on end. The best part? The island was practically deserted. On busy days it took all my fingers and one or two sandy toes to count all the people on the beach. Most days were not busy.

I feel almost guilty writing about it. I didn’t think places like this existed and if they did, I knew I certainly didn’t deserve to visit them. But there I was, surrounded by lush jungle on one side and endless ocean on the other.

I came to Koh Kood(Kut) after four days of hard travel. I had been through Beijing, Bangkok, and a small town called Trat but didn’t feel like I had really seen any of them. In Beijing I was trapped in the airport. Bangkok moved so quickly, was so vast, and so bustling that it seems like a few distant memories of crowded trains, and almost being run down by a wave of scooters. I saw Trat’s bus station, a filthy guesthouse, a small café, and a funky Thai restaurant but that was about it.

On Koh Kood I really had time to soak the place and the saltwater into my pores. For the first time on the trip, the photography came easy. The vistas were so scenic, I could point my camera in almost any direction and end up with a decent shot. My polarizing filter never came off my 10-22mm. It let me capture all the brilliant color in the waves and sky. Continue reading