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. 

If you are looking for the "good reference" links that I have put together, I've added them as a separate page under the "About Us" menu.

Snapshots to Photographs - How cameras work

March 12, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

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!

 


Snapshots or Photographs - Five Tips for Memorable People Shots

March 07, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

What do you think of most of the pictures you see on Facebook these days? Think about how many people may look at those photos. Would you like to make memorable photographs instead of snapshots of people and places? Here are five tips that will get a lot more “likes” on Facebook.

1)       Frame your subject

Your mind takes what your eye sees and focuses on something – this will likely become the subject in your photograph. Remember that a photograph is a very small view of your actual field of vision. It is basically a little rectangle shaped paper in the field of vision of your viewer, so a good photograph is constructed to catch your viewer’s attention and draw it to your intended subject. So, give a little thought to what you want your viewer to focus on.  Are you trying to show the gorilla at the zoo or your daughter looking over the railing at the gorilla enclosure?

Your brain searches patterns and colors in a photograph for something.  Take advantage of your viewer’s brain.  Placing the subject off-center is a trick to cause a viewer’s mind to click in and work to “discover” something and focus on it. Most photographers use the “rule of thirds” to line up the subject of their photo off-center.  Mentally divide your photo into thirds horizontally and vertically and put the subject at the intersection of one of these “cross-hairs”, to attract your eye.  Use the remainder of the picture for elements that draw attention to your subject.

Here is a typical snapshot of some people at a small party.  Both Mary and Ann are occupying the bottom 2/3 of the shot but Mary is looking at the camera and Ann is looking off into the room.  Don’t you wonder what Ann is seeing?  Does Ann look a little blurred so are you straining to make out her features?  Combined, these all made this a “bad” picture.

 

2)       Simplify. 

So, simplify the shot.  Notice that arms, patterns in clothes, hair, etc. can create subliminal lines that draw your attention to the subject, but they can also point away from the subject.  Avoid things that will “upstage” your intended subject – a bright light, a television screen, things growing out of your subject like a lamp or a tree branch, etc. If there are bright colors or lights along the edges of your photo it draws attention to the area outside your photo and away from your subject. Get closer to your subject or step to one side to get a different angle and “remove” the offending item.

Now, here is a photograph of the same scene. I got closer and used the picture frame on the wall and Ann’s arm to direct attention to Mary’s smiling eyes. Does that smile imprint itself in your memory? Everything around her eyes and her smile plays a supporting part rather than distracting your attention. Pretty cool, isn’t it.

 

Sometimes, one of the best things you can do is have your subject step away from the wall or background.  For example, the classic family shot has everybody in front of the fireplace.  The shot is always cluttered with distractions on the mantle, the fireplace tools, etc.  Try placing your subject 6 to 8 feet in front of the fireplace.  A camera phone or compact camera will typically focus about 6 to 12 feet from the camera.  If you stand about 6 feet in front of your subject, the fireplace will be about 12 to 14 feet away and slightly out of focus.  Your eye will be directed to the elements that are in focus but keeps the context of the home setting for your photograph.

3)       Apply the rules with your subject too.

People get bored looking at a full-frontal face in a photo.  It’s a mug shot and it's the least flattering shot you can make.  How many times have you seen the family group shot where everyone is facing straight into the camera? You will probably prefer people shots where you have a partial or turned view of faces. People naturally tend to try to look at a person’s eyes to see where they are looking so try to get your subjects to look directly into your camera with their eyes while facing slightly away.  If people are not your main subject you can direct attention to an object in a photo by having all the people looking at it.  Be careful about this.  Don’t take your shot when people are looking at something outside the picture, you create an “exit” that draws attention outside the picture and causes people to imagine that item.  That is a mental exercise that can help or irritate your viewer.

With people, the main subject is generally not their face but their eyes. Don’t forget to consider how you want those eyes to appear.  Are they in shadow (forehead or brows) so you have to strain to see them?  This is the time to check for lighting in the room or a flash. All you want to do is fill in the shadows, though, so don’t over think the exposure, and your camera will probably do it automatically if you let it.

4)       Don’t just stand there

Now that you’ve got your photo just about composed, consider the perspective of the end photograph and whether it is right for your viewer.  Can you show something a little more interesting by getting down on the same level as the kids faces or getting up on a chair? For example, if you want to show the wonder of Christmas, get down to the level of the kids eyes and take a picture looking up at the decorations, presents, parents, etc. If you are making a picture of kids, kneel or sit so the camera is at the height of their faces. You may help your subjects if you stand while they sit and have everyone look up just a little so they lift their chins and cause any wrinkles in their neck to disappear.

5)       Display the best and dump the rest.

Just because you can take a unlimited numbers of pictures of something with your digital camera doesn’t mean you should display all of them. Check your pictures to see if the composition and exposure look right.  Get rid of the bad ones or fix them if they can be salvaged. There are basic tools for fixing things (e.g. “crop”) on most computers now.  You can cut out the extra parts around the edge of your photo to make it fit the rule of thirds before you display it.    Even grandparents get tired of looking 30 or 40 pictures of kids opening presents at Christmas and who do you know that wants to look at 50 or 60 pictures of animals at the zoo?  Once you’ve got “acceptable” photos, choose 2 or 3 of your favorites to post or display. People may ask to see your pictures if they are memorable and they know you only have a couple to show.

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