I've been an avid photographer for more than 30 years and during the first 20 or so I would often come home thinking I had some great photos of beautiful places and then find the camera did not remember it the way I thought I saw it. With film, I didn't feel comfortable experimenting with different techniques but digital has opened up lots of opportunities to learn by doing. I've gotten some help, too, from classes and friends. So, here are some tips and ideas from some of my BFOs (blinding flash of the obvious). I'd appreciate your comments and suggestions so we both learn something from this. Oh, so you don't have to go searching through other pages here, try Adorama. if you want any camera equipment. I have gotten most of my gear there and you won't go wrong - they have ANYthing camera related and at a good price.
Are you looking for some books on making better photographs? Here are some references that have helped me quite a lot:
This last one is a very good explanation of composition for any artist working in two dimensional media.
If you can find it, the editors of Time-Life published the Life Library of Photography, a series of photography instruction books in the 1970s that were written by some of the best photographers of all time, although they are based on film. Titles include The Art of Photography, Photojournalism, Documentary Photography, Photographing Nature, Travel Photography, Caring for Photographs, Photographing Children, Color, and more.
If you use Adobe Photoshop tools for your post-processing work, I like Philip Andrews’ books on how to use them.
Have you wondered about different cameras and how they compare? Here’s a review site that is basically the “consumer reports” for digital cameras and even a few lenses. There is a good user forum where you can learn a lot about cameras, lenses, and photographic techniques, although the people who frequent it are fairly intolerant of “newbies”. You can learn a lot without asking any questions.
For a good place to ask questions of experienced amateurs and pros who are very willing to help, try the LinkedIn forums:
Do you sometimes wish you could get an unbiased opinion about why lenses for your DSLR differ so much in cost? Would you like to get a good, unbiased comparison of “3rd Party” lenses? While it started out reviewing Canon lenses, this site does a good job reviewing a lot of brands now.
A lot of people like the reviews at:
Would you like to use a lens for a vacation or a special event? Maybe you would like to try a camera or lens before you buy. I’ve bought a lens from this site and they are very reliable and fair. They have a nice, unbiased one-paragraph review of almost everything they rent, too.
Are you getting small round shadows on your pictures? Maybe you have some dust particles on your camera’s sensor. Taking it to a camera store may be possible, but stores service departments are notoriously inconsistent and sending it off to the manufacturer may take a couple of weeks. If you have a steady hand, here is an explanation of how you can clean your sensor yourself.
Where are the best places to buy camera gear? Try:
The best place to go for technical explanations of artificial lighting is probably http://strobist.blogspot.com/
If you’re a camera geek and want the best rumors about the cameras and lenses that will come out next, try
And here are some good tips about general camera maintenance:
Brian (the guy behind "the-digital-picture.com) also has a good article about processing pictures from your camera with this description about workflow:
Do you fear your friends and family when they come back from a trip? Is it the one time they print all their pictures and head over to Archiver’s to make an album? Does that make you feel like you’re in a Seinfeld episode, wracking your brain for adjectives so you don’t call their “baby” ugly? Of course, there are some beautiful vacation albums. I wonder about the thought that goes into snapping those pictures compared to the effort to place all the embellishments around them. Do the pictures highlight the sights and sounds and culture of the place?
For your next trip, you will not bore your victims, I mean friends – you won’t produce an ugly baby. You could avoid it by not taking pictures but it’s a big trip so you plan to dig your dslr out of the back of the closet. True, last time you discovered the battery was dead and you couldn’t find the charger. Fortunately, your wife (didn’t Roseanne Barr say only someone with a vagina can find things?) found it in that pocket you never use. On the second day, you found yourself fiddling with the controls when the “wow” happened so most of your photos were people turning away from you.
This next trip, prepare and be aware of your audience. Think about whether you want your photographs to tell the story of your trip. Maybe you want a special shot to enlarge and hang on the wall. Will you print them 4 x 6 and put them in an album or post them online in Flickr or Facebook? Your point-n-shoot may be just fine 70-80% of the time. Are you looking for landscape or wildlife shots? You may want your dslr for a little more flexibility.
You can do a chronological recording that may be fun – a photo of what you pack, folded neatly before the trip and a photo of the pile of laundry by the washing machine could be the bookends of your story, with shots of the airport gate signs showing where you are going or the road sign of the mileage to your destination sprinkled through your pictures of kids and spouse and landmarks. If you are flying, you might try for a shot of the city as you come in for a landing but the wing may be in your way. Make sure your camera is focused on the ground and not the window grime.
Don’t forget to make pictures of the local people, doing their jobs. If you want local “color” that describes the culture you will probably find it in the people more than the buildings and landscape. However, don’t forget to ask them – usually a wave and pointing to your camera is all you need to get a nod. If they refuse or turn away, move on and ask someone else. You may find it is easier if you ask them to take a picture of you and your companions and then ask for a picture of them.
I suggest you make a “shot” list for your trip. Think about three layers for your photographs – establish the context with a foundation shot, bring your viewer closer with some mid-level shots, and discover some details with a close up. For example, you might bring in a wide view of the Grand Canyon, a shot of the steep cliff on the edge of the trail you walked down, and a shot of the bush you hid behind when you dealt with the effects of drinking too much coffee that morning. Be sure to include any landmarks that represent the area, like the Magic Castle in Disney World or the Eifel Tower in Paris, or a special activity that defines the place, like horse racing in Kentucky or dancing a tango in Argentina. Here is an example with 3 shots of Chicago landmark buildings, the skyline, the Museum of Science & Industry, and a lion from the 1893 World's Fair that stands in front of the Art Institute.
Now that you have your shot list, what sort of camera gear do you need? Now, stop. Don’t go online and buy some new camera thing. You should use the stuff you know best and it won’t be some new camera or lens unless you are planning pretty far in advance. Even so, you should think about how many shots you may take with that new thing. If you may only take 5% of your shots with that item then it may not be worth the cost or the weight to lug it around.
If you are going to Yellowstone, will you want pictures of the mountains and landscape, the wildlife and birds, the people standing there, or all of those things? Are you going to a city, like Washington DC and will you want pictures inside the Smithsonian, the White House, or a church as well as outside? Will your camera handle all of those things? Maybe you will want a long lens for catching some of the wolves off in the distance and a wide angle lens for a shot of Yellowstone falls. Of course, you can crop a shot down to make it look closer if you don’t have a long lens. Do you need a flash? What if the place doesn’t allow flash photography – do you know how to set your camera to take pictures in low light?
Once you decide on your basic shot list and the camera gear you need, spend some time practicing with that gear. Travel photography is basically photojournalism, which involves catching emotions and events as they happen. You rarely get a chance to ask the dancers to reenact a hula and you sure don’t want to pay to go to another luau so you can try your picture again. Know how your camera works so you don’t have to guess about how to get a shot. Don’t forget basics like memory cards and batteries. Do you want to carry a second battery so you are prepared if it runs down? How many pictures can you store on your memory card? Will you take any videos? Those often chew through memory cards very quickly.
You have arranged your shot list, organized your camera and accessories, and practiced with your gear. You should have a bag to carry it while you are traveling and possibly while you are walking around. I prefer a backpack over a standard camera bag so I don’t have a bag labeled “expensive camera, please grab it and run” when I go through airport security or sit down in a restaurant. If you are so inclined, there are a number of companies that sell backpacks with extra padding for camera gear. Personally, I like Lowepro and Gura Gear bags. Think Tank makes some good camera bags, too.
You get to Hawaii or Yellowstone or New Orleans or Aruba and one day it rains. My advice – take your camera and the shower cap from the hotel bathroom or a hand towel to cover it. Some of the best days for photographs are cloudy and rainy. Bright sunlight makes for harsh shadows and tough photographs. Rain brings out colors in vegetation, cleans the streets, and improves the contrast in your shots. I have sometimes hosed down an area of our garden in order to get that “after the rain” effect for photos. One thing is certain if you don’t have your camera, you will miss some of those people shots that define the culture of a place on your list.
Here are a few suggestions for the gear to take on your trip. The basics:
Some extras you may want:
You may have noticed that I prefer zoom lenses over “prime” or fixed length lenses for travel. Be careful to get good quality zooms but they offer flexibility and speed for photojournalism that is difficult to match by moving closer or farther from your subject with your feet.
Once you are back, you will probably have a lot of pictures to look through. The key here is to edit your collection to the best and most interesting shots and keep your viewers from rolling their eyes. The first thing to do is delete the blurred and badly exposed shots. Check that one you took from the plane window to see if it is blotchy from shooting through the window grime and dump it if it is not clear. Once you’ve gotten rid of the unsalvageble shots, rank your pictures from 1 to 5. In the end you should choose no more than 15 to 20 pictures to represent your week to your friends and family. Even if you think you have other good shots, you should only show off your very best. Remember, every baby is cute but not every baby is pretty or handsome. The true test of whether your pictures are well received is going to happen when you go on a subsequent trip and people ask to see your photos. If you burn their hand on the hot stove, they won’t want to do it again.
Have a great time on your trip and let me know where I can see your photographs.
Does your camera have an internal flash? Do you let the camera decide when to fire that flash? And do your pictures come back with harsh shadows or dark areas behind your subject? Do people in your snapshots have red eyes? Your flash may be hurting your pictures more than helping. Here are some hints about artificial lighting that may help turn your snapshots into photographs, with lighting that enhances your subject.
Your point-n-shoot camera flash is capable of filling in shadows within about 12 feet – don’t think it will light up a gym or stadium for sports or a show. An internal flash will always be pointed directly at your subject, so use it sparingly to do just that (fill in shadows) or to highlight a close subject. When you do use it, it will become a beacon that will splash both light and shadows all over your photograph. Here is an example - the shadow is a subtle distraction that you can avoid.
There are a couple of techniques you can consider that will allow you to avoid those shadows. First, position your subject so she is not close to a wall or furniture and then get relatively close so any shadow falls below your shot. Position yourself and your camera no higher than your subject’s head and shoulders – so if they are sitting then you should kneel or sit down too. In the shot below, I turned the camera to a vertical orientation and moved the flash so the shadow fell completely behind Leatha's left shoulder. The contrast helps highlight her smiling features.
If there is light in the room, don’t even bother with your flash. One reason for using it is because your subject’s face may be in a shadow – well have them turn to the light if you can. Does your camera have an “auto ISO” mode? That actually works very well and adjusts the camera to available light. Just watch to be sure it does not go over about ISO 800, because that will introduce graininess (noise) in your pictures so that’s the time to use a flash.
Assuming you do need a flash in some situations, do you use an external flash that attaches to your camera or do you use the internal flash? Lining up a light source beside your lens for peoples to look at is going to create that red reflection from the back of their eyes and produce a huge black shadow behind them. One of the primary contributors to red eyes and shadows is the proximity of the flash to your lens. The more you can do to move your flash far from your camera lens, the better. If you don’t have an external flash, then try to keep your subject away from the walls where a shadow will be thrown.
With an external flash there are a couple of things you can do. First, try bouncing the light off the ceiling above your subject. If the ceiling is a light color and relatively low, you can turn it into a huge light source and the shadows will be very low on the floor. Of course, this won’t work if the person is wearing a hat, as the lady in my first example did, because the hat will create a shadow over her face. If the ceiling is too high for the power of your flash or has lots of interruptions (eg fans, vents, etc.) then it may not be very effective. That’s when you are forced to direct the flash at the person herself, so use some the techniques in the last couple of paragraphs.
There are a couple of accessories available that can make your flash less harsh (mimize shadows). You may have seen pros at weddings with white colored bulb “diffusers” on their flash units. Those basically blast the light all over the room in hopes of having it bounce back off the ceiling and walls. Personally, I think that weakens your flash unnecessarily and only works in a relatively low ceilinged and “close walled” room. I like the ProMax System from LumiQuest.com. It attaches to your flash unit with Velcro and adds height to your flash unit to change the angle of the light while broadening the light source from the size of your flash head (about 1x3 inches) to something around 6x9 inches. It bounces 80% of the light off the ceiling and puts 20% directly on your subject to suppress shadows from above. The system comes with a variety of reflector attachments that allow you to bounce and diffuse the light directly onto your subject so it is very flexible for different environments.
Finally, you should be aware that all light fixtures and flashes create light in a limited color spectrum that your eyes will adjust and so you think it is “natural”. Film cameras are able to adapt and even blend light sources. In that sense, it is analogous to analog recording rather than digital. Digitizing anything from sound to images is necessarily based on sampling small bits of the light. Your digital camera will try to balance the color of the light samples in your photo but the internal sensor sometimes over analyzes the situation and may get confused with different types of light sources. The primary color spectrums of the basic light sources are:
The consequence of all this is that colors in your photos, especially skin tones, will likely be wrong if your subject is lit by sunlight from a window and a table lamp with a CFL bulb. If you add a flash in that situation, you’ve got white, green, and yellow light sources and flesh tones look sickly and green. The more you can do to avoid blending light sources when you click the shutter, the better. In the situation I described, you may get better results if you turn off the lamp and rely on the sunlit window and your flash. If you have some software that came with your camera, Adobe Photoshop or some other photo editing software, you can correct this color balance problem with your computer but you have to spend some time on it.
So, now you know a little about flash photography and artificial lighting. This is one of the most difficult areas to master because each camera brand handles light in a little different way so you have to experiment with it yourself. For most people, that doesn’t happen until they are trying to get a picture of the young couple going out for the Homecoming dance. So do a little homework and try a few of these tricks for yourself. You don’t have to pay for the shots and you can even delete them from your computer after you figure out how you need to set up your camera.
If you are using a camera instead of a camera-phone, then it probably has some settings that you may have wondered about. A quick turn of a dial can create some nice effects and improve your shots if you know a little about what they do. What can the different modes do? I’ll show you in just a minute but let me explain a couple points about how it works.
Recall from my last article that the lens of your camera works like the iris of your eye. As the camera’s aperture (opening in the lens) widens it lets in more light and more of the foreground and background is blurred and as it narrows it lets in less light but more of the foreground and background is clear and focused. The “mode” settings tell your camera how you want to handle different situations and allow you to create these effects in your photo. If you use a DSLR you probably have both the mode settings and manual controls to select the f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO.
The mode settings may be a part of the menu of controls or could appear on an actual dial on the camera. The modes are often disguised in a variety of ways with icons like a flower for close up photos (sometimes called “macro”), a mountain for landscape photos, head and shoulders outline for “normal” shots, and so on. The menu may also allow you to select your ISO setting to increase the camera’s sensitivity for low light situations. Check the manual that came with your camera or do a little exploring through the dials and menus.
Occasionally you get a few extra modes and I’ll get the “Sport” setting (usually a stick figure of a runner) out of the way first. This one causes the camera to use a fast shutter speed to freeze fast moving subjects so they aren’t blurred. The camera will automatically open the aperture wide to have the correct exposure and cause the things that are very close and very far away to be unfocused. “Landscape” or “Mountain” setting works in the opposite way and adjusts the aperture (size of the lens opening) to make objects both close and far away appear sharp and in focus and lengthens the shutter speed to provide enough light for a correct exposure . This could cause moving objects such as leaves moving in a breeze to be blurred
If you are interested in testing this, you can see the effects your camera can create by laying a newspaper down on the floor and taking a picture in each mode while focusing across the page from one side. You ought to be able to see how the lines of text are blurred up close, clear in the middle, and blurred at the back of the photo.
OK, now here is an example from my garden. It isn't a very pretty flower but it demonstrates my point. Would you like to know how to create a photo like the one below?
I propped a piece of cardboard behind that lily and used the “flower” or “macro” setting so the ridges of the cardboard are out of focus and basically invisible. Yes, I used a DSLR but you can do this with the mode setting on your point-n-shoot.
In fact, if you prefer, you can use the settings to blur the background items without the cardboard, but the effect will depend on how your camera’s mode is set. If you have a DSLR, you may want to experiment with the manual settings to create the effects in the next couple of photos:
F-stop = 9, or the “portrait” setting
f-stop = 4, or the “flower” (macro) setting
Go out and experiment with your settings and you can come up with all kinds of ways to make your subject pop out for your viewer.
Good luck and happy shooting!
If you want to be a little creative with your photographs it may help to know just a little about how cameras work. If you think cameras should be like cars and you only need to know that you select Drive or Reverse and speed up with the gas pedal or slow down with the brake then skip this article.
The best camera to use is the one you have with you. Just about any camera or camera-phone from the last five years will make good photographs. Any point-and-shoot camera will serve you well and the current digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras will do an outstanding job. Most point-and-shoot cameras have a “Macro” mode for close-ups as well as a zoom capability to bring distant objects close. They typically also have a picture “mode” dial for different types of photographs ranging from general shots of people to close-ups of flowers and long distance shots of mountains and landscapes.
Your camera has a lens that works like your eye. The lens has an aperture (opening) that adjusts to be wide, like the iris of your eye, to let in as much light as possible when there isn’t much light available and closes down tight in bright sunlight. The physics of lenses can create a useful effect. As the aperture narrows, more of the background and foreground in a given scene becomes sharp. The area that is in sharp focus is called the “depth of field” and you can use this to create emphasis with details in your picture. Your point and shoot camera probably has a dial with different picture “modes” on it and the one representing a mountain will use a very narrow aperture to give your picture a large depth of field with sharp focus for almost everything in view. The picture mode of a flower or a person will typically give you a wide aperture to narrow the depth of field to a particular subject and create emphasis by blurring objects in the foreground and background.
You may already know that your camera has a shutter that opens for a brief time to allow light in through the aperture. As an object moves in front of a camera, the image projected on the sensor or film moves. If the shutter is open for a relatively long time the moving image will be captured as a blurred picture. The faster the shutter speed, the less time the moving image has to blur. You can use this phenomenon to create effects – a very fast shutter speed will stop motion while a longer shutter speed (to a point) will suggest motion. On your point-n-shoot camera, the picture mode with a running person generally means the camera will use a very fast shutter speed to stop motion.
For those who use a DSLR, it may be useful to know that the aperture in a lens is measured in f-stops. Note that f-stop does not refer to focus or focal length, it’s just a name someone used early in the history of lenses and it stuck. The commonly used f-stops are: f/1.0, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, f/32, f/45, and f/64. An f-stop of 1 equates to the entire diameter of the lens for the maximum possible light. An f-1 lens is typically called the “fastest” lens because it combines the fastest shutter speed to render a well-exposed photograph. Each f-stop after 1 in this sequence of commonly used f-stops reduces the opening (and light) by half. Virtually no lenses are built to use the whole scale of apertures. A standard zoom lens may run from f/4 to f/22 and provides several interim f-stops for tremendous flexibility in exposures. Lenses (and cameras) tend to get much more expensive if they have f-stops lower than 3.5 but those are the ones that allow more creativity by blurring backgrounds and working in low light situations.
Your camera combines shutter speed and aperture size to allow light in and capture an image on a sensor or film. The last variable in this combination is the sensitivity of the sensor or the speed of the film itself to capture light. This is measured in ISO (for digital sensors) and ASA (for film) terms. Point-and-shoot cameras usually don’t bother you with controls over this function and generally use 100 ISO.
A DSLR typically uses 100 ISO for a base level and will allow you to dial up the sensitivity so you can make pictures in low light situations. You may recall that you had to buy a roll of film with your desired sensitivity (e.g. 400 ASA) so you had to change film rolls to adjust light sensitivity. If you do have this control in your camera, use it judiciously because increasing the sensitivity to very high levels could result in “grainy” photographs. You may be able to correct that with your computer but that can be over worked and create a poor quality picture.
Have you ever made some pictures with people who have a slight green tinge but who were not really sick? It is probably because the lights in the room are fluorescent and your subject was near a window with sunlight streaming into the room. Your camera is interpreting reflections of light to create color and tone in your picture but will “normalize” the color to those created by sunlight. If there are multiple light sources, it will often get confused and not blend them together like your eyes and brain see them. An incandescent bulb will create light that is slightly yellow, fluorescent tubes and CFL lamps will create a green light, and tungsten lamps (often used in arenas and industrial buildings) create blue light. With some point-n-shoot cameras and most DSLRs you can adjust your camera settings to specify the “color balance” for the light sources in your setting. You can also adjust the color with your computer with the software that came with your camera or packages you can buy separately like Adobe Photoshop Elements or Lightroom.
Your digital camera has a sensor made up of picture elements (pixels) that detect the light in its various colors and combine them into your picture. When your eye sees them, your brain automatically interprets the patterns of dots to blend them into an image. Camera companies have created some hype around the resolution of their cameras that leads people to believe the more pixels the better, to make the photograph easier for your brain to interpret. Much more important than resolution is clarity (in focus and not blurred by motion) and tone and color. There were a lot of great photographs produced with 2 and 3 megapixel sensors when digital cameras first became popular.
Two things will cause trouble with this push for higher resolution. First, the materials available to use for sensing light have some physical limitations so they lose their light sensing capabilities if they are too small. This can affect the color and tone of your photographs. Camera manufacturers get around this by correcting problems introduced by small pixels with software that interprets tones and color patterns and fills in where the sensor pixels did not detect any light or where it seems out of place (grainy). The second issue is that the actual picture will likely be produced on a printer that works at 300 dots per inch or displayed on a monitor that is 1080 vertical dots, or about 90 dots per inch on a 12 inch tall monitor. Either way, the product of all your thought and creativity could be a reinterpretation of an image created by your printer or monitor’s software programmer that blends some of the original pixels that were interpreted by your camera’s software programmer.
Cameras and cell phones use different size sensors and increasing megapixels on smaller cameras and phones compound the software interpretation. The illustration below shows the relative size of sensors in different types of cameras.
The pixels on a 10 megapixel point-n-shoot or cell phone camera are dramatically smaller than the pixels on a 10 megapixel consumer DSLR and consequently require a lot more interpretation and software manipulation. These photos may look grainy and have digital “noise” compared to those made with a DSLR like a Canon Rebel or D60 or a Nikon D3100 or D700 or the professional DSLRs that use a sensor the size of 35mm film. Photographs printed as 4x6 or 5x7 or displayed on a monitor (e.g. facebook) generally will not be affected by this interpretation of details. Enlargements may be affected so this is actually only a consideration if you are thinking of putting your photographs up on the walls of your home or office.
Now you know a little about how the camera works so you can use it to your advantage, or at least keep the camera from taking advantage of you. Happy shooting!