Better Photography: White Balance

I have a confession: I spent a good chunk of yesterday trying to write this post, but never got past the blinking cursor. Blinking cursors have always been a struggle for me. They just sit there, taunting you while you try to think of a suitable beginning. So today we’re going to pretend like this is a suitable beginning and jump right in ;-)

White balance is how your camera handles colors. As you probably learned in kindergarten, visible “white” light is made up of several different colors -> the rainbow! What your kindergarten teacher may not have told you, is that different light sources have different quantities of each color. Red has a much longer wavelength and takes less energy to produce, so cooler lights, such as candlelight and tungsten lamps, have a lot more red in them. Blue, on the other hand, has a short wavelength and uses a lot of energy (kind of how high notes take more energy & air to produce than low notes), so hotter light sources, like the sun, have a lot of blue in them.

Now your eyes in combination with you brain are incredible, and a white shirt looks white to you inside with tungsten light as well as outside in the sun. With your camera, you have to use white balance to make colors appear as they really are. The most common way to achieve correct colors is with automatic white balance. Auto white balance, like auto exposure, does a good job in most common situations: impromptu family photos on the lawn, flash photos at a party, travel pictures of that gorgeous beach, etc. But auto white balance has two main situations where it struggles.

The first is when an image is overly comprised of warm or cool tones (which explains why sunsets are not nearly so vibrant when photographed with auto white balance). This is the red mulch around our bushes. In the first image they came out a little more purple than they really are, but with the addition of a white paper towel, it came out perfectly.

If you were with me on the exposure discussion, you might think that you would need to add something blue to help balance out the colors. Instead, white balance performs best when it has something white or bright gray within the frame, because it’s programmed to think of bright tones as colorless (which they frequently are).

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The other area where automatic white balance struggles, is extremely colored light. Auto white balance wants to neutralize color cast, but only to an extent, because it has no way of differentiating between an orange wall and a white wall with orange light on it.

These were taken in my bathroom with the overhead tungsten light. The bathroom has very light cream walls, a light cream hand towel, white light switch plate, and a white door. In these first two images, however, not only is everything too orange, but the door appears to be the same color as the wall. I shot the second set of images with the present “tungsten” white balance which got rid of the orange cast and also created unity across the images (the door matches the switch plate as it does in real life).

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White Balance_0003

With automatic white balance, the balance will shift with each image taken, based on whatever is in the frame at the time. That means that the perfectly matching chair & rug set you’re trying to sell on craigslist might not appear to match in the photos. When you set the white balance, either with a preset or with a custom mode, you get accurate color differences across images. Of course it will also accurately show any color differences in the light, but at least that is predictable and avoidable.

The most common presets are auto, tungsten, florescent, daylight, flash, cloudy, shade, degrees Kelvin, and custom. Aside from auto and the two custom modes (“custom” and “degrees Kelvin”) they are generally in order from warmest to coolest. This is especially helpful when shooting outside because there are so many variables that can affect the color temperature of a given setting.

Obviously the original light source isn’t changing, but clouds and other obstacles affect different wavelengths of light differently. Cloudy days generally have a bluer color because the short blue wavelengths are better at bouncing through all of the clouds. They’re also better at bouncing into deep shade, but tend to get lost at sunset when the longer red wavelengths are able to bend around the earth more. At least I think that’s how my Weather & Climate professor explained it… In any case, lots of things affect the light and being able to go “hmm that’s a little too blue” and go down a setting or “that’s a little too warm” and go up a setting is very helpful.

These images were shot in daylight with all of the preset white balance settings in order from auto to shade.

White Balance_0004

Of course the perfect setting may end up being between presets, and that’s where the custom modes come in. With degrees Kelvin you can set the temperature you want, which is really all the presets are doing. Higher numbers are for bluer lights and create warmer images. Lower numbers create cooler images. You can also use the “custom” mode which generally involves photographing a gray card. That is you telling the camera, “hey this is gray” (or white or black) and the camera can then neutralize any colors in that image and save those settings for your future photographs under that light.

Custom mode is especially useful when you’re shooting under florescent lights. Even though florescent is one of the presets, there is such a wide variety of florescent bulbs that not only have different color temperature (orange/blue casts) but also different tints (green/magenta casts). The degrees Kelvin setting will only adjust the temperature, but the custom setting will neutralize all of the casts, including green/magenta.

These red mushrooms were under actinic aquarium lights (super blue florescent lights that show the phosphorescence of the corals). Needless to say they didn’t look red when photographed with the daylight setting and the florescent setting wasn’t coming close either. If I wanted the most accurate colors, I should have put a gray card under the aquarium lights (read inside the aquarium) and taken a custom reading. Since that would have been a little rude, I opted to shoot in RAW* and adjust the white balance later.

White Balance_0005

The main issue with adjusting the white balance later, is that you have to rely on your memory to get the colors right, and slightly incorrect can easily look correct because you have nothing to compare it to. Remember how your brain and eyes are awesome? Not only can they make a white shirt look white under different light, they can also make a white shirt look white when it’s slightly blue in a photograph, just because they know it’s supposed to be white. In the end I put the mushrooms at 50,000 K and that looked close enough to what I remembered for my purposes. If I were trying to sell this coral online, however, I would definitely be more concerned about getting truly accurate colors.

Well that pretty much covers the basics of white balance and your different settings. There are definitely other color issues that can come up (mixed lighting anyone?), but this post is already much longer than I intended, so we’ll save that for another time. ;-) In the mean time, try it out and let me know how it goes, or if you have any questions. Next week we’ll be getting more into lighting, since that’s such a huge factor and I only briefly covered it earlier.

*Quick note about RAW: The option to shoot in RAW is under the quality settings of your camera, and not all cameras give you this option. Most cameras default to shooting in JPEG. JPEG is good because it is a standard format and it is a compressed format. The first means you can view it and share it without any special software. The second means you can take more pictures on one card, back up the photos with a smaller drive, and send them over email. RAW, on the other hand, is more like a film negative, and it has to be processed before you can use it anywhere. It also has a lot more data (since it’s not compressed) so you can do more editing without ruining the quality of your images. Since white balance is all done after the fact anyway (your camera doesn’t alter the light that’s coming in in any way, it just applies the settings to the data received), you can adjust the white balance of a RAW image on the computer later without losing any quality. JPEGs, on the other hand, have already been compressed and had the white balance settings applied, so you will lose quality when you edit them later.



Better Photography: ISO

For the past two weeks we’ve been talking about the three aspects of exposure. So far we’ve talked about aperture and shutter speed, which means that today is all about ISO! ISO stands for International Standards Organization, super helpful right? As it turns out there is an organization devoted to creating international standards. They’ve created quite a few standards in different  fields, so a lot of people use the term “ISO” to refer to a lot of different things. In photography, ISO refers to the sensitivity of the digital sensor to light. Remember our diagram from the past couple weeks?

The digital sensor is a digital camera’s version of film, and ISO is a digital camera’s version of film speed. If you ever shot film, you know that it came in different speeds, and oftentimes the box would say what that speed was useful for shooting (daylight, sports, night shots, etc). Using “night” film is the same as setting your camera to a high ISO.

Now remember that changing the ISO has no effect on the amount of light coming into the camera. Only the shutter speed and aperture size affect that. Instead, changing the ISO affects how the camera handles the amount of light it receives. A higher ISO is more sensitive to light, so it will create a brighter exposure with the same amount of light, while a lower ISO will create a darker image. Each of the following images were shot at f1.8 and 1/400th of a second, so the same amount of light went into the camera for each picture. The only difference between these images is the sensitivity of the sensor (ISO). They were shot at ISO 400, 100, and 800 respectively.


ISO also affects your image quality. It’s kind of like a inkjet printer. You can print a photo at “photo quality,” “normal quality,” or “draft quality.” Photo quality will give you the best image, but it also requires the most ink. With draft quality you can still see the picture and you use a lot less ink, but the quality is not as good. A higher ISO uses less light, but at some point grain becomes a problem.

At what point it becomes a problem relies heavily on your camera and the quality of its sensor. Obviously more expensive cameras tend to have higher quality sensors, but because technology improves so quickly, a newer camera that is in a lower class may have better performance at high ISOs than an older, originally more expensive camera. Ex: a point and shoot bought today would probably take much better hand held, low light images than a digital SLR bought in 2000.

These pictures were taken (left to right, top to bottom) at ISO 1600, 800, 400, and 100 with shutter speeds of 1/125, 1/60, 1/50, and 1/5 (the aperture remained constant at f 1.8). The third image is a little under-exposed, but my subject was not patient enough for a redo ;-) You may be able to see that the higher ISOs have more grain, but at such a reduced size it’s practically invisible.


If you view the same images at half resolution (full resolution is really big and not necessary for this illustration), however, the difference becomes obvious. Notice that the last image doesn’t have any grain, but the low ISO required a shutter speed that was too slow to freeze the motion of my dog.


Now you may be thinking that you can get around the quality issue with editing. “I’ll just underexpose my image a bit. Then I can use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion and a low ISO to retain high quality. I can just increase the exposure later in Photoshop and voila! The perfect image!” Except that editing also reduces image quality and brightening images only makes any grain that is in the image more apparent.

Both of these images were taken at ISO 800. The first was properly exposed with a shutter speed of 1/1000 which is definitely fast enough to stop motion, but for illustration’s sake I under exposed the second image so that I could get my shutter speed up to 1/4000. Then I adjusted the exposure in Adobe Lightroom to match the first image. Even at such a reduced size you can probably see the grain along the right side of the photo. The grain appears worse in the second image even though they were both taken at the same ISO.


These are the same pictures at half resolution, and the difference is clear. You’ll always have higher quality images if you can get it right in the camera, than if you rely on fixing it later.




Better Photography: Shutter Speed

Last week we talked about aperture as the first of the three parts of exposure (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO). That means that today we get to talk about shutter speed! Shutter speed is probably the biggest ongoing battle that photographers face. Why? Because good light is often low light, no one likes a blurry photo, and tripods are heavy and awkward. But first let me explain what shutter speed is and how it’s used.

If the aperture is the diameter of your plumbing, the shutter is the cutoff valve. The longer the valve is open, the more water fills up your bathtub, and a properly full bathtub is a correct exposure.

The following images were shot a f4 with exposures of 1/13 of a second, 1/320 of a second, and 1/60 of a second respectively. As you can see, a longer shutter speed means more light and a brighter image, while a shorter shutter speed equals less light and a darker exposure.

Shutter Speed_0001

Longer shutter speeds don’t just mean more light, however. The entire time the shutter is open, it is recording whatever is in front of the lens. If the picture in front of the lens doesn’t change while the shutter is open, you get a sharp, blur-free photo (such as the images above). If the picture does change, either because a part of the image is moving or because the camera is moving, the photo will reflect that movement.

In the following pictures, I attempted to drop a ball within the depth of field and catch it on the first bounce. Attempted, because it was way harder than I would have thought and the last image still isn’t in focus (boo), but you can get the idea. These were shot with shutter speeds of 1/13, 1/60, and 1/320 with the aperture adjusted to get a correct exposure.

Shutter Speed_0002

Of course the ball probably wasn’t moving at exactly the same speed in every picture (faster movement means you need a faster shutter speed to freeze it), so I also took these shots of our ceiling fan (glamorous I know ;-) ). They were taken with the same shutter speeds as above, but you can get a clearer idea of the motion blur. Note that I used a tripod in both the tennis ball pictures and the fan pictures.

Shutter Speed_0003

Ok so now that you understand the basics, let’s talk about some of the really cool things you can do with shutter speed. The most obvious is that you can freeze motion! Now you may think that’s kind of boring because you’ve grown up around great photography- race horses frozen in mid gallop with sweat flicking off their sides, athletes frozen in mid air as they catch the game winning pass, a seal tossed into the air above the waiting jaws of a massive Great White, well you get the idea. Not only would none of these photographs be possible without a super fast shutter speed, but your eyes on their own would never be able to see these images without a photograph. All your eyes would capture is a blur of a horse as it passes you on the track. Sure you can see the guy catch the pass, but did you see his expression when he did?

Freezing motion is really at the heart of what photography is all about. You freeze that moment when your kids were small, when the sunset was perfect, or when your spouse gives you that special “I love you” smile. Freezing motion = super cool!

This picture was taken a 1/80 of a second and you can see that the guy’s hands were moving faster than the rest of him because they’re more blurred.

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The second cool thing you can do is blur motion. There’s a reason water is the number one illustration when demonstrating shutter speed- it looks cool frozen and blurred. Plus everyone loves a good blurred waterfall picture. These were taken at 1/4000 and 0.8 seconds (shutter speeds are generally represented as a fraction, but when they get longer than 1/2 they’re represented as a decimal).

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Shutter Speed_0006

The third and fourth cool things you can do with shutter speed are really just extensions of blurring motion: you can track a subject and you can “paint with light”.

Tracking is often used in car ads and nature articles about cheetahs. It’s also used by duck hunters to get dinner, but we’re talking about photography here. Tracking with a fast moving subject allows you to use a slower shutter speed than would otherwise be necessary to get a clear image. This technique can be useful when there simply isn’t enough light to use a faster shutter speed or when you want the blurred background to indicate speed (as in a car ad).

The basic idea is that you point your camera toward the subject (which is hopefully moving in a somewhat predictable direction & speed) and take the photo while continuing to track it. In this example I stood in my back yard with Alien Man held at arms length. I then spun in a circle keeping Alien Man at the same spot in my frame so that, even though I was using a shutter speed of 1/20 of a second, he’s relatively sharp against a super blurred background. If you were trying to photograph a sprinting cheetah, you would want a much faster shutter speed and probably a car to match his speed.

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The fourth and final (as far as this blog post is concerned) cool thing you can do with shutter speed is paint with light. Painting with light is when you have the subject in a dark room and “paint in” the areas you want to see by shinning a flashlight on them over a long exposure and/or when you point the flashlight at the camera and write or draw. A quick google will show you all kinds of really cool images made with this technique.

Both of these were shot over 30 seconds, and the one on the left was written by my friend, JC, for his girlfriend at the time. She is now his wife, and I’m not saying I had anything to do with it, but honestly, who could resist a heartfelt message written on the inside of a tent? ;-) Another interesting fact, I didn’t have a tripod at the time these were taken, so I shot them laying on the roof of my (parked, don’t worry Grandma) car. That just goes to show that you don’t need expensive equipment to take cool pictures (except that’s kind of a bad example since my car cost way more than my tripod…)

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Ok, so that should give you a good working knowledge of shutter speed! As always, comments are appreciated and your questions help everyone learn :-)






Better Photography: Aperture

Back before the holidays, I did an introduction to exposure in the general sense. Now I’m going to go through each of the three aspects of exposure (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) in separate posts to give more detail.

Every camera is a light proof box with a hole on the front, recording medium on the back (film, digital sensor, etc), and a shutter in between. The aperture is the hole in the lens that lets light into the camera.

The most obvious function of the aperture is to adjust the amount of light coming into the camera. A larger aperture lets in more light creating a brighter image, while a smaller aperture lets in less light and creates a darker image. The following images were shot in Manual (so the camera wouldn’t automatically fix my exposure) with a shutter speed of 1/100 and apertures of 1.8, 8, and 4 respectively. As the aperture number gets bigger the aperture gets smaller, so 1.8 is actually my lens’s largest available aperture and the brightest picture was taken with it.


The aperture doesn’t only affect the exposure, however. It also affects the depth of field, or how much of the image is in focus.

In the next images I lined up five of my spice jars (notice how only one of them has been used? yeah, that’s cinnamon :-) ), focused on the first one, and used apertures of 1.8, 4, 10, and 22. I shot these in Aperture Priority mode (designated by “A” or “Av”) so that I could set whatever aperture I like and the camera would choose the appropriate shutter speed to give me the “correct” exposure (we talked about situations that can make the camera choose the wrong exposure in the exposure post). Notice how in the first image, at f1.8, only the basil is in focus, but as the aperture became smaller, more and more of the spices came into focus. At f22 you can clearly see the coriander seeds that were only a yellowish blur before.


Where you’re focusing also affects what parts of the image are in focus. In the previous photos I was focusing on the first jar in the line, but if my goal was to have all of the spices in focus, focusing on the first jar wasted about 1/3 of the camera’s “in focus” area. The general rule is that 1/3 of the depth of field is in front of the focal point while the remaining 2/3 falls behind it.* By focusing on the second jar instead, I am able to get all of the jars in focus at f10 instead of f22.

These photos were all taken at f10 with only the focal point changing from the first jar, to the second, to the last. If your camera doesn’t have an adjustable focal point, you can accomplish the same thing by pressing the shutter halfway to focus where you want and then recomposing.


The final thing that affects depth of field, is the distance from your subject. The further you are from your subject, the greater your depth of field will be. If you are closer to your subject (either by standing closer, or by zooming in), your depth of field will be narrower. In the left most image, I was about 10 yards from the red tree (which I focused on in every shot). In the second image I halved the distance, and in the final one I was standing right next to it. All of these pictures were taken at f4, but notice how the power lines go from sharp, to blurry, to nearly invisible just by changing your distance.


That pretty much wraps up aperture (and I was even able to sneak in depth of field ;-) ). As always, feel free to post any questions!


* The actual ratio between focus in front of and behind the focal
point will change with your focal distance and can get up to 1:1.

Fun with Food

Yesterday I met up with my friend Martha to dabble in a little food photography. She’s currently in culinary school and will be taking a photography class this spring so that she can go on an awesome trip to Italy focusing on food and food photography. I’ve never really photographed food before (too busy eating it ;-) ), so it was really fun getting to work through a different set of challenges.

We started by lighting a piece of mac and cheese. Texture tends to be brought out the most with side light, but the shiny cheese top stood out more with back light, so we dug up another desk lamp. We did a pretty simple two light setup with the main light on the right side of the cheese going along the front side and a highlight lamp behind and to the left.


We also had a piece of eggplant parmesan to work with and discovered that a burgundy scarf really brought out the sauce.


We’d been having color issues with the mac and cheese because the green plate reflected green light onto the cheese and made it look kind of sickly. In the interest of not having more dishes to wash, we tried changing the background. Yellow to bring out the cheese = not a good idea. Red to cancel out the green cast worked much better. And then we made it melty!


A dark background and back lighting are essential if you want to see steam, or mist, or rain, or dust, or really any kind of particle. Mmm it’s making me hungry right now!


Better Photography with ANY Camera: Exposure

Last week on Better Photography, I briefly went over the aspects of exposure. Perhaps too briefly. So for the next couple of posts I’m going to break each aspect down and really show you what I was talking about.

As I mentioned last week, exposure is the brightness/darkness of an image. The photograph on the left is over-exposed, the one in the middle is (more or less) correctly exposed, and the one on the right is under exposed.


I say more or less correctly exposed, because correct exposure is somewhat subjective. In general the objective is to expose the image so it appears most like how the human eye saw it in real life. Of course, photography isn’t just used for documentation, and artists tend to have their own ideas about how things should look, whether it’s technically correct or not. That being said, a good exposure generally has some areas of true black as well as some areas of true white.

Now how do you get an exposure? Well all cameras give you an automatic exposure, most allow you to adjust that exposure, and some give you options such as Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual (we’ll be talking about those last three in future posts). Automatic exposure works quite well in most situations: taking pictures of the kids, taking pictures of your garden, taking pictures of the tiger at the zoo, etc. Auto exposure works by averaging out the tones in the image and adjusting them so that they average out to neutral gray.

I took a pair of black shorts and a white t-shirt and laid them next to each other for this illustration.


This pictures is properly exposed. The camera read the dark tones on the left side of the image and averaged them with the light tones on the right side of the image to make neutral gray. Because neutral gray is 50% black and 50% white and the real life scene was 50% black and 50% white, the picture came out right. If you adjust the real life ratios, however, the camera doesn’t do so well.


In this picture the shorts were a much larger percentage of the picture. In order to still get an image that averaged out to neutral gray, the camera had to lighten the dark tones of the shorts and completely over expose the white shirt. Now you know that the shorts are supposed to be darker than that, but the camera doesn’t have any idea what it’s shooting. The shorts could be gray for all it knows.


In this picture, the shirt is a larger part of the frame, and you can see that it is almost the same color as the shorts were in the previous photo. It’s a little bit lighter simply because the edge of black along the left side adjusts the average.

Ok so what’s the point of this, other than if you’re photographing a white shirt with a black pair of pants you should divide the frame equally to get a proper exposure? Most cameras give you an exposure adjustment option that looks something like this:


or like this:



and it’s usually called exposure compensation. With this tool and your understanding of your camera’s auto exposure, you can actually get the exposure you want. Pretend you’re taking a picture of the white shirt and you want it to actually look white. Well you know your camera is going to try to make the whole image gray (darker than what you want) so you can just go to your exposure compensation and make it a couple notches (stops for the vocabulary experts out there) brighter. How many stops? Well that’s going to depend on your situation, but with a little trial and error (and a very patient shirt), you should figure it out pretty quickly ;-)

Here’s a real life example for people who don’t routinely photograph their laundry:


This is the auto exposure of my supposed-to-be-black Labrador waiting for his piece of cheese. See how he almost looks chocolate instead? Yeah, so I turned my exposure down a bit, and took this shot.


(The 15th piece of cheese isn’t nearly as interesting as the 3rd… I want to play!!)

With a more patient subject, I would have picked an exposure in between the two that I shot, but the whole “sit, stay, stay, NO! sit, stay, Ugh! sit. Good boy! stay. good boooy, stay, no!” routine was getting old, and as long as you’re not too far off, exposure is an easy thing to adjust later. It’s always best to get it right in camera (and it saves you a ton of time later), but at least you know that it’s not the end of the world if you didn’t nail it perfectly to begin with.

These are my adjusted versions. You can tell that the originally over-exposed image looks less “edited” but you can’t fix the slight blurriness in his eyes from the slow shutter speed. The originally under-exposed image is more contrasty and brightening it increased the visibility of graininess in the shadows.


Well that pretty much covers exposure in the general sense. Let me know if you have any questions, and next time we’ll be talking about aperture!


Better Photography with ANY Camera: Christmas Lights

Today we’re doing a special Christmas edition of Better Photography! Susan wanted to know how to take better pictures of Christmas lights, and I figured that, at this time of year, that might be something a lot of people are interested in. Plus we just decorated out tree last night, and I want to show it off =)

In these examples I’ll be using our Christmas tree, but the same techniques should apply to lights on your house as well. I started out in a fully lit house with my camera on auto:

Christmas Tree_0005

Gross. The flash went off, and on-camera flash almost always looks bad. Plus the whole point was to capture the lights, which are completely overwhelmed by the flash. Ok so let’s try it again with the flash turned off (still on auto).

Christmas Tree_0006

Still gross. Now you can see the lights, but it’s all blurry. Pause for a quick lesson in exposure.

Exposure is the lightness or darkness of an image. The automatic exposure on your camera wants the tones (blacks, whites, and grays if you were to make your image black and white) of your image to average out to neutral gray (50% black). If you were to photograph an entirely white scene (think snowman in the snow), it would come out gray. If you were to photograph an entirely black scene (think black kitten on a black bedspread), it would come out gray. For most everyday photography, however, it does quite well. Your camera has three basic ways to adjust the exposure of a photograph: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Aperture is the hole through which light enters your camera. Ever made a pinhole camera? The pinhole is the aperture. Unlike a pinhole camera, the size of the aperture on your camera is adjustable. Wider aperture = more light = brighter exposure. Smaller aperture = less light = darker exposure. The aperture also effects the depth of field as we talked about in the Composition article.

Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open when it takes a picture. On the pinhole camera the shutter is the piece of cardboard you put over the hole, and the shutter speed is the number of seconds you left the hole uncovered. On your camera the shutter speeds are fractions of a second, but the same theory applies: longer shutter speed = more light = brighter exposure and vice versa. Shutter speed is also what creates motion blur. A fast shutter speed can freeze an athlete in midair, while you can use a slower shutter speed to create cool blur of a waterfall.

ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. If you’ve ever taken pictures with film, it’s the film speed. A higher ISO is more sensitive to light so it creates a brighter image, while a lower ISO is less sensitive and creates a darker image. Higher ISOs also lead to graininess in a photograph and, in general, a poorer image quality.

Ok now back to our blurry Christmas tree photo. Without the bright light of the flash to brighten the image, the camera needed to make some sacrifices to get a proper exposure. It probably turned its ISO up as high as possible without creating an overly grainy image. It probably set its aperture as wide as it could, but it still had to slow down its shutter speed to a point where my hand was shaking too much to create a sharp picture.

So I improvised. For the next picture I leaned against a wall, tucked my arms in close to my body, and breathed out slowly while the shutter was open. I also used my camera’s 2 second timer to eliminate the shake caused by pressing the shutter button. (The camera’s timer generally defaults to 10 seconds for self portraits, but you can usually change it in the menu to something shorter.)

Christmas Tree_0007

Ok so definitely not gross, but I think we can do better. I didn’t really like the huge shadow on the wall from our living room ceiling light, and I wanted the lights to stand out more because I was really taking a picture of them more than the ornaments or the tree itself. So I turned off all of the lights in the house, used my timer, and breathed slowly again.

Christmas Tree_0008

Now we have a picture that’s about the lights, but it’s really dark. Auto exposure has a limit to how slow of a shutter speed it will choose (just like it has limits to its ISO). This is probably as far as you can get with a phone camera (at least with my phone camera), but if you have any kind of dedicated camera, we can go one step further.

I mentioned earlier that aperture effects the depth of field (the amount of distance that is in focus). Well it can also make lights twinkle. A wide aperture will create very circular lights (like the ones above), but a small aperture will turn the lights into little stars.

If you have a camera with no manual settings, you can put your camera on “landscape” mode and set it on a tripod (or kitchen chair, or beanbag, or step ladder, etc) and it should choose a smaller aperture. I say should because my point and shoot is having bigger problems than batteries, so I wasn’t able to test this option :-(

If you have a camera with an “Aperture Priority” mode (usually designated by an “A” on the dial), you can set a small aperture (such as f8) and your camera will automatically choose a shutter speed that it thinks is appropriate. You will want to use some form of stability and the self timer, but your camera may still choose a darker exposure than you would like.

If you have a camera with a “Manual” mode (usually designated by an “M” on the dial), you can set a small aperture and a long shutter speed. Since you’re using a tripod of some sort and photographing a stationary tree (if your tree is moving this won’t work at all and you may want to think about buying a new stand ;-) ) you can use a really long shutter speed and still get a crisp image. I used a 20 second exposure for the following image.

Because you’re choosing both the shutter speed and the aperture, you may be concerned about getting a proper exposure. If you have manual setting, your camera probably also has a light meter of some kind on the display (to tell you if it thinks the image is too dark or bright). You can flip through your camera manual to find where the meter is and how to read it since every camera is different, or you can just use the trial and error method since your tree isn’t going anywhere and you don’t have to pay for each picture =)

Christmas Tree_0009

This is my final tree picture and I’m pretty happy with it. The only thing I don’t like is the background cluttered with the window and the two cords. I would have preferred to shoot the tree from the left side, so that the tree would hide the one cord and I would only have a plain wall in the background. That would have required moving the couch, though, and I really didn’t have anywhere to put it. Also some presents and a tree skirt might have helped…

Anyway, I hope this answered your questioned, Susan, and if anyone else benefited that’s a bonus =) Oh and by the way, I love hearing your suggestions, so if you have any burning photography questions or ideas for future Better Photography posts, please let me know!

Better Photography with ANY Camera: Composition

After lighting, composition is the most important thing you can do to improve your photography. Composition is how you communicate the focus of the image to your audience. Good composition is like a well-formatted paper with headings and paragraphs while poor composition is more akin to a long block of 12pt font.

Of course in order to write an appropriate heading, you first have to know what the paper is about. Digital photography and cheap memory cards do not make “spray and pray” an acceptable shooting method. Think before you shoot and know why you’re taking a photo. What is it about the sunrise that makes it so beautiful? Is it the clouds lit up with color or the tall grass turning orange as it waves in the breeze? By all means include both aspects, but the composition will be stronger and your viewers will appreciate your focus if you give one more frame space than the other. I was fresh out of sunrises setting grass on fire this afternoon, but you can see the same basic principle with the lovely pond out back.

Once you know what your focus is, composition becomes a simple matter of highlighting it. Now there are a number of rules for highlighting a focal point based around the Golden Ratio (including golden rectangles, golden triangles, and the golden spiral),


but for simplicity’s sake we’re just going to briefly cover the Rule of Thirds, because it’s the easiest to understand and put into practice. The Rule of Thirds divides the frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, resulting in nine rectangles.

Once you have that image in your head, you simply place your subject along one of the four lines or at one of the four intersections, and voilà, you have a better photograph!

Three other techniques that can draw attention to your focal point are leading lines, tone/color, and depth of field.

You’ve seen the picture of the teenage girl standing on the railroad tracks? Those are leading lines. The converging lines of the railroad point to the subject. In the same way (though not nearly so cliché) the bands of black, white, and gray on this piano converge and point to the hands playing it. It’s good to remember that lines can be distracting as well, so try to avoid power lines cutting through heads or yellow topped chain link fences running across your photo.

You’ve also seen the black tree in a field of snow? Any small bit of contrasting tone or color will draw attention. In a crowd of black umbrellas you’ll notice the red one and yellow rain boots will stand out in a busy city scene. In the same way, that stop sign in the background of your family photo is going to be a distraction as is the one dark smudge on the white table cloth you use as a backdrop for your ebay sales.

Depth of field refers to the amount of distance that is in focus. Most landscape shots will have a depth of field encompassing many miles, while a macro shot of a lady bug may only have a fraction of an inch in focus. The viewer’s eye will naturally be drawn to whatever is in focus, so having less stuff in focus simplifies the image. With a cellphone camera (at least with my cellphone camera) there’s not really anything you can do to change the depth of field because it was designed to have everything in focus all the time. With pretty much any other camera, however, there are a lot of things you can do so that only your subject is in focus.

  • You can zoom in. Even if you stand further away to keep the composition the same, a longer lens will have a shallower depth of field.
  • You can stand closer. This works with your eyes too- try looking at your hand close to your face vs at arms length and notice how whatever’s behind it becomes more/less in focus.
  •  If you have a camera with manual controls, you can set a wider aperture. Even cameras that don’t have manual controls usually have “scene modes” where you can choose between portrait, landscape, macro, etc. With those cameras, portrait mode is usually designed to automatically pick a wider aperture.

And one last point: composition not only highlights your focus (though this is the main hurdle) but it also makes use of the entire frame and is complete within itself. A photograph is (oftentimes) a 2 by 3 rectangle. That’s all the space you get, so you want to make sure you’re using it to your full advantage. Don’t be afraid to fill the frame with your subject, but also consider using the rest of the frame to tell more about your subject. A person very small in a mountainous landscape is more powerful than either the mountains or the person on his own.

In addition to fully using the entire frame, remember you cannot go outside it. A person walking needs room to walk within the frame, a person looking needs room to look within the frame, leading lines shouldn’t lead you to the edge of the frame, and don’t crop people off at major joints.

Well I think that about covers the basics. All of the lake/flower pictures were taken with my cellphone, and the other examples are old photographs taken with my Nikon. Shooting the examples multiple times seemed redundant for this topic, and I was trying to keep a long post somewhat manageable =)

Better Photography with ANY Camera: Lighting

I frequently hear things like “if only I had your camera” or “your camera takes such great pictures” or “make sure to take some shots with your camera.” While it’s true that a better camera can make a difference, there are a lot of things you can do to take better pictures with whatever camera you happen to have on hand. This blog series is to show you some of those techniques!

Normally I’ll be shooting each post with three cameras: my LG Dumbphone,

my Canon PowerShot A520,

and my Nikon D80 with a 50mm lens.

Today, however, my PowerShot was having some inexplicable battery issue that I’m hoping just means my rechargeables no longer recharge and not that the camera itself is unhappy.

Anyway today we’re talking about lighting and two cameras should be sufficient =)

Light is the most important aspect of photography. Without light there are no photographs and without good light there are no good photographs. So what is good light? Well it depends on what your subject is, but in most cases good light is coming from a low angle (between 10 and 45 degrees) and doesn’t hit the subject from the same angle as the camera. When you’re photographing people, good light is also generally soft or diffused.

Low angle light (as apposed to noonday sun) is more flattering to people because it fills light in to the eyes underneath the eyebrows and removes the dark circles. It also works better for most other subjects because it creates more dynamic shadows. A ball lit from above will have a horizontal line of shadow across its middle, and horizontal lines are boring. If you light the same ball from the side, the line of shadow would be vertical (which is more interesting than horizontal), and if you light it from a 45 degree angle, the line would be diagonal (which is the most exciting of all!). Why is a diagonal line ten times more exciting than a horizontal one? No idea, but they did experiments and it’s true.

So you lowered the angle of your light (or if you’re using the sun, you’re shooting when the light has lowered itself), but where do you place the light?

Anywhere but directly in front of your subject. Frontal lighting (like from a flash) is unappealing for two reasons. The first is simply that a bright flash in a dark room tends to hurt people’s eyes and leave them with squinty contorted expressions and red eyes. If you face people toward a bright sun, they tend to be in even more pain (the sun is brighter than your flash and doesn’t go out after a fraction of a second) causing stiff smiles and watery squinty eyes.

But what if you’re photographing your tea kettle collection instead? Frontal lighting is still a bad idea for the second reason: it removes shadows. A photograph is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world and the primary indicator of that third dimension is shadow. If you light your ball from the front, there is no line of shadow (boring or otherwise) to indicate that it is, in fact, a ball and not just some lame circle.

Finally you’re taking great ball, orange, and tea kettle pictures, but Grandma Jane keeps complaining that she looks old in your photographs. Maybe she doesn’t have the perfect complexion that she did when she was twenty, but you can still help her out a bit with soft lighting. Soft light creates more gradient between the highlights and shadows. If you light your medium sized ball with a small powerful flashlight, the line of shadow will be hard: dark on one side, light on the other. If you light it with a patch of sunshine from your kitchen window, however, the line between light and dark will be much softer. Grandma appreciates this kind of light because the soft shadows cover over her wrinkles instead of emphasizing each and every one with a bright highlight next to a dark shadow.

The two main ways to soften light are to pass the light through something translucent (clouds, a dirty window, a white umbrella, etc.) or to bounce it off something reflective (a white wall, a silver umbrella, a reflector, etc.). You can also use a fill light. Fill light is a less powerful (or farther away) light that you put on the shadow side of your subject. It doesn’t soften the main light, but it does reduce the contrast between highlight and shadows like a softer main light would.

For these examples I photographed Mr. Bear in the hallway with overhead lighting, in a bedroom with window lighting, and outside under the shade of a pine tree. The first camera is my LG phone camera and the second is my D80 set to “auto” (which explains why the flash fired in the hallway).

As you can see both the window and the shade created much better photographs than my hallway light or the D80 flash =)

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