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Copyright, Digital Photography and the Internet

Copyright in the digital internet age
Copyright in the digital internet age
Copyright in the digital internet age

We now live in a digital information era, one where data and images can flow freely cross-border and all around the world at lightening speed. But how does that affect copyright?  Is it safe to use an image we find on the web? As photographers, how can we protect our intellectual property from image theft? This article explores some of the key facts and issues surrounding using digital images on the internet that we need to know.

Do all images have a copyright?

Legally, copyright lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years after the year of their death, and many older digitised images from image libraries had copyrights renewed, so in practice most images are held under copyright.

Who Owns An Image’s Copyright?

In the vast majority of situations the person who creates an image (“the creator”), such as somebody who takes a photo, is the owner of the original copyright. The Designs, Copyright and Patents Act of 1988 enshrined this right in UK law. Copyright holders can grant permission to use “license” or transfer ownership (“assign”) their copyright to others.

What Does This Mean For An Image User?

In a nutshell – respect the image owner and ensure you have permission.

In practice, almost any image you find on the internet is likely to be protected by copyright, so it is only safe to use it if you are sure there is specific permission to do so in place, for example through a licence or in the terms and conditions of the website supplying the image.  Remember, you are responsible for ensuring that you have permission to use the image. Its safest to start out with the assumption it is copyrighted.

At its most basic level, if you want to use a photo, in any form, you need to seek permission from the copyright owner. Even if it’s a friend’s photo or is to be used for non-commercial purposes such as downloading a photo to use as a desktop screensaver.

Remember, you are responsible for ensuring that you have permission to use the image. Its safest to start out with the assumption it is copyrighted and if you’re not sure – always ask first!

So can I use images at all?

Don’t get too worried, just sharing a link is okay, and is of course what social media is meant to be all about. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that internet users should be free to share links to material that has been published online with the permission of the rights holder

However “Tagging”, that is displaying a hosted image or copying and hosting images on another website, probably does constitute copyright infringement.

Don’t forget also that modifying someone else’s photo, even if it’s by a friend, and even if it’s only for a joke, could well be an infringement of the image owner’s copyright, so do get their permission first.

The Rise Of Image Theft

The rise and rise of the internet and social media has also unleashed a wave of image theft, that perhaps in some ways might be compared to video piracy when technology first enabled video tapes to be copied.

For some psychological reason, activities carried out on the internet often don’t seem to be ascribed the same weight that they would be in the real world and seem to be perceived as not “counting”, perhaps because the victim is invisible at the time and the perpetrators may experience a false sense of anonymity that liberates them from a sense of consequences or repercussions.

Certain fellow photographers, for what are to me quite incomprehensible reasons, have even taken to stealing other photographer’s images and passing them off as their own on image sharing sites and social media in order to pad out their portfolios, or perhaps simply to gain a fleeting ego boost. Of course such antics were  always to be seen in not a few camera club competitions in the physical world too, but the technology of the internet world has created a step-change by making this so very easy to do at the click of a mouse button.

Of course such image theft is unethical in the extreme, cheating both victim from credit and also the perpetrator themselves from gaining the chance to learn and improve their own work. More seriously, such an act is unequivocally a legal copyright infringement.

Sadly there is also of course a more sinister side and the issue of “professional” image theft by criminal gangs for all manner of purposes which is even harder to spot and combat, although recent search by image capabilities are now starting to make tracking down such illegal activities easier.

Photographing Art Work

One thing for photographers to be mindful of is accidentally infringing another’s copyrighted work. If you photograph a creative piece of art under copyright and it is the main subject of your image then you may inadvertantly be infringing another’s copyright.

What Does This Mean For Digital Photographers?

In a nutshell – be aware, protect yourself and assess the risks.

Yes, your copyright is protected by law online as in the real world. But once you publish an image online, it is “out there” in the cyberspace for others to enjoy, share, comment on, use and inevitably, human nature being what it is, potentially misuse.

You of course stand to benefit from exposure, kudos and social media “likes”, but at the expense of a certain loss of control over your image once it enters the public domain. That is unavoidable and to a certain degree that risk has to be accepted as an “occupational hazard”.

There are of course sensible precautions you can and should  take to protect your images and copyright.

Check Websites’ T’s and C’s

Firstly DO spare the few moments it takes to check the terms and conditions on any internet, image sharing or social media website when you join before you start posting images and check back periodically as terms do change and get updated.

Quite a few have surprisingly unfavourable copyright terms and conditions  for photographers that at the very least enable them to make your images available for others to use, without your prior permission or notice.

The worst might even attempt to assign your copyright over to themselves which would leave defamation or privacy laws your only recourse in a dispute if your image were then to be used in a way you don’t like.

Whatever you do, DON’T surrender or give your copyright away, this undermines the value of you time and effort and photography as a creative genre.

Thankfully following a backlash by many photographers against unfavourable terms of use, several of the more established sites have recently been improving their terms.

Will “watermarking” my image give me more protection?

In the UK despite misconceptions you don’t have to watermark your image to assert your copyright as its creator, that said, it is a good idea to do so in order to ensure that people are clear that copyright exists on the image and that they know who to contact to obtain permission.

So it is worth copyright marking your work, but not excessively, heavy watermarks often destroy enjoyment of images and in reality don’t prevent determined thieves as these days clever software programs exist that can completely remove watermarks.

Enforcing Copyright

With the internet now established as part of everyday life and being accessed on tablets, smart phones outside the home, it’s now easier than ever to republish copyrighted works. So it is not surprising that copyright breach cases have risen so dramatically, but if you are caught using an image without permission and infringing another’s copyright there could be serious financial and legal consequences.

On social media there is a growing backlash by photographers who have fallen foul of image theft rallying against the misattribution of other photographer’s work.

With perpetrators now being more easy to track down through image search an increasing number of culprits are being brought to task and “named and shamed” publicly as well as receiving lifetime bans from sites.

Some of the big photo libraries have been using reverse image searches to track down illegal usage of their photos and are retrospectively billing the web designers.

As technology continues to advance and laws and policies start to catch up with technology, people who think copyright infringement will not be detected are increasingly likely to get a nasty surprise. The internet is now far less anonymous than you might think, with cookies embedded almost ubiquitously, in many respects individuals’ activities online are tracked far more extensively online than they can be in real life. So infringers do run a genuine and increasing risk of being discovered, shamed and potentially even being pursued through the courts as a consequence.

Hopefully the situation for photographers will continue to improve as awareness of the issues around data, copyright and image theft continues to grow, and bad behaviour of all kinds on the internet becomes increasingly socially unacceptable.

Further Information And Disclaimer

While this article is written in good faith, I am not a lawyer cannot guarantee 100% factual accuracy and this does not constitute any sort of legal guidance. If you are in a copyright dispute it is best to seek qualified advice.

If you are interested in the topics explored by this article here are some of the resources that are available:

The UK Government’s Intellectual Property and Copyright Law Website 

A helpful plain English IPO Factsheet called “Copyright Notice: digital images, photographs and the internet” (Number: 1/2014 Updated: March 2014)

www.stopstealingphotos.com – one photographer’s battle to challenge image theft got them bullied and temporarily barred from Facebook.

A plagiarism today article on Facebook and Copyright following one victims experience and how Facebook staff were themselves unaware of copyright rules.

Facebook – search for photo stealers

Meet The Skippers – A Photographic Guide To Skipper Identification

Essex Skipper butterfly female basking in evening light

Ssshh! Don’t tell the Essex Skippers, we’re in Norfolk…

Large skipper butterfly nectaring on creeping thistle flower
Large skipper butterfly nectaring on creeping thistle flower

These charming, vivid orange little butterflies have extended their range recently and seem perfectly happy living two counties further North than their namesake county. At this time of year they can readily be seen “skipping” amongst the hedgerow flowers and meadow grasses of East Anglia alongside their similar looking cousins, the Small Skippers and Large Skippers, sometimes in the company of the larger meadow  species such as Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper and Ringlet butterflies.

All three of our most common Skipper butterflies are small, similarly coloured and rather flighty, in fact the Essex Skipper and Small Skipper look so alike that the Essex Skipper was only recognised as a separate butterfly species in 1889. So just how do you tell these three oft-seen Skipper butterfly species apart?

Get a Mug Shot

The surest way to tell the three most common Skipper butterflies apart is to get a photo or good look of the underside of the tips of the butterfly’s antennae. The Essex Skipper has very distinctive, inky black antenna tips; whereas the similarly sized Small Skipper has orange-brown coloured antennae tips. Although the Large Skipper also has black tips, the antennae ends are more bulbous than those of the Essex and Small Skipper (which are stubby) and have twirly pointed tips.

The Essex skipper butterfly has black antennae tips
The Essex skipper butterfly has black antennae tips
The Small Skipper butterfly has orange antennae tips
The Small Skipper butterfly has orange antennae tips
Essex Skipper on hedge woundwort
The Essex Skipper’s black antennae tips are rounded
The Large Skipper has black pointed antennae tips
The Large Skipper has black pointed antennae tips

Skippers are territorial, living in colonies and can be quite confiding little butterflies when perching or basking. However, as their name suggests,they do have a frustrating habit of zooming vertically off their perch at the slightest movement and skipping off before we get the viewing angle we want, so here are some other perspectives and identification tips.

Skipper Butterflies In Profile

The Large Skipper’s chequered pattern is visible with its wings closed so should be readily distinguishable when perching or roosting. Essex and Small Skippers are harder to identify in profile as neither have distinguishing marks on their underwings and they are of a very similar size. However, according to Lewington and other field guides, the Essex Skipper’s undersides are more straw-coloured than those of the Small Skipper, which may appear more beige or buff. Be cautious if using this to distinguish the Essex and Small Skipper, as the look of the underwing can be affected by light conditions and indvidual variations.

Essex Skipper has a more straw-coloured underwing than the Small Skipper
The Essex Skipper has a more straw-coloured underwing than the Small Skipper
Large skipper has checkered markings also visible in profile
Large skipper has checkered markings also visible in profile
Small skippers' underwings are more beige in colour
Small skippers’ underwings are more beige in colour

 

“Check” out their Wing Markings

The Large Skipper is most readily identifiable from its chequered pattern wing markings. As well as being larger, Large Skipper butterflies appear brighter and more robust than then smaller Essex and Small Skipper butterflies. In contrast both the Small Skipper and Essex Skipper have relatively plain orange wings. Male Small and Essex skippers can be distinguished from each other by their sex bands (see more below). Female are trickier but one other clue to aid separation, though not always a reliable indicator, is that in Essex Skippers sometimes the dark wing edging bleeds up more heavily into the wing veins.Below are two Essex Skipper photos, one with the dark banding radiating into the veins, one without.

Small Skipper butterfly has plain wings when viewed side on
Small Skipper has plain wings viewed side on
Small skipper butterfly basking with wings open
Small skipper butterfly basking with wings open
Large Skipper butterfly's chequered wing markings from side on as it drinks nectar with its proboscis
Large Skipper’s chequered wing markings from side on as it drinks nectar with its proboscis
Large Skipper's contrasting chequered markings make it the easiest of the three most common skipper butterflies to identify
Large Skipper’s contrasting chequered markings make it the easiest of the three most common skipper butterflies to identify
Essex skipper female, sometimes the dark borders radiate along the veins. Essex skipper nectaring on field scabious
Essex skipper female on field scabious, sometimes the dark borders radiate along the veins
Essex Skipper butterfly female basking in evening light
Essex Skipper basking in evening light

Use Wing Bands to Identify Male Essex Skippers and Small Skippers

All three male Skipper butterflies have a black gender or scent band line marking on their front wings which can be a particularly helpful additional aid to distinguishing an Essex Skipper from a Small Skipper butterfly if you’re unable to view them head on. The male Small Skipper has a prominent black gender band that is long and curved whereas the Essex Skipper’s gender band is much less conspicuous, short, straigt and runs parallel to the edge of its forewing.  The male Large Skippers also have very prominant gender bands and at a distance, when fresh from emergence, might even potentially be confused with Gatekeepers due to their vivid orange colour.

Male Small Skipper has a longer, curved, more prominent gender band
Male Small Skipper has a longer, curved, more prominent gender band
Essex skipper (male) on grass stalk landscape
Male Essex Skipper has a short, straight, sex band parallel to the wing edge

Non Visual Characteristics Can also Eliminate a Suspect

Distribution

Both the Small Skipper and Essex Skipper have expanded their ranges northwards. The Essex Skipper is still the more south-easterly of the two species, being seen as far north as the Humber and west to the Severn Estuary. The Small Skipper, like the Large Skipper can be seen even in Wales and Cornwall and as far north as Northumberland recently.

Flight Times

The Large Skipper is the early bird of the three, flying from late May, peaking  in mid July and ending in late August. The Small appears next, flying from early June until early September. The Essex Skipper has the narrowest flight period, being seen on the wing from the end of June until the end of August.

Host Plants

All three species are single brooded and feed on various grasses such as Yorkshire-fog (Small Skipper), Creeping Soft-grass (Essex and Small Skippers) and Cock’s foot (Large Skipper). Early stage larvae overwinter in the sheaths of long grasses and winter cutting and “tidying” can negatively affect populations. For more information visit www.butterfly-conservatin.org

Resources

Butterfly Conservation Society –  Species Information and Factsheets:

R Lewington – Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland

All images taken by and © Kiri Stuart-Clarke. All rights reserved

The Essex skipper butterfly has black antennae tips
The Essex skipper butterfly has black antennae tips
Large skipper perched on reeds
Large skipper perched on reeds
small skipper climbing grass stalk
small skipper climbing grass stalk
Essex skipper on hedge woundwort
Essex skipper on hedge woundwort

On the Trail of the British Swallowtail

British Swallowtail butterfly basking wings spread

Sometimes as a naturalist and photographer, certain subjects remain so stubbornly elusive that they become a bit of a nemesis. Britain’s largest and most iconic species “papilio machaon britannicus”, our very own British swallowtail, was one such unlucky species for me. So much so, that it took me some five years to achieve my first photograph of this amazingly beautiful butterfly.

British Swallowtail butterfly preening
British Swallowtail butterfly preening its antenna

Our British swallowtail butterfly is actually a subspecies of the European strain that has adapted itself to use the delicate and somewhat sensitive fenland plant milk parsley as its caterpillar host plant. Once comparatively widespread in the south east, its range is now restricted to the Norfolk fens.

Many of you will know that butterflies are one of my favourite wildlife species and I’m a passionate supporter of the Butterfly Conservation Society, which does a great job of raising awareness about the threats to this beautiful animal. Though scarce, I live in Norfolk, the same county that this elusive butterfly calls home. So just how hard can it really be to see one?

Well timing is everything they say. The swallowtail is single brooded and has a relatively short flight period, from around mid May to mid June. If you add to that the need for reasonably clement weather, the window of opportunity is fairly narrow. In my defence, years one and two of my five year wash out were before I had relocated to live in Norfolk.

My natural history and local knowledge was still comparatively limited, and I was restricted solely to weekend trips to Norfolk targeted for the start of its flight period. These were planned using field guides, with the sole aim of seeing this amazing butterfly. Sadly that was just as we entered that phase where our winters were harsh, spring arrived late and the weather utterly uncooperative. Thus for two years in a row, bleak grey skies, cold temperatures and high winds put the kaibosh on my naive optimism and my target remained stubbornly and mysteriously elusive…

Year three and I relocated to Norfolk, surely now I would just stumble across one right? Cue multiple trips to Hickling, How Hill and Strumpshaw, all known Swallowtail hotspots over the course of the next three years. Yet these attempts attempts to witness the beauty of this butterfly were always ill-fated. I forget how many times I met people and heard them say frustratingly, “oh there was one just down that path there ” . Of course said Swallowtail invariably had vanished by the time I reached the spot, for all my luck, the Swallowtail might have been a capricious sprite from the cast of Shakespeare’s a midsummer’s nights dream.

Last year life simply overtook me. My hunt started far too late in the season for success. So this year, I was determined, was to bethe year of the Swallowtail. Come what may I was determined, I would find this iconic, awe-inspiring butterfly, no matter what!

Spring this year was again cool and I was nervous, conditions were far from auspicious for a prompt emergence or a bountiful butterfly season in Norfolk.

A visit to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen offered me my first fleeting, tantalising glimpse, but my bad luck struck again! Just as I arrived I glimpsed a large custard yellow butterfly swoop in…and it was, yes! ,,,.a swallowtail swooping in and aiming to land to nectar on white violet flowers at the main entrance. But even as I approached it was immediately spooked by an over-enthusiastic visitor waving his camera at it! This tourist seemed to be the incarnation of my Swallowtail nemesis, the butterfly equivalent of the “Man from Porlock” and opportunity lost. Assured by staff that they often returned, I stood stationary, sentinel-like for over an hour. Eventually a friendly gentlemen suggested another spot where he’d seen them “only a few hours before” – so off I trooped, yet to no avail. Another Swallowtail near miss, thwarted by mischance or fate, who knew and I finally started to see the funny side of it all.

Perhaps my resignation and acceptance swung it and the gods took pity on me. I had only one last day left of even remotely suitable weather between what were quite vicious storm showers and off I went one last time on my Swallowtail mission.

Back at Strumpshaw, now a familiar friend of a reserve, I ambled around the areas I’d been shown over the years, my jacket still done up against a nippy morning chill. Mercifully, the weather stubbornly refused to close in as forecast. I dawdled up and down the footpaths for about an hour, amidst cloudy intervals and cool, breezy conditions. Eventually, quite suddenly the sun won its battle against the grey and the temperature rose sharply.

British Swallowtail butterfly nectaring on pink campion
Swallowtails nectar on many pink and purple flowers including red campion, as well as yellow flag iris

Suddenly, to my immense surprise and joy, an immaculate, freshly emerged swallowtail materialised from the tree canopy above, landing to nectar on some wild red campion blossoms, bouncing from flower to flower. I was taken aback by the  sheer size and presence of this impressive, majestic almost magical, butterfly with its vibrant colours and bird-sized wingspan.

At last, this bird-sized stunningly beautiful butterfly posed for me, even basking, its impressive wingspread outstretched whenever the sun vanished behind the lingering cloud to warm itself up in the spring breeze.

My five year long mission was accomplished.

British Swallowtail butterfly basking wings spread
A freshley emerged British Swallowtail in Norfolk butterfly basking with its wings spread

 

Star Trail and Low Light Photography

Hunstanton lighthouse at dusk
Hunstanton lighthouse at dusk
Hunstanton lighthouse at dusk

When photographing at night you will be using a slow shutter speed to capture the light source against a dusk or dark sky. A stable camera is absolutely essential for night time photography in order to avoid image blur caused by camera shake.

Use a Tripod & Remote Release

Much as we all hate them, its vital to use a robust tripod to get lovely crisp shots during longer exposures. Avoid skinny aluminium ones with cross bars as I’m afraid they will not be up to the job. That doesn’t mean you have to spend the earth. A budget tripod in the Hama Traveller range shouldn’t set you back more than about £50. Feisol a mid range brand will set you back about £250 and Gitzo can set you back anything from £350-£600 or more. Your tripod mount is also worth considering as a loose one can ruin a long shutter speed shot. As well as being robust, a ball head and camera plate allows for easier camera manipulation and control than entry tripod plastic heads, which can become wobbly and hard to lock rigid for shooting over time.

Using a remote shutter release is useful as it will give maximum control over your exposure time with an on off button. These can be purchased from most photography retailers and you now have a choice of a standard cable or on newer camera models wireless options. You can also use the self-timer on the camera up to the cameras maximum shutter time typically around 30secs for a mid range camera like a 600D. Longer exposures require a cable release and bulb mode.

Shoot in “Bulb” Mode for Longer Shutter Speeds

For the best results I would always recommend shooting in ‘Bulb’ mode using a remote shutter release; this will allow you to keep the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter button. Bulb mode can usually be found in two ways; one can be on your dial where you will have the letter ‘B’ along with your manual mode, shutter priority and aperture priority modes. If the B is not there on your dial then try changing your camera to manual mode and changing the shutter speed until you see the word ‘Bulb’.

Image Quality, ISO and RAW files

For high image quality shots use the lowest ISO number you can (ideally ISO 100) as long exposures can cause noise. Some cameras have a “long exposure noise reduction” control setting that is worth experimenting with.

If you shoot in RAW file rather than in JPEG, you will get greater latitude to reduce noise, boost saturation and the contrast of the lights and generally tweak your exposure up or down without damaging the image.

Night Photography Scenarios

Fireworks and Lightning

You will use a slow exposure to capture the movement of the fireworks so don’t forget your tripod and ballhead.

Plan your composition in advance as far as possible. Think about obstructions, features of the landscape, where to stand and what sort of shots you want ahead of time. Get to the location early to get a good, unobstructed position; the last thing you want is people’s heads in your shots. Factor in where the fireworks are set, wind direction and strength (especially if there is also a bonfire) and what direction and area of the sky they are to be fired into; this will help deciding what focal lengths you might want to use and to choose appropriate lenses for the show.

Try both portrait and landscape compositions are they can both result in interesting compositions. Keep looking at the segment of the sky where the fireworks are exploding this can help you to anticipate the right time for a shot as you’ll see the light trails of unexploded rockets shooting into the sky.

Lenses, Focal Length and Aperture

Try shooting at a fixed focal length at first to ensure you get focus correct and consistent. You may need to switch to manual focus as auto focus doesn’t work well in low light, it can take a couple of goes to get it spot on but try turning your focus to infinity to start with and work it from there. The fireworks are not always going to explode in exactly the same place so if you use infinity and an aperture between F8 & F16 then you have a good chance of getting nice sharp shots. Once you start getting the hang of it try different focal lengths wide angle and zooming in if you have enough lens length; if not you can always shoot wide and crop afterwards.

Shutter Speed

If you use Bulb mode you can hold the shutter button down as the firework explodes, once the explosion has stopped release the shutter button and your shot will be captured. Remember to not keep the shutter open for too long because the camera sensor is absorbing light all the time and your image can easily become over exposed; a few seconds is usually plenty. Some of the latest micro-four thirds cameras, such as the Olympus E-series, have started to introduce clever in-camera technology called “live composite” shooting modes that ignore dark areas and only exposure bright parts of an image can are perfect for this style of photography

Once you have some well exposed shots in the bag, experiment a little with your shutter speed. You can also experiment with multiple exposures using black board. Start the exposure when the fireworks start holding the piece of board in front of the lens. Every time a firework explodes move the board out of the way and you will get multiple firework explosions in one exposure for a creative arty effect.

Northern Lights and Aurora Borealis

Firstly, for these images you really need to avoid other light sources if possible. Towns and houses light pollution will decrease the intensity of the aurora you can capture on film and may mess up your exposure. Get as far away from cities as you can.If you can, find higher ground that gives you lots of directions to shoot from, if you can’t, go for a North facing view point.Take a dim torch to help you set up and turn it off and cover over your eyepiece (to stop light intruding into the lens) while your images are being taken.

Think about what you can do compositionally to add foreground interest or a focal point for your eye to rest on – it will be silhouette based so think about lines, layers shape and form and remember the rule of thirds (though rules are sometimes made to be broken)

Focus to infinity and take a test shot then zoom in and ensure your horizon and if relevant foreground subject matter is nice and sharp, you will have movement in the aurora anyway.  Autofocus performs badly in low light so if need be switch to manual and use your focus ring.

Most exposure times seem to be between 15 seconds and 60 seconds. It will depend how much light there is and how good a display there is so don’t be afraid to experiment.

As you’re focussing to infinity its a long way away and you will get relatively large depth of field with a surprisingly small f number. Start at f2.8-F4 and see how you go. If you can’t get everything you need in your composition within the plane of focus then increase as necessary (increasing ISO as you go to maintain the shutter speed you want)

If shooting in AV mode Set the ISO to the right number that will give you the shutter speed you need at the f-number you’re starting at. Try ISO 400 as a starter for ten and take it from there. If you want longer exposures at the same f number reduce your ISO and vice versa. Use as low an ISO number as you can to get the best image quality.

If necessary use your exposure compensation to darken the sky – remember if you are in aperture priority mode your cameras light meter will wrongly try to brighten the dark scene to be an average mid tone. Start with minus 1 stop of light and adjust as needed. Exposure compensation will alter your shutter speed slightly so check that as you go.

For less than 2 second shots  use your two second timer so your camera does not get camera wobble from depressing the shutter. I would also (once you have composed your shot as in that position the mirror blocks the eyepiece viewfinder) set mirror lock up in your camera settings which will again reduce movement in the workings in the camera.

Your camera will have a minimum shutter speed and if you are experimenting with longer exposure you will need to use your cable release in click on click off mode, to use this turn your cameras wheel into Bulb or “B” mode. You will need to shoot in manual shooting mode (M) for this and in fact you may find it easier to work in manual the whole time as that removes the issue about the camera setting the speed for an incorrect “average” exposure that you have to correct for. The only difference is that in Manual shooting  mode the brightness or darkness of your exposure is a direct output of ISO + f number + speed so when you change the shutter speed or f number the exposure will go up and down directly. Take a stopwatch or use your mobile phone to time the length of exposure you need.

Star trail photography

This uses all the same principles as above except that the exposure is much longer, could be anything from 10-15 minutes or more. Some people take lots of time lapse 30 second exposures and then use image blending software to merge them all together afterwards into a composite image in photoshop.

If you want to do a long single shot exposure, experiment with 30 second exposures at a higher ISO number eg  ISO 1600 until you get an exposure you are happy with, then multiply the 30 seconds by the ISO number with the two zeros knocked off then divide by sixty to get the minutes rather than seconds to take the same shot at ISO 100 to avoid noise.

Here is an example long exposure ISO adjustment calculation

 30 secs x 16 (if you used ISO 1600) = 480
Divide 480 / 60  = 8 minutes

Or if you used ISO 3200 it would be 30 secs x 32 / 60 = 16 minutes.

Case Study – Los Gigantes Pole Star – Tenerife

Tenerife is renowned for its clear skies, even being home to a well regarded observatory and was an ideal place to demonstrate the technique. The pole star (the fulcrum around which the star trails will curve) was perfectly positioned above the cliffs in the evening just after dark fell.

In the first image you can see the starry sky as we humans see it, taken using a shockingly high ISO of 6400 and a 4 second exposure and then as the camera captured it over a period of 20 minutes (1236 seconds). Both shots used an aperture of f 4.0 and had long exposure noise reduction switched on.

One other thing to remember is that it will take as long to store the image on completing the shot as it did to expose it in the first place, so this technique definitely isn’t something to try in a rush!

Star trail against Los Gigantes cliffs
Star trail against Los Gigantes cliffs
Star filled night sky above Los Gigantes cliffs
Star filled night sky above Los Gigantes cliffs

Car Light trail photography

Again using the same basic principles, this scenario involves finding a spot where you’ll see the light trails created by cars, securing your digital camera, selecting a long exposure setting on your camera and shooting at a time when cars will be going by to create the trail of light. Then its just a case of experimenting with the length of shutter speed and exposure.

Some extra night photography tips:

  • Timing/Light – one might think that the middle of the night is the best time for light trail photography (and in a busy city it can be) – however one very effective time to do it is just as the sun is going down (just before and after). If you shoot at this time you’ll not only capture light from cars, but ambient light in the sky which can add atmosphere to your shots. You also might find that earlier in the evening you get a little more ‘action’ in your shot with more cars and even the movement of people through your shot.
  • Creative Perspectives – some of the most effective light trail shots are taken from perspectives other than at the height of a normal person standing up. Get down low or find a place looking down on your scene that will create an unusual angle.
  • Location, Location, Location – the most obvious thing with location is that you’ll need it to be somewhere near a road – however there’s more to think about than that. Choose a location that adds interest to the shot in some way. This might be one where there are well lit buildings along the road, one where multiple roads merge together to create light trails in different directions, on the bend of a road so that the trails sweep through the image, near a roundabout so the trails create circular shapes, in the middle of dual carriageways (on a traffic island) so that you get traffic coming in two directions etc.
  • Composition  – the normal ‘rules’ of composition apply in this type of photography. Images need some sort of point/s of interest, the rule of thirds can be applied effectively, draw the eyes into your image using lines smartly, foregrounds and backgrounds should add to and not distract from the image.
  • Camera settings – as the ambient light and speed of cars will differ in every situation there’s no single exposure combination that will work in every setting. Try starting with shutter speeds between 10 and 20 seconds (which gives cars time to move through the frame) and with apertures in the mid range (start with something around f/8). If your shots are overexposed –increase the f stop number) or if your shots are underexposed decrease the f stop numbers to let in more light through the aperture. If you want the car’s lights to go further through the frame go for a longer shutter speed and if you want it to travel less through the frame shorten it.
  • Light Contamination – One thing to watch out for is letting any other light source in your image (whether it be street lights signs etc) cause over exposure – for very long exposures they can easily bleach or wash out your image altogether. Lights that burn too bright can cause distractions and draw the eye of your viewer away from subjects.

One last word on personal safety…

Ideally don’t go out alone, if you do ensure you plan exactly where you are going, tell someone where you will be and when to expect you back and stick to that plan faithfully as a safety precaution. Ensure you have your watch and mobile phone with you and it is all charged up. Take a rucksack with some water, extra layers of clothing and some emergency snacks, and if anywhere remote, a full first aid kit.

Do please wear appropriate outdoor gear for this type of shoot.  In hot climes remember to take out mozzie repellent and cover your arms for biting insects. In temperate and northern climes use 4 season gear, and take extra over-layers you can add on during the night to wrap up warm as the temperature will plummet – don’t underestimate how cold you will get if you are out for a while and not moving much.

Lastly – Have a great time!

Kiri