Archives for Photography How To Tips category

Beyond Megapixels had a very timely post for me recently on Curing Photographer’s Block.  There are times when I head out with camera in hand and nothing inspires me.  I may try to shoot something hoping for the best but come back with an empty memory card or images that are uninspiring.  Tiffany at Beyond Megapixels offers 5 great tips for getting beyond the block and back to shooting.  If you don’t have her blog on your reader be sure to add it.  It is well written and offers some great tips and information on photography.

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.

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.

Color WheelFor this post, when I talk about color in photography I am not talking about using color film vs black and white film (or changing a digital setting to black and white). Although the choice between shooting in color or black and white can be a critical one, this post is about using color to enhance your composition and even as the subject of your photograph. For many amateur photographers we don’t often think about the mechanics of color when shooting, but all those technical details can really help make or break an image.

First things first, you probably remember the color wheel from your art classes in elementary school.  The color wheel is the basis of how colors relate to one another.  The official definition (via Wikipedia) is:

An abstract illustrative organization of color hues around a circle, showing relationships between colors considered to be primary colors,secondary colors, complementary colors, etc.

Keeping the color wheel in mind there is a lot you can do with the composition and subject of your photographs.  Here are 5 ways to experiment with color next time you are shooting.

1. Monochromatic

Example of Monochromatic Color in PhotographyIn a monochromatic image one color is used in varying degrees of saturation (the intensity of a color) and lightness, or shade.  This results in several contrasting shades of the same color in your photograph.  Look for a scene with one central color, blue for example.  Factors such as the lighting can influence the shade of that color and make for a more interesting image.  Avoid the obvious such as a photograph of the sidewalk.  Yes, that will result in a monochromatic photo, but the excessive lack of contrast can make for a boring photograph.  Using some creativity and your photographer’s eye you are sure to find a subject with varying shades of one color that make the photo both monochromatic and interesting.

2. Analogous

Example of an Analogous Color Scheme in PhotographyAnalogous refers to two or more colors that are next to each other on the color wheel.  Yellow and yellow-green for example.  One color tends to be the dominant color in the image while the other(s) are used to enrich the overall image. An analogous photograph is similar to the monochromatic one, but offers more variation in color and tone.  If you take your time you can find analogous subjects to photograph in both nature or the man-made environment.  You could also set up your own scene and experiment with different analogous color schemes.

3. Complimentary

Photograph showing an example of complimentary colorsColors that compliment each other are opposite each other on the color wheel.  Red and green or violet and yellow for example.  When colors are opposite each other they are thought to be in balance when they appear together.  The intensity of each color is also increased when complimentary colors appear next to each other.  This is referred to as simultaneous contrast.  You can easily set up a scene to capture complimentary colors by gathering some objects and arranging them together for your photograph.  Or challenge yourself and head out to find complimentary colors in your everyday environment.

4. Color and Light

The source of the light you are shooting in can have a dramatic impact on how color is perceived.  The intensity of sunlight, for example, differs by hour of the day and time of year.  Early morning and late afternoon light is much warmer (red) than midday light which is cooler (blue).  Shooting the same subject in varying natural light will impact the colors of that subject.  Other lighting sources, such as shade, florescent and tungsten bulbs and even flash can all result in the same color appearing very different in your photograph.

A great way to get a feel for the impact different light sources can have on your subject is take one (portable) solid colored subject and photograph it in varying light sources.  Shoot it in the morning and again at midday and at sunset.  Then move it indoors and shoot under regular household light (usually tungsten).  The tone and intensity of the color will vary, sometimes greatly, depending on your light source.

Monochromatic Color Scheme with Tungsten Light Monochromatic Color Scheme with Daylight as the Light Source

Top – Tungsten Light Source Bottom – Sunlight at Mid-Afternoon Light Source

5. Color as the Subject

Example of a photograph using color as the subjectOnce you have an understanding of the color wheel and the various ways in which colors relate to each other you can step your photography up a notch and try getting artsy.  One possibility is to use color itself as the subject of your photograph.  Although there can still be a physical object in the photograph,work with the color itself making it the primary focus of the photograph.  Use different tones, light intensities and complimentary, monochrome and analogous colors to create the image and see what you come up with.

I must admit depth of field has been a fundamental photography concept that has been difficult for me to master.  Although I am far from mastering it I have managed to take the first step, which is understanding it.  So I figured I would give the “Cliff Notes” version of depth of field for anyone else who is struggling to understand it.

What is Depth of Field?

Depth of field refers to the portion of an image that is in focus or sharp.  It is a great tool to tell the viewer what part of the image is most important by only having that part in sharp focus.  It is generally divided into two categories; narrow or shallow depth of field and great depth of field.  Narrow or shallow means that a very limited (or narrow) part of the image is in sharp focus and the rest of the image, in front of and behind the main subject of the image, is blurred.  Great depth of field is just the opposite.  A greater portion of the image including the space in front of and behind the main subject is in focus.

How do you control depth of field?

There are three factors that affect the depth of field of your photograph.

  1. Aperture Size
  2. Focal Length
  3. Lens-to-Subject Distance

Aperture Size

Put simply, the smaller the aperture (the larger the f-stop #) the greater the depth of field and the larger the aperture (the smaller the f-stop #) the shallower the depth of field.  So if you have three objects lined up at varying distances from each other and you want to capture the front object in sharp focus while blurring the others open your aperture way up to whatever your smallest f-stop is for the focal length you are using (f/5 for example) and focus on the front object (top photo below).  If you want all three objects in relative focus close your aperture down to your largest available f-stop (f/22 for example) (bottom photo below).

Example of Narrow Depth of Field Photograph

large aperture/small f-stop = shallow depth of field

Example of Great Depth of Field Photograph

small aperture/large f-stop = great depth of field

Focal Length

Shorter focal lengths lenses result in a greater depth of field while longer focal length lenses result in a more shallow depth of field.  For example if you are using a 35 mm to 70 mm zoom lens and focus on your subject at 35 mm with an aperture of f/8 you you will get your subject as well as more of the foreground and background in focus (top photo below).  Then when you change the focal length to 70 mm at the same f/8 aperture the resulting depth of field will be narrow, meaning a blurred background and foreground and sharper subject (bottom photo below).

Example Photograph with Great Depth of Field

short focal length (~50 mm) = great depth of field

Example Photograph with Narrow Depth of Field

long focal length (~200 mm) = shallow depth of field

Lens-to-Subject Distance

The further you are from your subject the greater your depth of field will be.  Conversely, the closer you are to your subject the more narrow your depth of field will be.  For example, taking a photograph of a group of people in front of a scenic background from 20 yards away will result in both the people and the background being in focus.  While moving closer to the people, say 5 yards, will result in the people being in more sharp focus while the background begins to blur.

further away from subject = great depth of field

closer to subject = shallow depth of field

In film photography ISO refers to the film’s sensitivity to light and is also called the film speed.  The chemical makeup of the film is altered to either increase or decrease its sensitivity and speed.  The lower the ISO number the slower and less sensitive the film is to light.  Low speed film also results in less grainy photographs.  The higher the ISO number the faster and more sensitive the film is to light.  In simple terms that means in well lit situations, such as outdoors on a sunny day, you need a lower ISO film such as an ISO 100 and in less lit situations and action shots, such as indoors and sporting events, you need a higher ISO number such as 400.

So this may lead you to wonder why there is an ISO setting on your digital camera.  There is no film to chemically alter and you either set it and forget it on auto or manually adjust your shutter speed and aperture to compensate for different lighting conditions and motion.  So how does ISO fit into digital photography?

In a digital camera the film is replaced with the sensor.  So ISO in a digital camera sets the speed and sensitivity to light of the sensor.  Being able to adjust your ISO allows for expanded shooting options in different conditions.  For example, if you leave your ISO on automatic the camera will, in most cases, chose a low ISO.  In daylight conditions this will probably be acceptable.  But in low light conditions you will need to compensate by extending your shutter speed or opening up the aperture.  But a longer shutter speed can lead to camera shake and blurry pictures unless a tripod is available.  So an easy solution is to increase your ISO.  The faster “film” speed and greater sensitivity to light allows for shorter shutter speeds and less chance of blurred pictures from camera shake.

You will want to keep in mind that the higher the ISO the more noise a digital image can have (grain in film photography).  Depending on the end use and final printed size of your image this may be an acceptable compromise to get the shot you want.

I shot the three photographs below in Scottsdale, AZ.  The ISO setting from left to right was 100, 200 and 400.  The aperture was at f/6.3 and the shutter speed was at3.2 sec for all three.  As you can see, increasing the ISO allowed for the more sensitive sensor to take on more light and get a very different picture.

Night Phtograph Shot at ISO100 Night Photograph Shot at ISO 200 Night Photograph Shot at ISO 400

Click on the images to see a larger version.  Then go out and take your camera off ISO auto and experiment.

The more I photograph the more I notice my surroundings in a very different way than I ever had before.  I am always on the look out for the next great photo opportunity.  (Makes for a bit of distraction while driving)  As I am scoping things out for photograph opportunities there are several key things that I particularly pay attention to because I feel they are important to great photos and improving my photography skills.

  1. Light and shadow in photographyLight and Shadows – I look at how the two work together.  Time of day plays a significant role in this because the two change constantly throughout the day.  A spot that may have great light and shadows at 8 am can be a whole different story at noon.  Morning and late afternoon/early evening light is often (but not always) best.
  2. Patterns – I find myself really stopping and looking at the details ofRepeating patterns in photography everyday things.  There is pattern everywhere; the grill of a car, a fence line, the branches of a tree.  Repeating lines, patterns and circles frequently make great photographs when composed right.  I will look at things close up and from a distance as well as check them out from different angles.  My goal is to see how they change depending on my position and view.
  3. Texture – Texture is more than just how something feels.  It ties into pattern and light and shadow as well.  This is another Texture in photographyone where I really try to pay attention to the details.  Most of us tend to overlook the texture of most of the things in our everyday lives.  I find myself looking at things like the bark of a tree and how the texture works with the light and shadows.  Or a brick wall.  Close up shots of things I may never have thought of before can often reveal a great photograph.  Taking the time to study the details of things and finding the best composition to lay the photograph out has helped me quite a bit.
  4. Lines – Lines are everywhere and I always took them for Repeating lines in photographygranted.  But they can often times make or break a photograph.  In photography you hear all kinds of terms like leading lines, converging lines and the like.  They are more than just buzz words.  One thing I have done is to make sure I am checking things out from multiple angles.  I get down low and when possible up high.  The lines change dramatically in some cases.  Look for lines from objects as well as their shadows.
  5. Colors – This one seems obvious.  But it is more than the pretty Use of color in photographyred flower.  I look at how the colors work together or sometimes don’t work together.  I have found amazing color in the least likely places or places I usually take for granted.  I am forcing myself to think beyond the obvious color and playing with color.  A hint of orange makes this a very different picture than it would be if it was not there for example.

Mesa Arts Center - Mesa, AZAside from displaying my photography, one of the purposes of this blog is to pass on some of the things I learn as I experiment with and explore photography.  Since I have been doing so much night time photography lately I figured this was the perfect opportunity to list out some of the tips I have learned both through my own trial and error and through reading the numerous online tutorials that are available.  I pointed out a few things I had figured out during my first attempt at night photography in San Diego a few months ago.  That outing got me hooked and I have since done numerous additional photo shoots at night so I have picked up a few more tid-bits.  Here are a few things that I hope will help you out next time you venture out with your camera after dark.

  1. I mentioned this before, but I think it is worth repeating, some method of keeping your camera steady, other than hoping for steady hands, is essential.  A tripod is ideal for this of course.  But if you do not have one available don’t let that dissuade you, you can always improvise with a nearby rock, bench, railing or anything to set you camera on and hold it steady.
  2. Most DSLRs now have some form of image stabilization or “Steady Shot” to reduce camera shake.  I had not thought of this before reading DSLR Tips’ tutorial on Night Photography but since you are using a tripod the mechanism in the camera or lens to compensate for camera shake is not necessary.  In fact, they claim it can cause other distortions in your picture as it tries to correct for something that is not there with the tripod, camera shake.  So turn this feature of your camera or lens off for night photography.
  3. Depending on the effect you are going for, this may not be a blanket rule that applies to all photography after dark, but in general set your aperture (f-stop) to its lowest setting (widest opening).  This will allow for the most light to reach the sensor.
  4. With your aperture fully open you can leave it alone and only adjust your shutter speed with each shot.  Try the same shot with varying shutter speeds.  You can even bracket by shooting at one speed then trying the next speed up and down capturing each image three times at three speeds to determine which works best.
  5. Finally, this rule is not limited to night time photography exclusively, but all of your photography in general.  Have patience!  Being in a hurry may result in some nice snap shots, but not necessarily the great photographs you are aiming for.  Slow down and think about what you are doing, what your camera settings are, and what you want to accomplish with the click of the shutter.