Archives for Photography 101 category

There is not much worse than heading out to a much anticipated photography excursion only to discover that you forgot your memory card.  Well, except maybe returning from that anticipated trip and realizing you forgot to reset the camera settings back to the default and shot everything at ISO 800.  In either case you either end up unable to take any photographs or with a memory card full of images taken at the wrong setting that may only be fixable after hours of post-processing.  I have done this enough times that I came up with a pre photo shoot photography check list to make sure I have everything in place to capture the images I am after.

The Magic Hour, or as it is sometimes called, the Golden Hour, in photography is the time of day when the natural  ambient light is said to be at its ideal.  Although the time may not be an hour by the clock it is generally the hour (or so) following sunrise and preceding sunset.  At these times of day the hue of the lighting is warmer (more towards the orange and reds of the color wheel) and it is less harsh overall.  In contrast, mid-day lighting can be overly harsh causing deep and dark shadows and highlights that are too bright.  These conditions can often lead to an over exposed image.  The softer light of the magic hour will give you a much better lit image and fewer dark shadows.

Lighting, whether ambient or added in, plays a critical role in the end result of the image.  Paying attention to the position of the sun and the time of day can make a significant difference and is worth taking into consideration before snapping the shutter.

When it comes to the rules of composition in photography there are two things you need to know: 1) all the basic rules of composing a good photograph and how to execute them and 2) when to disregard those rules.

To start, composition in photography refers to how the elements in the frame are constructed and arranged to result in the desired final image.  There are a lot of these rules and a lot of expert opinions on how and when they should be executed.  Knowing them will help you be a better photographer and help you know when they do not apply to the image you are trying to construct.  I have already talked about framing the subject, leading lines and vertical vs. horizontal composition so up next is filling the frame.

Photo of a red bird in Arizona Example of a subject filling the frame in a photograph

The image on the left has distraction that takes away from the main subject, the bird.  The photo on the right works better because it fills the frame and nothing else in the image takes away from the bird.

Filling the frame is about making your intended subject the center of attention by doing just that, filling the frame, from top to bottom and left to right with nothing but your subject.  By cropping out the background “noise” and distraction you bring the subject to the forefront and leave no doubt as to what your photograph is about.  But as with all of these photography composition rules this is not an absolute rule.  You can’t zoom in on the intended subject and cut out everything in the background and expect a good rule obeying photograph.  Sometimes the background is part of the story or it enhances rather than distracts from the main subject or maybe that “distraction” gives your particular image the creative touch you were looking for.  This is where part two comes into play, know the rule and then know when it does not apply.

Example of a fill the fraem photo
In this photo the branches of the tree go from top to bottom and left to right completely filling the space within the borders of the image frame.  This technique makes it clear that the tree is the central subject of the photograph.

As a refresher from my previous posts on composition in photography, composition refers to how the elements in the frame are constructed and arranged to result in the desired final image.  You will often hear people speak of the “rules” of composition and a set way of composing an image in order for it to be considered visually appealing.  My stance on the rules is that as long as you are aware of them and able to follow them you are not required to follow them.  Photography is an art that is open to the interpretation of both the photographer and the viewer.

The “rules” around when to compose a photograph with a vertical layout versus a horizontal layout center around the composition of the subject itself.  It is often rather obvious which way to turn your camera based on the general layout of the subject.  The subject dictates the orientation in many cases.  However, the final decision is up to you as the photographer and your interpretation of the scene and how you want to present the final image may contradict what the subject commands.  This is where you have the luxury of trying it both ways and often achieving a completely different look just with a turn of the camera.

The two images below are of Cathedral Rock in Sedona Arizona.  The top photograph, taken with a horizontal orientation, tends to push the main subject back further as it brings in more of the vegetation to the sides and the stream in the foreground.  This is a great way for setting the scene and telling the whole story of the subject and its surroundings.

Example of horizontal composition in photography

This image was taken with a vertical orientation.  The resulting photograph has the main subject filling more of the frame from left to right and therefore appearing more as a central focal point.  The foreground is still dominated by the stream and allows for the “story” of the subjects surroundings to be told.

Example of vertical composition in photography

As a rule of thumb, tall subjects that are vertical in nature dictate a vertical camera orientation while wide subjects that spread from left to right dictate a horizontal camera orientation.  Use that as a guide when deciding what will work best for your subjects.  But use your gut and artistic instinct as the final decision maker.

The term bokeh refers to blur in an image.  But more specifically, it refers to blur used for aesthetic or artistic purposes not just “oops I did not focus properly blur.”   Good bokeh is generally used for parts of the image that are outside of the depth of field to render them blurred and distinguish them from the main focus of the photograph.  However, as with all of the rules of photography, sometimes you need to reinterpret them or outright break them.  If it makes sense to you to blur the entire image then go for it.  Since bokeh is an artistic effect it is open to the interpretation of the photographer and should be used to create an more beautiful image.

Example of bokeh in photography

You can achieve a bokeh effect in your photographs using the same principles you do to accomplish a shallow depth of field.  To manipulate the depth of field you can adjust several factors such as lens focal length, aperture, and shooting distance.  Using a large aperture (smaller f number) will give you a shallow depth of field in your images thereby blurring out the background of the scene.  You can also accomplish a full image bokeh effect by setting your camera to manual focus and intentionally not bringing your subject into clear focus.  Generally an over blurred image is considered a mistake and not bokeh.   But if you can pull it off and it works with the image you are presenting there is no reason not to experiment and see what you can come up with .

Example of bokeh in photography

Example of leading lines in photographyThe composition rules in photography all serve the general purpose of engaging the image’s viewer with the image.  That may be through getting an image that follows certain standards of beauty or enticing some sort of interaction from the viewer.  The purpose of leading lines in a photograph is to lead the viewer’s eye through (and occasionally right out of) the photograph so that they view the image as the photographer wants them to see it, starting at point A and following a specific path to see the image as the photographer saw the scene.  Leading lines are also used to bring the viewer’s  attention to one particular point in the image, generally the main subject.

How the leading line is achieved and what is used to construct it is completely up to your imagination.  Railroad tracks are probably the most common example of a leading line.  But fences, roads, the edge of a building, or a row of similar objects can all make a leading line.  As mentioned in the Framing the Subject post the “rules” o f composition are not absolute so much as they are guidelines to use and expand upon to produce images that are appealing.  As photographers we have to interpret and often break or reconstruct these rules to get the images we are after.

Example of leading lines in photography. Example of leading lines in photography

The image in the upper right is using the yellow lines of the road as the leading line to start the viewer in the lower left corner of the photograph and leading them to the center and the sunset.

The photograph of the tunnel above is simply directing the viewer’s eye to a termination point of the light at the end of the tunnel.

Finally, the image of the path on the right takes the photograph viewer from the shade to the light and finally the museum building at the end of the path.  In this photo one could argue that the path, or the leading line, itself is the subject rather than termination point of the museum.

Photo demonstrating framing the subjectIn photography, composition refers to how the elements in the frame are constructed and arranged to result in the desired final image.  There are many “rules” of composition in photography that are designed to produce an image that is appealing to the human eye.  Of course there is no one thing that is universally beautiful.  So these rules are not absolute so much as they are guidelines to use and expand upon to produce images that are appealing.  As a photographer you have to interpret and often break these rules to get the images you are after.  They do not have to be, nor are they meant to be, set in stone and followed blindly.

A good (and relatively easy) rule of photography composition to start with is framing the subject.  Simply put, framing a subject in an image is a photographic technique similar to physically framing your image in a picture frame.  Only in the case of photography you are using elements in the image to frame the part of the image that you want to draw the viewers attention to.

When you are composing your shot look for natural elements in the scene that could act as a frame for the main subject you want to draw the viewer to.  It does not need to be a solid, four-sided physical frame however.  It can be an implied frame, a hint of a frame on only 2 or 3 sides or anything you feel is appropriate for the image you want to make.  Remember the rules are made to be broken.

Example of framing the subject in photography

Example of framing in photography

The fundamentals such as proper exposure and composition are a critical part of photography.  By understanding these photography fundamentals you can improve your images immensely.  But there are also some very basic things you can do without much studying or mastering new concepts.

1) Know your camera, really know it! – Whether you have a point and shoot or an advanced DSLR your camera is a sometimes complex machine full of features, buttons and dials.  The best thing you can do to really know your camera  is to read the manual from cover-to-cover.  The manual will give you all the basic information you need so that you can become familiar with all those functions and dials and buttons.

If you don’t have a manual for your camera you are not out of luck.  There are a couple of options for missing camera manuals.

2) Take your time – Rushing through a photo shoot is going to result in images that look like you rushed.  Take the time to explore your subject; to shoot from different angles; to really think about what you are shooting and the end image you would like to capture.

3) Pay attention – Pay attention to your surroundings and those of your subject.  Yes, the subject itself is important, but so is everything around it.  A distraction in the background can ruin the perfect shot.  If you have ever seen a tree growing out of the top of someone’s head in an image you know what I mean about the background.  But it is not just the background that is important.  All the elements of the setting can influence the final image.  Here are just a few things to be on the look out for:

  • Shadows – yours, your subjects and any others that might be creeping into your image
  • Distractions – in the background or in the foreground – anything that takes the focus off your main subject
  • Lighting – Glare, bright spots, dark spots, uneven lighting

4) See what everyone else is doing – One of the best ways to improve what you are doing with your photography is to see what your fellow amateur photographers are doing.  The Internet is full of resources for this.  Look, ask questions, make comments, post your own photos, ask for feedback.  Participate in the online photography community.  Here are a few places to start you off:

5) Shoot, shoot and shoot again – Cliche as it is, practice makes perfect.  Even if you don’t know the difference between shutter speed and aperture you can improve the images you capture by shooting and shooting often.  But don’t just shoot.  Take a critical look at your images and note what you like and what you would like to improve on next time.

The official dictionary definition of reciprocal is “something that is equivalent to something else; counterpart; complement.” Reciprocity is a form of the word reciprocal and means “a relation of mutual dependence, action or influence.”

If you think of it in terms of a relationship it is a bit easier to understand.  Here is reciprocity used in a sentence to help:

The two companies have a relationship based on reciprocity as they joined together to fight their multi-million dollar competitor.

So how do we translate that to photography?  Rather simply actually.  In photography reciprocity refers to the relationship between the aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed.  Each f-stop has a corresponding or reciprocal shutter speed that will result in a correctly exposed image.  Essentially, the smaller the aperture opening (larger the f-number) the longer the shutter speed needs to be to get the optimal amount of light to the film or digital sensor.  Conversely, the larger the aperture (smaller the f-number) the shorter the shutter speed needs to be.  Simply put, as one goes down the other goes up, they are inversely related.  The chart below demonstrates this relationship between aperture and shutter speed.  As your aperture moves closer to the “large opening” end your shutter speed will move towards the “short exposure” end.  As your aperture moves closer to the “small opening” end, your shutter speed will move towards the “long exposure” end.

Diagram explaining reciprocity in photography

The reciprocal part of the relationship means that in order to maintain an accurate exposure, for each stop up or down you make in aperture (each change you make in f-stop) you need to make an equal number of stop changes for shutter speed and vice versa.

You may have heard of the term reciprocity failure as well.  This is a term related to film photography and occurs when the film fails to expose correctly with very long or very short shutter speeds.  This is because film is designed to work within specified shutter speeds.  The result of reciprocity failure is an incorrectly exposed image.  In digital photography however, reciprocity failure is not an issue.  The digital sensor in DSLR cameras does not have the same limitations of film so you can focus on the reciprocal relationship of the aperture to the shutter speed.



White balance has to do with color temperature.  If you have ever shot photographs using film indoors you are probably familiar with the yellow/orange or bluish cast that often washes over the scene.  The reason for those casts of color is that all light has a temperature associated with it.  The temperature of the light you are shooting in impacts the image by pushing the overall color towards red or blue.  The lower the temperature, such as tungsten or standard household lighting, the more the color shifts towards red.  The higher the temperature, such as fluorescent lights, the more the color shifts towards blue.  In film photography you either deal with the color cast in your images or use filters on the lens to balance the color out.

In digital camera, particularly DSLRs, the camera generally has a white balance setting.  You can select auto white balance or select from a number of pre-set options such as daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, etc.  The camera will then compensate for the lighting conditions and color temperature so that the overall color hue of the image is accurate.

You can leave the white balance set to automatic, but as will all of the settings on your digital camera taking them off automatic opens up the possibilities for more creativity with your photography.  Experiment with the different white balance settings and note how they each impact your subject.

These images were all taken of the same subject in direct sunlight.  I adjusted the white balance setting on the camera itself to show the effect of each on the image.  There is no Photoshop work on these images other than to re-size them and combine them into the one collage.  The camera did all the white balance adjusting.

Sample of DSLR white balance settings
Top Row L – R : Auto White Balance Setting, Daylight, Cloudy
Bottom Row L – R: Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash (the setting, no flash used)

Notice in the tungsten photograph (bottom left) the blue cast.  Since tungsten light has a lower temperature it shifts towards red.  The tungsten white balance setting on the DSLR attempts to compensate for this by adding blue.  But in a setting such as mine, where I am using the tungsten setting without any actual tungsten lights, the blue tone takes over the photograph.