Wandering Brooks Photography
Taking Better Photographs
If you like a photo you have taken, then it’s a good one and that’s all that matters. Sometimes, all we want to do is record an occasion without caring whether the images look as good as similar more elegant photographs appearing in magazines. Sometimes a photo opportunity comes and goes so fast there is not enough time to do anything but grab the camera and push the button. At other times, you may have returned from a vacation filled with great landscapes or a trip to the zoo, flower show, wedding or sports event and been disappointed with what appear to be basic snapshots. The following tips are provided to help you take more professional looking photographs when you can make the time and high-quality results are important to you.
Rule #1 – Have Fun. If it takes time to understand a particular technique, hang in there and remember Rule #1.
Rule #2 – Be Prepared
· Think about specific photographic results you want to achieve on a particular outing.
· Be sure to bring the equipment you need to accomplish your goals.
· Bring cheat sheets to the photo shoot.
· Take extra memory cards. Whether it’s a vacation, a wedding or birthday gathering, you will need more memory cards with you in case the one in your camera becomes full or gets corrupted.
· Charge your batteries before you go & at night while away. Batteries have a nasty way of going dead at a moment which cannot be recreated. Be aware that digital camera batteries go dead faster in cold weather. Be sure you have enough charged backup batteries with you to finish out the day. Fully charge your batteries at night so you don’t start out the next day hoping you can make it through the day with partially discharged batteries.
Great photographs take effort. I met a professional photographer who traveled to China and stayed for a month to capture one particular image. In my opinion, that one photograph was worth the effort he made. Few of us will go to those lengths, but we need to have a familiarity with our photo equipment and know something about composition and lighting. The idea is to capture an image that does not need a lot of editing to look decent.
Smart phones vs “Real” Cameras – A huge percentage of people take all of their photos with a smart phone. It’s convenient, but there is very little depth of field control with smart phones. Accordingly, if you take some of your photos with a smart phone, some of the following techniques (i.e. composition & a stable platform) will apply. If you take photos with a compact or DSLR camera, settings on the camera will come into play. Compact cameras have more depth of field control than smart phones, but less than DSLRs. DSLRs are the least convenient, but have the most depth of field control, larger files for larger prints, faster shutter speeds for moving objects and focus rings that can be moved around the frame. Many people do not realize that the same aperture setting (i.e. F4) on a compact camera will result in a wider depth of field than when using a DSLR.
“The Exposure Triangle” – Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO
These three settings work together on every photo you take. If you understand these three things and nothing else, you will take better photos. Each of these settings can be adjusted by you. It’s important to remember that after taking a series of photos in a particular situation, you should return all settings to the default position. Failing to do this will leave adjusted settings in play which may be wrong for the next location. You will decide what settings to change when you arrive at the next photo situation.
Aperture refers to how wide the lens is open. The wider the lens is open, the more light that goes into the lens. The widest aperture setting can vary depending on the lens, but the easy way to think about it is small aperture numbers (i.e. F2.8 or F3.5 refer to a large opening (less depth of field) and big aperture numbers (i.e. F18 or F22) refer to a little opening (more depth of field).
Shutter Speed refers to how fast the shutter opens and closes. 1/30 (of a second) is slow and 1/640 (of a second) is fast.
ISO is adjusted to provide more or less light.
If you always leave your camera on “Auto” where your camera chooses all settings, you will get a mix of pretty good photos and average looking snapshots. To arrive at those better images you’re after, you need to control the settings. Always start with your ISO low for the best resolution (i.e. between 80 & 200) and your exposure control set at zero to avoid accidental over exposure or under exposure.
Example 1 - Let’s say you want an image of a beautiful flower with the background blurred.
If you are hand holding the camera (not on a tripod), and the photo you took is not sharp, your shutter speed may be too slow. Adjust the ISO upward (i.e. to 500). Your aperture opening will stay the same, but your shutter speed will increase and the image should be sharper.
Example 2 – Let’s say you have come across a great landscape scene where you want both the flowers in the foreground and the mountains in the background to be sharp.
a) Choose Aperture Priority.
b) Select a small aperture opening (i.e. F16). This will keep things in focus from near to far.
c) Put your camera on a tripod, get closer to the ground so the foreground flowers will be in the frame, focus a third of the way into the scene, compose and fire away.
d) If some part of the photo is not sharp (i.e. foreground flowers), try adjusting your aperture to a higher number (i.e. F22) to get a wider depth of field and reshoot the scene.
If you are hand holding the camera (not on a tripod), and the overall photo is not sharp, your shutter speed may be too slow. Adjust the ISO upward (i.e. to 500). Your aperture opening will stay the same, but your shutter speed will increase and the image should be sharper. The downside of increasing ISO is that the more the ISO is increased, the more noise (grainy look) that will be visible in the image.
Example 3 – Let’s say you are at a little league game, race or picnic with lots of movement. If you want to freeze movement (i.e. a swinging bat), do the following:
a) Choose Shutter Priority (usually S or Tv on the camera dial).
b) Select a shutter speed of at least 1/500 or 1/640. The aperture opening will be chosen by the camera.
c) Depress the button half way and see if there is a “lo” message or camera shake image. Seeing one of those messages means that even though the aperture is wide open, there is not enough light available for the shutter speed you have chosen to record a good exposure. To solve the problem, keep turning your ISO to a higher number until the message goes away.
d) Compose and fire away.
Exposure Control – There will be situations when you have done all of the right things with the settings (Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO), but the scene has so much contrast there are light areas or dark areas with lost detail. A histogram with no space on the left indicates lost shadow detail. No space on the right side of the histogram indicates lost detail in the highlight areas.
To see more detail in overexposed light areas of the image, turn the exposure control dial into the minus numbers (1/3 of a stop at a time). Take another shot and check the photo on the camera’s LCD. Keep doing that until the light area of the photo has more detail. For dark areas with lost detail, turn the exposure control into the plus numbers (1/3 of a stop at a time). Note that you must choose to fix light or dark issues; not both. After you are finished with this procedure, return the exposure control to the zero position so you do not accidentally over or under expose the next series of photos.
Taking Sharper Photos
Many recent cameras and lenses have a stabilization feature built in. In bright light, that may be enough to achieve a sharp hand held image. In low light (inside a dark church or at dawn or dusk for those landscape images), hand holding can often produce soft results.
Focal Length vs Shutter Speed - If you are using a zoom lens, any movement the camera makes will be magnified. If you are hand holding the camera, try to be sure your shutter speed is at least as fast as the focal length number. For example, if you are shooting at 135mm (focal length), try to be sure your shutter speed is at a higher number such as 1/200 (of a second).
Use a tripod – Start using a tripod more often and you will see a higher percentage of sharp photos. Aside from full size tripods which you can use locally, there are monopods, lightweight collapsible travel tripods available that will fit in carry-on luggage and desktop models you can carry in a pocket or purse
NOTE – Always make an effort to take landscape photos on a tripod. That is because landscape images always look better when taken early or late in the day when the light is dimmer and less harsh. Low light requires longer shutter speeds which will make many hand held photos appear out of focus.
Use a Cable Release – A cable release helps you avoid the camera movement associated with pushing the shutter button. If you don’t have a cable release with you, try taking the photo in self- timer mode which also avoids movement related to pushing the shutter button.
Make it your own – When you come across a good looking scene, don’t just whip out your camera, bang out a shot and move on. Think about it. Move around. Be patient. Would the shot be more interesting from a higher or lower position or from thirty yards to the left? Try different angles of the same shot. Try portrait and landscape orientation. When you get home, you’ll be glad you did.
Look around the frame for distractions – Before you push the shutter button, check all around the frame for items that should not be in the photo. Keep moving around until the offending items are gone or minimized before pulling the trigger. Getting this right at the time you take the shot reduces the time you will need to fix it with editing software.
Consider the Rule of Thirds – That principle refers to placing the main subject or horizon line near intersections of vertical and horizontal lines at 1/3 points in the frame.
Place your central figure off center – Avoid the bull’s eye effect for most photos.
Outside background for people photos – Keep it as simple as possible. The eye is drawn to a busy background instead of the subject. You may also want to think about using a larger aperture to help blur the background.
Positioning Moving Things – Anything that is moving (people, animals, cars, planes) should be moving into the frame with room for them to keep moving. Otherwise, they look like they are about to crash into the side of the frame they are moving toward.
Standard photography rules are made to be broken in some situations, but these techniques will normally help you get a better image.
Assume One Chance to capture an image. It may be gone or look different in the future.
Snow Scenes – To keep snow scenes from looking grey, using the exposure control dial, increase your exposure up to one full stop.
Fill the frame – to show detail & eliminate unnecessary items.
Portray people and small groups performing an activity – Consider showing people doing something where they are looking away from the camera vs posing them in “tin soldier” formation staring at you. This amounts to making a posed shot look like a candid shot. Get as close as possible to the subject(s) to capture more detail involving the subjects and avoid unnecessary clutter in the frame. Your subjects may not cooperate easily at the time you take the photo, but they will always appreciate a good photo later.
Take “people” pictures in the shade or in cloudy conditions – By doing this, you will avoid harsh contrasty light and there is less chance that your subjects will be squinting. If you are inside a house, position your subject near a window, but not in direct light. This can be very pleasant lighting where there is little contrast resulting in better facial expressions with no squinting.
Eyes in focus – Whether it’s people or animals, be sure you get the eyes in focus. That means being sure the focus ring in the frame is on the eyes or something on exactly the same plane as the eyes. Some cameras have a face recognition feature which will help ensure that the eyes are sharp.
Silhouette Issues – When you take a photo where there is too much light in the background, the main subject can turn into a silhouette. One way to address this is to “force” the flash to operate when you retake the photo. On a point & shoot camera, scroll through the flash options using the jagged arrow button. On a DSLR, pop open your on-camera flash or turn on the flash attached to your hot shoe. Even in normal light conditions, many outdoor photos of people look better using this forced flash technique.
Capture landscapes early and late to avoid the harsh light of mid-day.
Take a lot of photos – The chance of achieving your goal increases with the number of pictures taken. The more you take, the better you get. In the digital age, cost is not an issue.
Back up your memory cards while on vacation or during important photo shoots – Many photographers take a laptop or portable external hard drive on vacations and photo shoots. That allows for a second copy of cherished images to be saved and helps to protect against lost or corrupt memory cards. When you get home, be sure you have two or three backup copies in separate locations for all images you care about.
Traveling by plane – Keep your camera equipment with you when traveling by plane. Checked camera gear may not be there when you get to the destination. That means you must be selective about what camera equipment you take on the trip.
Editing - Many photographers do some editing of their images. Some camera club members spend many hours editing images that will be placed into competition. How much time you choose to spend on editing is up to you.
Never stop learning – If your best image was taken over a year ago, you need to work harder at improving your photography skills.
Always take your camera