Monthly Archive: April 2016

Don’t Forget the Fun!!!

When I started learning photography, I wasn’t really interested in people. I was more interested in nature and landscapes.

Once I got the bug to take portraits, I didn’t realize how much of it was people skills as opposed to photography skills. Don’t get me wrong, without photography skills, I don’t think that your portraits will have that pop and excitement that you like. But, without the people skills you are going to get technically good photographs, without much interests.

So, while I am in the middle of writing lessons on the more technical aspects of photography, I don’t want it to come off as all mechanical and emotionless either.

Today’s quick little post is about having fun!!!

The quicker you can connect to your subject, the better. The better you know them, and know their personality, the quicker you will come up with something that suits them.

I am reminded of a photograph that I did of my own kids. You should know those closest around you best, so it should be easiest to get their personalities to come out, and capture them.

To understand my thinking you need to understand the personality of my 6 year old. He is number 3. My oldest is more quiet and less likely to come out his shell. My middle is just a sweet girl. But, the 6 year old is the wild child. All personality, and he has swindles that would make a political jealous.

While taking fall photographs of them separately and then together, I wanted something to highlight his crazy personality.

I say my oldest down and posed him. Then, I sat my daughter down and posed her as well. Then, I whispered my instructions to the youngest and told him to execute those instructions on the count of 3. His behavior messed up the poses of the other two a little bit, so there is nothing technically perfect about the pose, but the end result is a photography that captures a bit of the personality of all 3 of them.

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Once again, this photo was taken during an “in between” period of my cameras and was taken with a simple Canon point and shoot camera.

A year later, I was doing the same thing again, with the same camera. While not my idea of portrait excellence, because I had to sacrifice some lighting and composition to get the photo I had in mind, it is still a very memorable photo for me. You can see some stray light peaking in when I would rather it not, and also some brighter spots in the background than I would have liked. But, it was still fun!

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All planned, but also all fun!

Happy shooting!

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Focal Length

If you use a zoom lens, I don’t mean to pick on them, but they are one of the easiest ways to unintentionally goof up a good photo. That is, unless you understand the effect that focal length has on the look of your photograph, and then consciously make your lens do what you want it to do. That is what I plan to show here.

I have seen or heard two common mistakes with respect to focal length, and yes I used to be guilty of both of these.

1) Stand there in front of something you want to take a picture of. It is either too close, or too far, so you zoom in or out to fit the subject in the frame the way you want.
2) Stick with one focal length (or one prime lens) for everything that you shoot, and move your body to get your subject sized the way you would like.

Before I say both of those are a mistake, I would like to say that many professional photographers can and have done a great job, and put together a great portfolio while violating number 2 above. Usually though, doing so does not cover a wide variety of photographic topics. For example, there is no way I could personally take business portrait, and then turn around and get a desired landscape shot using the same focal length.

Instead of arguing whether or not you can acceptably get away with one focal length, let’s just get on with the point of what focal length does for your photographs, and then you can decide for yourself what will work for you.

Let’s start with example 1 above. If I am too close to my subject and I zoom to a wide angle, it is true that I can get my subject about the same size in the frame as if I were to use a longer focal length, and back up. Subject is the same size in the frame…..what is the big deal right? It is important to understand what your selected focal length does to distances between your subject and everything around it.

For simplicity sake, I am going to break focal lengths up into 3 ranges. Wide angle, normal, and telephoto. I say keep it simple because we could get into moderate telephoto, telephoto and the same with wide angle. Let’s keep it simple and stick with the 3 ranges and understanding what they do. Once you know that, you can tweak in things with the in-between ranges.

Normal

Normal is given that name, because everything appears “normal.” Meaning that the separation between objects is pretty much the way your eye sees things. Some people love shooting with a normal lens and some people call it boring. It all depends on what you are doing.

To understand why it is “normal” you have to understand what the other two ranges are doing for you.

Wide Angle

Focal lengths in the wide angle range produce something fancy called “perspective distortion.” It is distorting the perspective because it is exaggerating the distance between two objects. Simply put, wide angle makes near things seem nearer and far things seem farther.

The classic example of this is the dog nose photo.

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The dogs nose looks as big as its head. Since we see things through “normal” eyes, we know this is not the case. Yet this is the perspective that the wide angle lens is seeing.

This is important for a lot of reasons, but I will cover a couple here. First, if you are taking photographs of people, unless you are going for a specific point, or something artistic, you want to avoid perspective distortion. Meaning you want at least normal, perhaps telephoto, depending the shot (more on that later). Nobody wants to look like the dog in the photo. Yet, people do it all the time!!!

I can’t tell you how many photographs I have seen where a person is posed on the ground, or sitting, and the pose is such a way that their leg is about a foot in front of their head. Nothing wrong with that, but then the photographer stands on top of them, and in order to “fit it all in” the frame, a super wide angle is necessary to take the picture. The result is the person’s leg from foot to knee looks 3 times larger than their head, and their head is this dinky tiny little thing in the back. And I see people wanting to charge money for that all the time. Don’t make that simple mistake!

I don’t care if your lighting is perfect, posing is otherwise great, exposure is spot on, if you unknowingly create that type of distortion on a person, it is like nails on a chalkboard to me. While I realize what is going on, and it makes me cringe, others may not know what it is, but they will just have that gut feeling that it is not a great photograph, without knowing exactly why.

Let’s take a look at an example of that. Last Sunday, when we were leaving church, I asked my oldest to sit down on the stairs. I had my point and shoot camera in my bag, and I took a couple quick shots of him for illustration. While looking at these two shots, let’s run through the process I outlined for Taking a Great Photograph.

Also, these examples are more subtle, because I don’t have much focal length range in my point and shoot camera. But, there is enough to see the effect I am talking about. Most DSLR’s have plenty of range in focal length to exaggerate this effect even more.

The first shot.

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Stepping through the process:

1) Select the focal length that will achieve the desired result.

I failed right away at the first step. I didn’t think about the focal length I wanted to shoot at, and it was wide for the point and shoot camera I was using. I moved in to fill the frame with my subject, and the result is not a great photograph.

I will show a comparison next, but I want you to notice, does something just not “feel” right with this one? I mean, my son is long, tall and skinny. But, the perspective distortion caused by the wide angle focal length makes the subject of the photo look to be his long legs. The face should be the first thing you are drawn to, and it seems WAY back there in the background.

For the comparison shot, I actually made it through a couple steps in the process, so let’s look at that.

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Feel a little more natural? I hope so.

Let’s take a look at the process:

1) Select the focal length that will achieve the desired result.

I knew I didn’t want to be standing on top of him, and since it is a full body shot, I knew I wanted at least a normal focal length. I went just a tad above normal, and shot this with just a touch of compression.

2) Select the aperture that will achieve the desired result.

I knew I didn’t want to have everything in f/16 style depth of field (aperture and depth of field is my next topic). With a small lens, small sensor, I was comfortable setting the aperture at f/3.2 on this shot.

3) Make sure the shutter speed at that aperture is suitable for hand holding your camera.

Yup. Shutter speed was high enough to support hand holding the camera.

Whoo Hoo….I made it through at least 3 items. This is still not a “great” photograph. The lighting is rather flat, the eyes are dark, the composition is not that great (with the pillar in the background not having good placement). Pose is only so-so, and I didn’t work to get any sort of interesting expression. But, the point is that at least I didn’t screw it up because I did not know what effect focal length was having on the photo.

To further illustrate the effect of focal length I want to show the comparison in a little more detail, I took both shots and did a little work on them. I drew a red line from the chin to the top of the head. Basically it is the size of his head in the photograph. I then copied that same line, rotated it and moved it to show its relative size to something in the foreground. In this case, his foot.

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Doing the same process for the second photo, we get this result.

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As you can see, in the second shot, the size of his head is closer to the size of his foot. It is nearly the same length. In the first shot, the size of his head, relative to his foot shrunk about an inch or so. No body parts grew or shrank between taking the photos, so I hope this illustrates how different focal lengths can distort what you are taking a photograph of.

Finally, because of the distance required to fill the frame in “wide angle” focal length, my camera height is at about face level for both shots, but in the first one, I am looking more down on his foot. When I step back for the second shot I am looking at his foot more from the side, instead of looking down on it. Which makes for a more natural look. You can can tell by the angle of his foot in each shot. I promise, he didn’t move!

The second example of perspective distortion is NOT using. Have you ever went on vacation and stopped the car because there is a scenic mountain view? You see tourist all standing around taking photos with their cheap camera and you walk up with your big expensive equipment, snap a shot and guess what? Your photo sucks too! I say that, because I have been there, I know what it is like.

The problem is that you see this grand scene, in 3 dimensions, with a lot of depth, and when you capture it in 2 dimensions, everything looks just flat and lifeless. It is your job to give it back its life and create depth with only 2 dimensions. You want to create a sense of “near” and a sense of “far” in the photograph to give it the depth and life back. Hmm…..near and far….sounds like a good job for the perspective distortion we talked about earlier, and it is!

Without stumbling too much into the realm of composition, this has been a trick of professional photographers in taking landscape photos for ever.

1) Use wide angle to exaggerate distances in the landscape.
2) Place a foreground element “near” in the photograph.
3) Have a background element “far” in photograph.
4) Make space between the two.

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Assuming the light, composition, exposure and everything else is good, you have just knowingly used perspective distortion to create a professional looking photograph.

Telephoto

On the other side of normal is the telephoto range. If a normal focal length makes things look normal, a wide angle exaggerates distances between objects, then it would be a good guess to say that a telephoto shortens distances between objects. And you would be right! It is called “compression” because the telephoto lens compresses the distances between object in a photograph.

Is this desirable? Absolutely. There are some cases where you have no choice, such as shooting wildlife from long distances or sports at long distances. Because the nature of the situation, you are going to get compression from a long lens, and it looks great. But, it can also be a great tool in everyday photography.

If I were to take a bread and butter, business head and shoulders photo, I would want a little bit of compression. We already discussed why we don’t want wide angle. Nobody wants to have a dog nose in a business portrait. Why not normal? If that is the way we normally see things, don’t we want the person to appear as normal? Well yes, the but the problem is that with a normal focal length, in order to fill the frame you end up closer to the subject than you would like to be. Being that close exaggerates things on its own and you will end up still with a little bit of the dog nose effect, which may show itself in the forehead looking too large, or things still being a little bit out of scale.

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So, my head and shoulders photographs are done with a mild amount of compression and a telephoto lens is used. While I said I wanted to keep things simple and stick to 3 ranges, I will say that we are talking about a moderate telephoto lens. You don’t want to use a 300mm lens and stand 75 feet away from subject while yelling posing directions to them 🙂

As a general rule, close up, head and shoulders type shots are done with a mild bit of compression. You can use the same lens for farther back shots, but doing so puts more and more distance between you and your subject. Half body and beyond shots is usually when I switch to the normal focal length.

Let’s do a scenario to see how this would be useful. You are on vacation, or at the park with your kids and they just look so cute that you want to take a photo of them. You want to get a nice, close up shot of them. Instead of just leaving it as a random variable with a random outcome, you say to yourself “Oh….this is going to be close, and this is going to be a tight shot. I want a little bit of compression.” You zoom your lens a touch past normal and then move your body to frame the shot appropriately. You just answered question number 1 on my steps to Taking a Great Photograph, and no longer left this variable to chance.

Finally, you might ask “What focal lengths are wide, normal and telephoto on my camera?” Ugh…..I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that. The answer is, I am going to have to leave that one up to you. There is plenty of information on the web about that, I am trying to create content that I do not think is readily available. The real answer is there are way too many cameras (phone, point and shoot, DSLR) with different variables (DSLR with cropped sensor, DSLR with full frame sensor), etc for me to give an easy answer. I generally shoot a medium format camera which can make things even more confusing!!!

So my advice on this one is google it! If you still struggle with figuring this out, feel free to drop me a line and I will try and help you out.

Finally, remember that what I said about focal lengths are just guidelines. There are always times when “the rules can be broken.” But, in knowing what you are doing with focal length, you are choosing to break the rules, and you know why and what is going to happen, rather than leaving it to chance.

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In summary:
1) Select the proper focal length for the “effect” you want the photograph to have.
2) Move your body to appropriately size and place your subject(s).
3) Follow the rest of the items on my Taking a Great Photograph Checklist, which we have not covered yet!

If some of those steps did not make sense, don’t worry. We haven’t covered all those topics yet. Do as many as you understand and we will keep going. That process won’t change through this whole series. We will just learn more about each item.

Happy shooting!

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Lighting

Lighting is the single biggest destroyer of photographs. So, I want to take some time up front to cover it in at least a little bit of detail. In order to get on to other useful topics, if I have to come back to this in greater detail later, with more specific examples, I will.

Lighting is probably the most important element of a photograph as well. You can have the most expensive camera, with the best lens available, and if the lighting is crappy, the photograph will be crappy as well. It is kind of like having the most expensive piano money can buy, and not knowing how to play it.

The good news to that is if you have only a moderately price camera, you can do some amazing things when you have great lighting. If you are a world class pianist, you can sound good on just about anything in tune. The thing that is missing from having the absolutely best, high end stuff will more than likely only be able to be appreciated by a select few.

For example, I was in between “better” cameras, and I took this portrait of my daughter with a simple point and shoot camera.

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What makes good lighting? Let me answer that by asking another question. Why is that when you look at some photos, they seem to barely have any color at all? Other photos seem to have super deep, rich, saturated colors? I want to answer those last two questions, and it will in turn answer the question about what makes good light.

Whether you use film or digital, whatever you using is only able to capture a fixed amount of detail. I like to think about that as the volume that a bucket will hold. The illustration below shows a bucket, that is able to hold a determined about of photographic detail. As you will see, I conveniently labeled two axis of the bucket.
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The volume of this bucket can not really change, but you can stretch in and skew it in one direction or the other. If you have a lot of dynamic range in your photo, the depth of color will suffer. In case you didn’t know, dynamic range is just a fancy term for the difference between the darkest spot in your photograph, and the lightest spot.
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This example is where I think a lot of photographs suffer. Either from stay light leaking onto the subject (creating a lot of dynamic range) or a lot of light difference between your subject and background. All cases where there is a lot of dynamic range hurt the color depth.

Now, let’s look at the other extreme. Let’s say we get control of the dynamic range. Enough light and darks to give your subject dimension, and yet trying to cover a huge dynamic range. When this happens, your bucket looks like this.

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This is when the magic happens. Colors will look deep, vibrate and better than real life. It is such a tough thing to do because film, or your digital sensor is so much more sensitive to the difference between light and dark than your eye is. You see a scene, and think it will be fine, but it is not to your camera. Also, it can be easy to see the light on your subject, and forget to check for that little bit of light that leaked into the background and ruined your color depth.

Here are a couple of examples. First the bad.

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This is a beautiful waterfall. The composition is not bad. There is a neat foreground element, along with a bigger fall in the background. Yet the difference between the dark spot on the lower left, and the brightness of the upper fall in the background leaves the photos without much depth of color. You can also see stray light poking through everywhere in the foreground.

How about the good.

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See the difference? There is no stray light shining in. There is a difference in lighting and direction based on the shadows on the rocks. Enough to give direction and shape, but not enough to destroy the range of color. You can see the greens are deep and the browns are great.

The same concept can be done with people too. With people you will be more concerned with the direction of light, and how it is falling on them. But, if you use this concept of subtle changes of light, and keeping things relatively evenly illuminated across the subject and background, you will really see the colors in your photos start to pop.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of good lighting enough. Too many people that start picking up and camera and making photos, and don’t master light, tend to use a lot of effects and coloration to compensate for the lack of interesting photograph. When I see photographs like that, all I see is something that is poorly lit and a lot of photoshop work done after the fact. I am not knocking any style. If cool effects and color treatments are your thing, it will only be made better with better lighting.

I plan to come back to lighting eventually, especially how it can relate to people and posing. But, in order to get through the more basic photography concepts, I wanted to make this post about the importance of lighting and a practical concept to apply.

If you have anything specific you would like me to cover on lighting, please let me know!

Happy shooting!

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Process for Taking a Great Photograph

When I said that professionals get salable shots no matter what, it is because they are paying attention to the things that effect the overall outcome of the photograph. The easiest way I know to boil that down is to do a step by step approach to taking a photo.

1) Select the focal length that will achieve the desired result.
2) Select the aperture that will achieve the desired result.
3) Make sure the shutter speed at that aperture is suitable for hand holding your camera. If it is too slow, you can stabilize the camera, use a monopod or tripod, or increase the ISO setting.
4) Check/Create the composition of the shot. Check your background!
5) Do any posing, if necessary or desired for the photograph you are taking.
6) Take the photo.

If you don’t understand all those things, don’t worry. That is the purpose of this series. To go through each of those things. It also assumes that you have good lighting for the shot. I just wanted to outline it because it is going to be the same process over and over again and I will use that outline to go through examples.

If all that seems to complicated or too much work, don’t worry. The more you do it, the more it will be come second nature. Kind of like when you first started driving. You had your hands at 10 and 2, checked your mirrors every 30 seconds and were pretty conscious of doing everything you needed to do. Pretty soon you are driving with your knee because you have a cheeseburger in your left hand, and selecting songs with your right. It won’t take long and especially items 1 through 3 will come so fast that you don’t need to think about them.

Keep in mind that this process assumes a couple things. First, I talk about selecting aperture in step 2. This method assumes more of interest that favors people, portraits and landscapes as opposed to fast action like sports. In sports shooting, your major concern is going to be shutter speed to get the effect you desire. For most other shooting, I feel that aperture is one of the biggest creative controls that you have at your disposal. Second, I may have boiled this all down to a “process” but I didn’t mention putting any feeling into your photograph. I will write a post about that later. But to take a good photograph, you should tell a good story. This process is just the technical step by step of producing a great photograph, and we will visit the emotional side of that later.

Happy shooting!

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Photography Focus for this Blog

Up to this point, my blog has been a bit random. I admit that is because I have had a lack of focus on what I want to concentrate on here. My interests vary widely, and I post about one topic and then wildly swing to another, who could possibly be interested in that? The result is that I just do not post at all.

Recently, I decided to pick a passion (photography) and try to stick with it. I want to start a series on photography that can hopefully help anyone, at just about any level take better photographs with the equipment that they currently have.

Why would you want to learn photography here, you might ask. My answer is that because learning opportunities are probably fairly limited. If you are studying photography at a university for it to become your full time profession, you pretty much have things covered. But, the photography bug can bite anyone from just about any walk of life with varying amounts of free time. More than likely, pursuing a degree in photography is out of the realm of possibilities for the average reader here. That does not mean that you want to get better, and that is where I hope to step in.

In order explain how I think I can help, I want to discuss what I think the current avenues for learning currently are and how I hope to improve on what is currently available.

Pay for it

There are certainly places out there that you can pay to learn. On-line schools, fee based websites, pay for learning materials, etc. I personally think the financial barrier for this method is probably a bit to high for many people who just want to improve upon there own skills. I hope to helpful content for free based on my own love for photography.

Magazines

What about magazines? There are tons of good tips, tutorials and lessons in the photography magazines out there, right? To that, I say yes and know. There are some good articles out there in magazines, but no matter what hobby I explore, once you get to a certain level of experience, I stop paying attention to them. Why?

Magazines have their own agendas. They have editors looking for specific content, they have advertisers wanting their product showcased and highlighted. The fundamentals of photography have been around a long time and for magazines to keep things fresh, the are generally talking about new gear.

It is very hard to read a photography magazine and feel like you have to run out and buy something to get to the next level. That is certainly not the case. I want to focus on using what you have currently, and getting better with that, as opposed to using equipment as an excuse to get to the next level. Whether you have a phone camera, a point and shoot, or the latest and greatest computer camera with professional lenses, the topics I plan to cover will be relevant.

Some of the examples I will show have been done on a point and shoot camera, and a lot of my work is done on a film camera. Don’t let the equipment race get in the way of your progress.

Finally, people that write for magazines are writers. Not necessarily photographers. I know because I was a writing for various magazines for a period of time. It is hard to get to know the photographic personality of the author, and to know whether or not their method or style is one that you want to emulate. If their work doesn’t inspire you, then why would you want to take their advice? It can just be hard to keep track and know all the writers out there to know if their advice is worth following.

Forums

What about forums? There are a lot of good people out there on the forums and lots of good advice. There is also lots of bad advice. How do you know the difference? If you hang out there long enough, and find someone who’s work you really enjoy you can definitely get some help. But, it can be hard to find their specific post on a specific topic you are interested in to be able to get the results you want. It can all be very time consuming.

Another generalization that I see in forums is that professionals do not regularly hang out in forums. They are too busy taking photographs, creating, and improving to hang out and chat in forums. You are more likely to get interaction with arm chair types than the real deal types.

With that in mind, I hope to use this blog to put together some resources that can save time, effort and money.

What makes me an expert? Absolutely nothing. If you think the examples justify what I say takes to get there, then use it. If not, you don’t have much invested 🙂

I am currently working on putting together a series of posts, with examples to support this goal. It is possible that I still may want to post on something that is not exactly related to this series. In order to keep everything easy to find, I will post everything in this series under the category “Photography Lessons.” Look for that category on the sidebar to weed out everything else.

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