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Don’t Touch That Dial!

The colors in 2006 were a bit “lack-luster”
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

Lately I have seen photos frequently posted that show significant overuse of the “saturation adjusment. I have certainly been guilty of this myself. We shoot a scene that seems magically colorful to us, but when we first see it on our computer screen, it just doesn’t “get there.” If you shoot raw, that is pretty normal. Most images need post-processing. So our first thought is often to use that slider adjustment in our post-processing software (and every software has it); the saturation slider. And 99% of the time that is a mistake! I see a disconcerting trend of overuse of the saturation slider (even among some of my “pro” acquaintances).  My friend, Al Utzig will be chuckling as he reads this. His most frequent critique of my imagery early on was that they seemed over saturated to him. Maybe. I have certainly made much less use of the saturation tools in my post-processing as I – and my software – have become more “seasoned”

Recently, I see a disconcerting trend of overuse of the saturation slider

Like any discussion, we should be sure we are talking about the same thing. A general definition of “saturation” says that “saturation is the state or process that occurs when no more of something can be absorbed, combined with, or added.” When speaking in terms of color and photography, “saturation” generally refers not to the actual color or its accuracy (“hue”), but rather to the intensity of the color. This is important. If you are trying to correct a color, more (or less) saturation won’t really do that (although it might help to improve the color’s appearance in some cases).

What I have learned over the years ….. is that what we are really seeking often has nothing to do with saturation

The problem with the saturation slider (and every software will have its own internal algorithms for this) is that it generally does just what the definition says. It adds (or subtracts) to the intensity of color. Unfortunately, the result is often counterproductive. The saturation slider is indiscriminate (it saturates all color), and too often, a boost in saturation results in a color cast over the entire image. For example, I have seen one Facebook poster recently who is boosting the saturation in fall foliage images and getting a reddish color cast over the entire image. And in most cases, it also generally results in the detail in the photo deteriorating. Try it. Find one of your images and magnify it enough on screen to see the detail, and then move the slider back and forth. The more aggressive you are with it, the more you will see the details go mushy. In many currently posted images it is obvious that the slider has been overused, as the picture looks unreal on our screens. The colors are intensean often, Just not believable.

It is a very real temptation to “goose” the colors to make them as brilliant as we wished they were. Using the saturation slider here boosts the foliage, but at the expense of a red “pall” over the remainder of the image
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

Of course, there may sometimes be reasons to boost saturation. You might actually be striving for unreality. Another is that the saturation on a projected computer screen is always more intense than when a print is made. I often push things a bit before sending them to the printer, to get as close as I can to the color I liked on screen. But even then, you must be very careful not to introduce a color cast effecting the entire image. There are generally better ways to “boost” the appearance of the image.

Here is a slightly more “selective” move, using only the red channel saturation slider. It is slightly better, but still creates a red color cast which can really be seen on the silos and the white house
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

The thing about photographic imagery is that it can often be very difficult to duplicate the “reality” that your eyes saw. For one thing, I believe that each of our eyes see color differently. But it is also the case that the attributes we see in a “good” photograph are often more based on appearance, than reality. Things like contrast, brightness, saturation and even sharpness, all influence the appearance of color. But when it comes to color, something that I have learned over the years using post-processing software is that what we are seeking often has nothing to do with saturation. I think it is important to add here, that I shoot and save all my images as raw files.  Without getting into the should or should-nots, I think nature images (the most common culprit of saturation slider overuse) will always benefit from starting with a raw file. The first step in making the captured image look the way you want it will always be done in the raw converter, and that is very powerful stuff.

Color was slightly better in 2010
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Even if the image does call for increased saturation, a number of pixel gurus have referred to the saturation slider as a “blunt instrument.” I almost never touch it, except occasionally to de-saturate an image, or parts of it. There are other, better ways to achieve the color we saw in our mind’s eye. Often, getting color “right” is a matter of contrast adjustment rather than saturation. Contrast can be adjusted throughout the image, or perhaps a better approach; locally. I do use the contrast slider in ACR (but not usually later in Photoshop). There are numerous ways to adjust contrast locally, including the tried and true “curves” tool, used with layers (of course it can be used globally on the image – that will be a judgment you will make).

It is still important to resist the temptation to “overdo” with the saturation slider, creating a red color cast on parts of the photo (barn roof), as well as deteriorating already soft detail in the distant foliage
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

I have also found that a brightness change to an image can sometimes make the colors appear to “pop” more. Again this can be accomplished globally, or using an adjustment layer, or a plugin like NIK Viveza 2.

The Saturation Slider is indiscriminate

There is also a relatively new tool: the vibrance tool (Photoshop has it; other software may call it something different). This tool is a slightly “smarter” tool than the saturation slider, as it targets more muted colors to add saturation to them, while leaving already saturated colors alone. But again remember that the tool is action more or less “globally” on the image and that may be letting the computer make your decisions for you. I often add just a small amount of vibrance in ACR (5-15%), combined with small moves of the contrast slider.

The Burton Hill Farm is a favorite image of mine. There is so much going on in this image. I used Viveza 2 to selectively DE-saturate the clouds to take a bluish color cast out of them
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

There are some very sophisticated techniques which require digging under the hood a bit, like working with “luminosity masks” – essentially specialized layers and layer masks, (Tony Kuyper has a set of pre-programmed layers of you are interested). Some years back, I learned a technique espoused by Dan Margulis (his book is a wonderful textbook, but not for the faint of heart. It is technical and it is expensive). It involves moving your image into the LAB colorspace and making some opposite curves adjustments. It really is more of a selective contrast adjustment, but really works wonders to bring out the “snap” in a color photographs. These techniques require some effort. You will have a learning curve, and generally will spend some time on each image in more complex post-processing. Lots of folks would rather go out and shoot and have very little post processing and ease of use instead of having to become a software expert.

There is still a temptation to “goose” the reds with the red slider. But the result is not productive, with oversaturated, mushy reds in the distance and again, a color cast overall
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

This sentiment probably stimulated the many products available today as plugins to existing software. One of the first of these was the NIK plugins. Originally its own company, it was at one time purchased by Google, and for a period was actually free to download and use. Google eventually apparently abandoned it, and it was ultimately sold to the DXo folks, who now offer the package for $69.00. I use it on almost every image I post-process and for me that seems like a reasonable price. They say it is new and improved, but I cannot see any difference, and am still using my originally purchased package. So far, it integrates with Photoshop CC.

The Nik product that is most relevant to this discussion is called Viveza 2. It is all about local adjustments the easy way. They have found a way to locally adjust images using circles on screen and a slider. It is not going to be as particular as using luminosity masks, but for me, for all but the most problematic of images, it works very well. Caution: Viveza does have a saturation slider! Again, I rarely touch it. The sliders I find most useful are the brightness slider, the contrast slider, and sometimes the shadows slider. I have found that in an image that does not need additional color correction (because hue, not saturation is off), that these three sliders – applied locally to areas of the photograph, do everything necessary to render a colorful, vibrant, and realistic result.

This is an example of an image where I “pushed” the sharpening and color contrast in the LAB colorspace. It looks “crispy” on screen, but the natural smoothing process of inkjet printing made this work for a sharp print
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Indeed, after I owned and learned this software for a while, I found myself going back to old images and completely re-working them. And I discovered that I was, indeed, guilty of SSO (saturation slider overuse). 🙂 . I like the re-worked images much better. If you look at some of your images critically, you might just agree with me.

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Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part IV (“Bullseye” Photography)

Barn in Wheat Field
CENTERED
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Whew, we just covered some pretty “techy” areas in Parts II and III. If you have read on, I appreciate your patience, and there is good news. This one is much easier!  I want to talk about composition here. I left this for last because for the genre we are discussing (for lack of a better description, “smartphone snapshots”), it is perhaps the least important. Focus and exposure are going to take you a long way. Then we can think about composition (and the whole “level horizon” thing is really about composition – it is just such a common error that it got front and center coverage).

Hitting the bullseye is a good thing for darts, bullets, and arrows… photographs; not so much

Another very common thing I see is what I call the “bullseye” approach. Hitting the bullseye is a good thing for darts, bullets, and arrows. In most photographs; not so much. Our internalized image of a camera lens is round. On most cameras (including smartphones) there is an “aiming” point directly in the center of the viewing screen. If you don’t have movable metering and focus points, you are going to have to use that center aiming spot to achieve your photograph. Until (if) smartphone manufactures begin to put more sophisticated camera operating features in their native apps, you will do well to find one of the free, or nominal cost third party camera apps, as they will give you the much desired ability to use the camera as it should be used.

On most cameras (including smartphones) there is an “aiming” point directly in the center of the viewing screen

Given these built-in parameters, it is no wonder that many of the photographs we see posted have their subject dead center in the middle of the picture. If we are making a portrait of the subject (generally a front on of a person or pet), that is often desired. For most other (contextual) photographs, it usually results in boring composition.

Barn in Wheat Field
“COMPOSED”
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

At the same time, the vast majority of scenic images have a “horizon” somewhere in the image. The most common fault here, is placing that horizon line across the middle of the frame. The Barn in the yellow wheat field is a good example. Our immediate thought is that the barn is our subject and we almost involuntarily center it on our aiming point, – in the middle of the frame. As you can see from the second image, moving it to the lower approximatley 1/3 or even the approximately upper 1/3 makes a more interesting, dynamic (and even believable) photo.  Whether you place it higher or lower, will probably depend on whether you want to highlight the foreground or the background of the image. Moving the subject out of the dead center of the image will usually make a more dynamic and pleasing picture.

Farm Scene
CENTERED
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

How do we accomplish that?  I have made reference to several of the tools discussed in Parts I – III. The most important of these tools will be the grid lines. I always have grid lines on on all of my cameras. The most common grid pattern is based on the artists’ “rule of thirds.” Perhaps the majority of images can be made using this grid. With a rule of thirds grid, the intersection of the lines places points in the upper let, upper right, lower right and lower left of the viewing screen. The horizontal grid lines, in addition to helping with level horizons, will help you determine where the horizon should be placed.  The vertical lines help to get the image out of the “bullseye.” It is often my preference to place my subject on or near one of the 4 intersections described above. It depends on the subject and often which way it is looking or moving (a rule of thumb is that you would prefer an animate object looking or moving into the picture). I “contrived” the farm scene image in Photoshop, to create the centered composition. In practice, I only rarely compose a shot like that, so I didn’t really have a good example. In the image I actually shot, you can see that the barn is roughly centered around the top right intersection, and the cattle are at or just below the bottom left (there are some other problems with this image. I would like the cows moving into the image. But in the words of Mick Jagger, “you can’t always get what you want 🙂 ).

Rule of Thirds Grid

The other tools we discussed will now also become very useful. If you move the focusing point out of the center of the image to the point where you want to place your subject, you will now ensure that the subject is not only dynamically placed, but there is a much greater chance that the important parts of it will also be in sharp focus.

Farm Scene
“COMPOSED”
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

For exposure the metering point you want to measure in the picture may not be in the center. Most often, I find it is at the same point as my subject, but not always. Again, these are smartphone snapshots, so we don’t want to have too much to think about. I like to “pre-plan” a shot when I can. With my smartphone, I most often just move the focus/exposure point to the point in the image where I want it and then shoot.

Lobster Boat
CENTERED
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Sometimes composing a scene involves taking a step back and looking at context. When action is happening quickly, you don’t always have time to do that. But if you do have time, it pays to look with your eyes and think about what you want to include (and what you do not want to include) in an image. This is especially true of a scenic shot. The lobster boat shot in Bernard, Maine, is a good example. The boat was the first thing that caught my attention. So the shot is about the boat, right? Centering in on the boat certainly makes this point. But would a “composed” shot be better? Stepping back, either by moving your body, or changing the zoom factor, makes a completely different image. I’ll argue that it is a better, more interesting image and that the boat is STILL the main subject in the photograph. And my original “composition” also gets rid of that void expanse of blue water in the foreground of the image.

Lobster Boat
“COMPOSED”
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

Composition is personal and subjective. I stood next to my best friend, Rich, to shoot this image. I don’t remember, but I would bet his composition was different (and probably better) than mine. What I have talked about here are not “rules.” They are guidelines. And rules and guidelines are “made to be broken.” There are certainly cases (for example, closeups and portraits) where centering the image is desired. But some thoughtful application of these guidelines will make your social media images more interesting.

I hope you have enjoyed this short series. A couple things. First, this stuff seems complicated and time-consuming. But it really isn’t. If you take some time to find and download a camera app, and set things up before you go out with the phone, you will find that paying attention to things like horizon, focus and exposure will quickly become habits and you will do them without really thinking about them. Composition may take a bit more time, but I truly encourage you to try it. Everything I have said in all four installments are “rules” or guidelines. They are not laws. They are only rules. And the age old saying that “rules are made to be broken,” certainly applies to photography.  It is your picture and you should feel free to break the rules when it suits your vision and taste.

Hopefully, if you slogged through all 4 of these blogs, that there was one or two tidbits of useful information.  As always, thanks for reading.

Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part III (Focus on what you are doing)

Here the subject of the photo is the stream of water and it needs to be in focus. But there are lots of other “moving parts” in the image for the focusing sensor to pay attention to, so you have to make sure you are focusing on the water

Too many images posted on Social Media are soft, or often even downright blurry. While sometimes some softness is desirable, that should only be done intentionally and I am sure the majority of those soft images I see are not intended. As new photographers, one of the primary fundamental things we learn is that an image must be in sharp focus.

Sharp focus is one of the harder things to get right with a smartphone camera

Like the exposure issues in Part II, this is one of the harder things to get right with a smartphone camera. Modern “dedicated” cameras which are, after all, specifically designed to make pictures and do not have to do all the other work a smartphone does, have lots of controls. Most of them are user configurable. The “camera” (really just software) that comes standard with most smartphones has very limited capability to user-configure (though I am told the newest iPhone and Galaxy S9 have begun to add some of these things).  So, again, this is going to be easier with an third-party camera app, if possible.

You can see the water here is soft. The camera’s focusing sensor was “fooled” (really it was probably the user that was fooled) by focusing on the rock in front of the stream of water and let the water go blurry

As I noted in Part II, smartphone cameras are “all-automatic.” This means the software is attempting to do all the things you need to do to capture a digital image.  This means it has to determine proper exposure and focus for you. The focusing system is similar to the light-metering system, in that they both use a measuring device.  In the case of focus, the measurement is the distance from the sensor to the subject. That information is used to tell the camera lens to focus. Knowing that “subjects” often move, most camera manufacturers’ software by default, continually measures and refocuses. Some do better than others. It is possible that the moment you click the shutter does not exactly coincide with when the lens actually makes the capture and save. This may mean that the subject has moved in the meantime and the focus point has changed. This is not likely to happen often, as the camera apps just keep getting better at this. Most of the newest cameras also offer an algorithm called “face recognition.” It is designed to pick out a face or faces in the image area and purposely focus on them. Of course, the problem with this is when you have multiple faces in different places in the image (especially from back to front). Like any technological device, it is important for the user to understand what it is measuring, so you can control that aspect.

Like any technological device, it is important for the user to understand what it is measuring, so you can control that aspect

But there is another, perhaps less obvious concern, and this is most likely to be the culprit. Note that I have used the word “subject” several times above. To understand what is happening with the focusing system, we have to first know what we mean by “subject.” For our purposes here, I will define the “subject” as “that part of the image that you want to be in focus.” I know: the whole thing dummy, right? 🙂 . Digital images, as well as hard copy print images are essentially one-dimensional. The subject matter of our photographs is almost always 3-dimensional; often with substantial depth. The camera lens is not physically capable of rendering the entire depth of the scene in sharp focus. So we have to choose which part(s) we want to really be in focus.

Again, this is accomplished with the measuring tool in the camera. If we do not know where in the frame it is pointing, we will have to resort to our best judgment of the very small screen of our smartphone, often in poor light. The app I am using has the ability to turn on the little small rectangular bracket superimposed on the screen; and to move it around. Moving it around is a nice feature for composition. We will discuss that in Part IV. But the most important thing is to know that you must place the bracket on the part of the photo you want to be sharp (remember that you may also have this bracket set for measuring exposure, as we discuss in part II). When people are in the photo, that should be a face (and if possible, even someone’s eye).

One other thing to understand. Because the lens cannot make everything in the image sharp, it will become selectively more blurry as things move away from the focus point. The “back” (background) of a scene is more susceptible to blur than the front in most cases where smartphone lenses are involved. So if you are taking that sunset shot you want to try to set your focus point on the horizon, rather than a close object in the front (foreground) of the image (for the photographers out there, I appreciate that I am over-simplifying this, but again, this is mainly addressing smartphone snapshots).

Try experimenting with this and you will hopefully begin to see that you do have some control over the sharpness of the image. I think this will make your images better (at least – sharper 🙂 ).

Merry Christmas

Christmas Starburst

MERRY CHRISTMAS 2009!

It’s that time again. The end of another (very long) year. As we have heard so many times over the years, time does seem to pass more quickly as we get older. Yet ironically, this has been a trying year for many – for many reasons. Yet I remain optimistic.

For me, this is a milestone year. After 36 years of successfully practicing estate planning and business transactions law, this will be my last full year. I will formally “retire” in the early part of 2019. It has been a good ride, and for me personally, in many ways perhaps my most enjoyable year of practice. I hope to focus the next phase of my life on more photography, travel, and learning new things.

In spite of the angst and disagreement, and in many cases, rancor, of our current times, I believe year-end, and for those of us who celebrate it – Christmas – should be a time of reflection and gratitude for the many good things we have and the people who love and support us.

I have often explained our U.S. Judicial System to frustrated “participants,” as “a system that stinks, but is still the best system in history.” I think that even for some who are feeling discouraged about our current circumstances, they might do well to reflect similarly on our country. I believe that I am very fortunate to have been born here, and to be a citizen. I have traveled a fair part of the world in recent years, and have enjoyed seeing other cultures, ways and views immensely. It is humbling and educational to observe that, in spite of the daily news of world “unrest,” there are many other cultures and ways of life in which citizens are happy, successful, and as proud of their country as we are of ours – and to realize that in the end, they are not so much different from us. I look forward to visiting more of the world over the next several years. But I am still glad that I call the U.S. my home and that I have the great privilege of living here. And I am humbled by the great sacrifices others have made to make this a place where I can live in relative freedom.

Christmas, is, of course, at its base, the celebration of the birth of Christ. In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to have been raised in a family who is tolerant of other beliefs (that is not to say many of my influences weren’t strongly opinionated 🙂 ). My parents encouraged us to learn about other religions. As a young person, I attended a Synagogue with my parents (probably not happily at the time 🙂 ), and even was invited to participate in a traditional Seder meal. I was encouraged to learn, and even took classes in high school and college on world religions. I lived in a pretty “vanilla” upper middle class community of about 20,000 people, and if there were mosques in town at the time, I was unaware – or it is likely we would have participated in that too. I hope all of that has given me at least a little bit less of a myopic view about the world and cultures. What I think all religious celebrations share is an introspection, and observation of our many blessings. And what they all certainly do not stand for is the rank commercialism that has grown over the years.

Over the past few years, My close family (the two of us and our 2 children) has “grown” away from the commercial aspect of Christmas and come to reflect more on our blessings, and the value of just having each other and being together when we can, and appreciating each other when we cannot. We don’t focus on the shopping, gift exchange, and financial aspect of a holiday which in our collective hearts we perhaps all agree has become too commercialized. We instead focus on family and activities that bring us together.

Oh yeah. The picture. I have as a “best of intentions” goal, the building of a better “Christmas” portfolio. I will be in Florida permanently by this time next year, and I know there are some pretty amazing displays in and around the Tampa area. So maybe a better post next year :-). This one, taken in 2019, was kind of experimental and I liked it then.  Looking at my small portfolio this morning, it was the one I was moved to post here.

Christmas is a time to be thankful, to keep friends and family close, and to rejoice in the many blessings we enjoy. In that spirit, Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it. And to those whose cultures, beliefs, and religions celebrate other holidays at this time of the year, I wish you my personal best, my appreciation of our differences, and my hope that we can each continue to learn about each other, share our common beliefs, and be tolerant of our differences.

Merry Christmas

Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part II (“Through the Glass Darkly”)

In Part I, I talked about crooked horizons; by far most prominent fault of images posted on Social Media. Hopefully, we helped to fix that problem in Part 1 and you have gone back and straightened all your tilted images, restoring the water to the earth’s oceans and lakes. 🙂 . And, hopefully, as you will see, although it is the most common problem, the tilting horizon is also the most easily remedied. Parts II and III, probably the next most common faults, are also the most difficult to get right.  We will talk about exposure in this installment. I often see posts – usually of people – that are so dark that you can barely see the subject. The answer seems obvious: not enough light.  Sometimes that is true, but that is not always the reason.

Although it is the most common problem, the tilting horizon is also the most easily remedied

Nikon F100
Tokina 300 mm
Kodak E100SW
Exposure Data not recorded
Birds, Vol. 2

Getting exposure right is more difficult; but it is possible with an understanding of how your phone decides to expose an image

The human eye is (so far), by far, the most incredible and technologically advanced lens available. Coupled with our brain, it is able to register and “capture” an amazing range of light from very dark to very bright. In contrast (pun intended), even the most advanced camera sensor (the little chip in your smartphone that records photographic images) can only record a fraction of this range of light that our eye sees. This limitation is sometimes referred to as “latitude.” Because of this limited latitude, all cameras have a very difficult time recording images that have both very bright areas and dark shadowed areas (the difference is sometimes referred to as “contrast”). The typical example is a shot of someone in a sunny environment, where parts of the photo are very dark, even on a bright sunny day.  Our “fix” is going to be surprising to many of you.  The bird in the photo above is a good example. It was shot on a very sunny day, confusing the camera meter and underexposing the dark bird. Note that you cannot see the eye of the bird that is in the shadow.  What causes this underexposure?

Severely underexposed image with bright background

Smartphone cameras are mostly “automatic.” They are programmed to make choices that advanced photographers with dedicated cameras know how to make for themselves. The programming is pretty good, but it can, and often is, fooled by tricky light conditions. Understanding why and how this happens will help you make better images, even in an all-automatic smartphone.  Cameras have a measuring device (meter) that measures the light and “suggests” to the camera the proper exposure for that light. This works well when the light is even. But in contrasty lighting, the meter can be confused. Sometimes it will “average” the different light sources (dedicated digital cameras have metering algorithms that do this very well). But all too often, I see images where the meter chose one light intensity over the other, to the detriment of the image. Knowing where this meter is pointing will be very helpful in fixing this problem. My dedicated cameras all have user moveable brackets for where the meter is pointing in the image.  Most native smartphone cameras do not. A little “quick and dirty” Google research did not turn up anything useful about knowing where that is on the native phone camera, so you are probably going to have to result to a little trial and error here.  Watch the screen as you move the camera around for changes in lightness and darkness. While it begins to sound like a repetitive advertisement, I am again going to suggest you look for a new camera app for your camera if your native app doesn’t already allow you to user adjust the metering point.  Most apps mimic the dedicated digital cameras, and show a little rectangle that appears on-screen when you are ready to shoot.  That rectangle tells us where the light is being metered.  It is best if this is movable about the image. If we are pointing it to (or even near) a very bright part of the image, it will tell the camera that it needs to lower the exposure.  The problem is, the exposure gets lowered for then entire picture, leaving shadow areas too dark. The image of the sailboat above is contrived, to illustrate the problem (I couldn’t find an illustrative photo in my archives, so I exaggerated the darkening that occurs when exposure goes awry). The area were the sailor is pointing is under a canopy and in shade. The water and sky are bright overcast mid-day conditions. I often see an image nearly this bad. It is this way in most instances because the camera’s meter is pointing at the bright sky and telling the software to expose for it.  It thinks that if it exposes the shadow properly, the sky will be blown out to a bright, featureless white.

There is a surprise “fix” for sunny day exposures; Turn On Your Flash!

Now, here is the fix.  If we want to get good (not totally blown out) exposure in the brightest parts of the image, so we generally are going to meter near that brighter area.  Without some help, the dark areas will be too dark.  In this case, the subject is really the sailor and it is him we want to have properly exposed. We need to choose the proverbial “lesser of evils” and let the sky go more toward white.  I know, it  seems odd that this can happen on a sunny day.  The second image is better, by metering more toward the subject (perhaps on the darker colored water – not the whitecaps). But it is still in shadow.

There is a surprise fix for sunny day exposures:  turn on your flash!  Again many, if not most smartphone cameras allow for some choices, and if there is a “fill in flash” option, choose that one. The flash is not strong enough to affect the sky and water in the background, but it does light the person in the foreground (again, I simulated what a fill in flash exposure would do with this image).  The camera will, pretty intelligently, light the dark areas without overly affecting the bright areas. Obviously, it should go without saying that you can also use this flash feature when there is not enough light overall. Again, having an app that allows specific placement of the metering area will be useful here, both to get the differences in lighting covered, but also hopefully to tell you when you simply do not have enough light for a good exposure.

Fill in Light

There are limitations to flash (on every camera, not just smartphones).  Have you ever noticed spectators in the “nosebleed” section of a concert venue or sports stadium, popping flash images.?  Their flash is doing nothing for them except draining their phone battery. Flash is a wonderful addition, but it doesn’t reach very far.  It is only going to light up images that are very close to you.

Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part I (The Earth is not Flat)

Better.” An obviously subjective term. Most of my blogs over the years have been directed at photographers or at least, people with interest in photography. In this series, I am addressing some of the things I see on Social Media. Admittedly, I am an “old” guy (another subjective term). So my Social Media exposure is relatively limited (like Facebook – remember when that was for “young” people?) 🙂 .  The earth is not flat. But we could excuse the casual observer who didn’t know better. When you look off into the distance, you see a horizon, and for all our eyes tell us, you could fall off the edge of that horizon. Except that we know it is not true. We learned it in grade school (or perhaps before). But there is another thing: that horizon we see off in the distance – it is always level.

smartphone users are primarily who I am directing these suggestions to

Today, there are almost 2 billion photos uploaded daily to Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Snapchat, WhatsAp, and the like. 2 billionPer day.  I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time getting my head around that. I probably see 20 to 40 a day.  That makes my sample only about 0.00000001%!  But I think it’s enough to support my observations. Modern “smart” cellphones have focused (yes, pun intended) on quality image-making software and hardware.  The newest generation of iPhone and Android (particularly sector leader, Samsung) smartphones have remarkable lenses and pretty capable software for digital image capture. They are perhaps as much responsible for this explosion of posted images as any other one factor.  I would guess that about 1.99 billion of the 2 billion daily posted images were made with smartphones. So smartphone users are primarily who I am directing these suggestions to. The intent here is not to be judgemental, and if my comments offend anyone, I apologize in advance.  No offense meant.  Rather, I am hoping I will suggest some things everyone can do to make those images that all your online friends remark are “beautiful” to, truly beautiful, both aesthetically and technically.  Since you are posing the image, we will assume aesthetics are to your liking. What I am talking about here is the technical qualities that make an image better.  So this series of blogs will address some things I see.

Horizons

Tilted Horizon

This is the single most common fault I see. The vast majority of images I see online, which otherwise are very nice images in many cases, suffer from this malady. As I look at them, I often wonder aloud, “How there is any water left in any ocean or lake on our planet?” Because based on the photographic representations I see, it should all have drained by now. 🙂 There is no special natural talent that skilled and experienced photographers have to get this right. In fact, I don’t believe there is any one of us who see things levelly through the lens without aid of some kind. I had been shooting seriously for many years when my friend, Al Utzig mentioned some tilted horizons on a couple of my images. Unlike some of the images I see on line, they were very subtle, and I didn’t see it. Al suggested that I use a level device on my camera and I have done so ever since. These cost a few dollars and are an invaluable aid, but do some homework when ordering online, as I found some of them were notoriously not true to level (I check mine against a carpenters level). I was surprised at the difference between the “leveled” image, and what I thought was level with just my eyes.  And, my very limited empirical data tells me that most of us lean to the right. But the mechanical level simply doesn’t lie. 🙂

“How there is any water left in any ocean or lake on our planet?”

So how do we fix the problem?  Of course you cannot use the mechanical bubble level on your smartphone.  And it is really only useful when shooting from a tripod – which most of you don’t/won’t do. The fix is really pretty easy and there are three ways I can suggest that will be very easy for any user to adopt. The first two are in-camera and probably the best solution for snapping and posting photos.

Hotshoe Bubble Level

1) Virtually every digital camera today has settings that superimpose grid-lines on the viewer (and on your phone, if the setting isn’t there, “there is an app for that”). This is a very useful feature, and in my view, should always be activated for your camera.  Here is a very good explanation of use of and turning this feature on for both Android and iPhones. The grid lines are really intended as an aid to composition of the photo (more later),  but can be useful where there is a clear horizon line in the image, like the ubiquitous sunset over water image.  If your phone is older and doesn’t have grid lines, there are any number of camera apps available for download that will do this, as well as the other things we will be mentioning.

Viewing Screen Grid Lines

2) Many cameras also have a built-in electronic “level.”  “I have that always on” for all of my digital cameras (I still use the bubble level when shooting from a tripod).  As I have moved to the “small camera,” “street shooting,” hand-held mode in recent years, this has become an invaluable aid to me. It works – I think – better than the grid lines (the grid lines are always on also, as they have another important use, which I will cover in an upcoming blog). Using both gives you the ability to cross-check how things are working. Use is simple. All but the very newest phones (the new iPhone does) do not have this feature and you will have to download an app. There are different variations of this tool, but they all work pretty much the same. There is a fixed horizontal line and a rotating line (usually green or red), or two rotating lines that turn (usually) green when level is accomplished. Just insure that the horizontal lines match up. The tool is superimposed on the viewing screen and doesn’t interfere with composition or shooting.

One of many different variations of a built-in “electronic” level

The last way is a bit more work, and I suspect that few will go to this step. 3) Most of the time, horizon issues can be fixed with digital photo processing software. Of course this adds some steps and an element of complication to the seemingly straightforward process of taking the picture and then “sharing” it somewhere. But if you want the image to look good, it is worth doing if you didn’t get it during the shot. Older photo software required some loss of parts of the edges of the image (“cropping”) when fixing tilted horizons.  These days most software is so “smart” that it fixes those edges pretty well (Photoshop calls this “content-aware” cropping).  My screen capture didn’t pick it up, but when you move the cursor to one of the bracketed corners, a curved arrow appears showing the direction of rotation and you just “grab” the corner and rotate it until the horizon is straight.  Photoshop software allows placement of “guides” (the blue line near the horizon) both horizontally and vertically to help in determining level. The iphone and android stores all have apps that can be downloaded for either a nominal fee or free, which do post-processing (like Snapseed) and many of them have the capability to rotate an image after it has been shot and stored on the phone.

Correcting a Tilted Horizon in Post-Processing Software

So now you have no excuses for posting crooked images 🙂 . I’ll be watching for more level horizons on Facebook.

NOTE:  As I worked on this series of blog posts, I fiddled with my own smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S7), and learned that the native camera app is pretty lacking.  This has got me looking for an adequate substitute app.  What I am finding is that it does not appear that many of these app developers are photographers (or perhaps more accurately, they don’t shoot the way I do).  So many of them have lots of “bells and whistles,” but are lacking in one or more important features. Most notable is the level app.  I can find plenty of stand-alone level apps, but they do not seem to integrate well with the native camera app.  Looking at a full-featured app, I am currently trying out an app called “Snap Camera.”  I will try to remember to report my findings.  One thing is that this is not a free app ($1.99 on Google PlayStore, which I do not think is unreasonable for the benefit – assuming it works as well as I hope).

Right Time; Right Place Photography

Porcupine Mountains Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Recently, I went through a review and update of my LightCentric Photography photo website.  As I was systematically checking captioning information (among other things), a couple of the images made me pause and reflect on their circumstances as involving a particularly memorable moment of for whatever reason, just being in the right place at the right time.  Sometimes it was planned. Sometimes it was just serendipity.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been other times and images. There have been too many photographic memories to cover, including trips to New Mexico, Alaska, New England, California, and around the world.

In some ways, the Porcupine Mountains image is my most memorable photo. Taken back in the days of film, I made this photograph on my very first “dedicated photography trip.” I spent a long weekend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) for the first time since my childhood. The trip was planned with much anticipation of fall color imagery.  For the most part, even though I was there during the first week in October, I was still fairly early for foliage, and was largely disappointed in that aspect of the trip. The trip motivated many more similar excursions to the U.P., mostly in the fall.  I arrived at “The Escarpment,” in the Porcupine Mountains late on a Saturday afternoon. From the Escarpment, you can view the Lake of The Clouds, which is often photographed – especially during peak foliage. Conditions were not what I had hoped for.  It was cloudy, with a 40 plus mph wind.  I had seen images of Lake of The Clouds, and that was my goal for this part of the trip.  Foliage conditions were just starting, and I just did not see the image I had visualized. To make matters worse, the forecast called for worsening conditions, with all-out rain by morning.  So I took a number of images, using a much faster shutter speed and lower aperture combination than I normally would have, bracing the tripod against the wind buffets with my own weight (seemingly counterproductive).  Unlike these days, you could not see a representation of the result on the back of the camera.  I would wait until I returned home, and the photographic processor completed developing my slides.  I didn’t expect much from this location. But on the light table, this one image jumped out at me. It is perhaps the only “keeper” from that take. As I viewed it, I realized that the contrast between the lingering greens, the precocious reds, and the developing oranges and yellows, was actually more visually interesting – indeed satisfying – than some of those images that I had seen that were a complete wash of fall color. There is a photographer’s saying:  “F8 and be there.” I don’t think this was F8, but I was there, and this is what I found. The image here, is prepped for printing, and may look a bit saturated. But I did not touch the saturation sliders in Photoshop.  Instead, I used an old technique (surpassed for most of us by plugins such as NIK Viveza 2), converting the scanned image to LAB color space and making adjustments to the A and B curves. This image has continued to be my best selling photo. It hangs in the main conference room of my law firm’s offices, and draws many comments.

Mad River
Waitsfield, VT
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

In 2006, after much bragging to my best buddy, Rich Pomeroy, about the “best fall foliage in the world, bar none,” he called my bluff and we took a week long trip to Vermont. We had take many business trips together before, but this was our first “together” photography adventure. I am delighted to say that we have made numerous other photo trips, and will make many more in future years.  But this one turned out to be kind of a bust. We went during the last part of September and very early October. All during the week, we wished we had waited a week, as the foliage was again in very early (almost non-existent) stages. We worked hard to find some foliage and though we had a lot of fun and made some memorable images, it wasn’t what we had anticipated. Determined to “find” those colors I remembered from my youth in the 1970’s in Vermont, I returned – alone this time – in 1997, a week later. During that trip, I spend a couple nights in central Vermont, driving along it famed Route 100. Mother Nature can be fickle, and the colors were – once again – not as nice as I had hoped (this time a bit past peak in many places).  One morning, I was headed for a waterfall that has turned out to be (in my opinion) unremarkable;  Moss Glen Falls in Granville. But on my way, I got waylaid by a vision:  some color off in the distance of a scenic turnout.  The turnout turned out (see what I did there 🙂 ) to be a nice series of drops in the Mad River. The Mad River is really just a stream or creek that is not really navigable.  It is also the namesake of “Mad River Canoes,” originally built by hand in Waitsfield, where this very same stream wandered through his back yard. A drizzly rain was falling, but I donned my wading boots and spent 2 1/2 hours shooting there.  The image here was actually on a return trip in 2010, when I brought Rich back to “prove” my assertions about Vermont foliage 🙂 . That morning was a magical time. I was all alone with the subject, which remains a really photogenic series of waterfalls.

Otter Cliffs Sunrise
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

In 2009, Rich and I made another memorable photo trip; this time to Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. Bar Harbor is a quaint little touristy town with just enough non-photographic things to keep our spouses entertained (well, for about a day that is – but we were there for a week 🙂 ). Acadia is probably one of the most photographed National Parks. There a numerous books about the Park Loop Road, and all the different photographic venues. Otter Cliffs is one, but it is most often viewed more distantly, from another cliff to the north.  From the vantage point, you cannot even see this cobblestone beach. I had a friend who strongly recommended that I “work” to find this spot, which is a cobblestone beach that is not well documented or marked (at least, it wasn’t in 2009). The directions in the books don’t really reveal it, but with some perseverance, and some insight from him, we did find it. We visited it for 3 successive mornings in the pre-dawn, before we got this one. There is really nothing like being in a location like this, literally alone, and watching the sunrise and the morning develop. It was a location worth “working” for.

Burton Hill Road
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Vermont has a special place in my heart. Readers here know I make period trips to Vermont to photograph; usually during the vaunted fall foliage season. I wrote my first eBook on this very topic.  As I did my homework, planning each trip, researching and hobnobbing with members of the Scenes of Vermont forum, I “met” two of my wonderful friends, both of whom also happen to be talented photographers and writers. Al Utzig and I carried on a e-mail correspondence for several years before I finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person. We were good friends by that time and the face-to-face didn’t change that (for me at least – I’ll let Al be the judge of it 🙂 ). Carol Smith, who many of you know as my co-author for the current edition of Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage,” was a frequent poster on the Scenes forums and we were all soon to learn, an extremely knowledgeable and observant resource for wannabe Vermont photographers. She was of immeasurable help to me on the first edition and it was a logical progression for her to co-write a second edition which contains much more information, primarily from Carol. In the process we also became good “online” friends. In 2010, Rich and I returned to Vermont. I was there for a week, but Rich was only able to join me on the southern part of the trip for about 3 days.  This trip began with a group of us (particularly Al, Carol and me) meeting at Carol’s Barton house in anticipation of a next-day, early morning “tour,” led by Carol. This was my first face-to-face meeting with Carol, and to my surprise, she still loves me :-). We started at Bean Pond along the US 5 highway, for a foggy sunrise over the pond. The time and images were magical, but while Al and I gushed, Carol promised that the best was yet to come. And boy, was she right. The Burton Hill Road image is by far my personal favorite Vermont image, and perhaps my most “successful.” After others had left, Carol and her very patient husband, guided me around several other areas, including the Craftsbury Common image that appears on the cover of the Vermont eBook. But that morning is one of the most memorable times of any photographic trip. And I got to enjoy it with two of my very favorite friends.

Eagle in Flight
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Some years were big travel years for me. Others not so much. 2010 was one of those big years. In addition to another trip to Vermont, my wife, son and I went on our first cruise; the Inside Passage from Vancouver, B.C., to Whittier, Alaska. It introduced us to cruising (which to my surprise, I really liked), which has opened travel doors to us throughout the world. There were hundreds of images taken on that trip to Alaska, with some pretty great photographic opportunities.  But the most memorable image of that trip came as a complete surprise to me. We were signed up for a “deadliest catch” look-alike excursion (sans the cold and ice and heavy oceans). When we came ashore, one of the crew who met us saw my “big camera” and said “I see you came prepared. We are going to get some eagle photos for you today.”  Right. He was a tour guide. He certainly wasn’t going to promise me crappy photos.  🙂 I think we were scheduled to be out for 3 1/ or 4 hours, during which they talked about the history of these fishing boats (the boat was an actual boat used in the Bering Sea, just like the ones on the “Deadliest Catch” series, which had been shipwrecked, and then salvaged and retro-fitted with observation seating).  All very interesting, but no “knock your socks off” eagle photos. We saw some, but they were a long way in the distance. At the end of the cruise, they announced that they had a special treat for us, and took us by an uninhabited island, which was in native waters (by U.S. treaty) and therefore not subject to U.S. laws. As I looked, I saw a solitary eagle perched in dead tree. O.k. Then I suddenly heard “plop.” “Plop, plop.” The crew was up in the flybridge tossing bait into the water. The skies next to our boat suddenly turned into what I can only describe as a air to air dogfight as about 30 eagles all appeared, diving and often fighting for the food. I really wasn’t prepared and it all happened in about a 5 – 10 minute sequence. But in spite of my ill-preparedness, I was able to get several good shots. This one is my favorite. I doubt that I will ever get an opportunity to photograph eagles in flight from that close a position again. As our first cruise, it was hard to have it come to an end, with so many amazing and new experiences. But it did. It marked the end of a great trip – and the beginning of many more.

San Francisco Bay Bridge
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

In 2011, instead of a fall foliage trip, my wife and I opted to spend a week in California during the first week in October. My daughter lives in San Francisco, so we used that as a staging point, with an overnight excursion to Napa for some wine tasting. Lots of memories from that trip. My daughter’s place at the time was in downtown, south of Market Street (SOMA). She was just two blocks south of Market and just a few blocks west of the Bay Bridge, the Embarcadero and the eastern part of San Francisco bay. I was up early and somewhere on the street each morning by sunrise or earlier (the 3 hour time differential was a positive, making it easy for me to wake up and roust early). What I really noticed was the relative stillness, just before the world “wakes up.” I made numerous images of the Bay Bridge, which is a favorite subject of mine (I prefer these images to those I have made of the more famous Golden Gate). But this one, I think, best illustrates that early morning pre-dawn calm and stillness.

Blue Angels
Fleet Week
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

That trip had other memories. We made friends with a couple of the winery owners, and in later years would travel with one of them, to the Caribbean and to Ireland, as well as returning to the vineyard when back in California. But the unexpected and incredible opportunity of shooting the air show put on by – mostly – the U.S. Navy, during its San Francisco “Fleet Week,” is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We shot from the ground for over an hour as the planes flew low over us. I worked hard to capture a “bloom” from the jet fighters as they broke the sound barrier. Because sound and light do not travel at the same speed, it was touch to anticipate. I got just one. But am pretty pleased with it.

New River Gorge Lookout
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Returning to California, Rich and I were able to sneak in a quick 3-day trip to West Virginia’s Babcock State Park, to photograph the often photographed Grist Mill in fall foliage. While we probably missed the peak near the mill, we were able to find peak foliage around Boley Lake in the park. What made this trip special was my first opportunity to meet one of my photographic mentors and a great inspiration to me, James Moore. Jim is an uber-talented nature photographer with many sales and publications; primarily in and around West Virginia. We had become on-line friends a year or two before, and he had a group he was guiding there photographing earlier in the week. Jim was still there when we arrived, but left early the next morning.  We had a nice time to chat and he gave us some great insight about when and where to shoot in the park. In 2012, Jim did me the great honor of asking me to act as a guide for one of his photography workshops in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Jim had heard a lot about it but had never visited there. We spent a great week, learning, shooting, and watching the foliage develop from pre-peak to full peak conditions. Jim had some health problems later in life and sadly those of us who knew and admired him have lost touch. For the West Virginia image here, my model was Jim, and the New River Gorge lookout was one of his favorite spots in the park.

Oxbow Bend
Snake River, Wyoming
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

2012, marked yet another photography trip with my buddy, Rich (and spouses). We joke a lot because I am a “planner” when it comes to these trips. I have usually figured out what I want to shoot, how to get there, how long it will take, and what time of day to be on site. For the most part, Rich is happy to let me do that, and quite often comes home with the better image. 🙂 A couple years before, Rich had attended a photography workshop in Jackson Hole, and the Grand Teton National Park. We both wanted to go again. This time I showed up and Rich was the guide. What a fun and memorable week with many great photo opportunities. As an old school photographer (or maybe just an old photographer), when it comes to scenic shots, I think in terms of a print. What we all want to bring back is a “wall-hanger.” Over the years I have made, printed and framed a number of my images. None has been better that this image of Oxbow Bend. We arrived here (I think the second time) in the pre-dawn hours and there was frost on everything. As the sun rose, the warmer water temps created a wonderful low fog over the bend in the river. May some white cotton-candy clouds would have enhanced this, but it was a great morning and I knew walking away from this shoot that this would be a wall-hanger.

Venice
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

2013 was a huge year for us. My wife came from a military family, so she had done some limited world travel as a young person. But in our adult lives, we had not traveled out of the U.S. except for a couple trips to the Caribbean, and Canada (which really doesn’t seem like it counts 🙂 ). We decided to kick our cruising up a notch, and booked a Mediterranean Cruise. In many ways, it may have been the most memorable of all of our cruises. It was our third cruise on the Princess Lines, and we were booked on their newest, and best ship. We were excited to see the world over the next two weeks, disembarking from Venice and ending in Barcelona. The cruise ship decided it wouldn’t cooperate, and our cruise was cut short. There was, however, a happy ending to that.

Gondolas
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

As is our custom, we planned to spend 3-4 days in our originating port city before boarding the cruise ship. We walked around Venice for 3 days and boarded the ship thankful for an immediate “day at sea,” exhausted.  But what I can say about Venice is that it is wall-to-wall “eye-candy” for the photographer. I have hundreds of Venice images, but the two shown here represent moments that separate themselves from the others.  The Gondolier was a case of right time, right place. I was looking for shots, and heard them coming. I found this setup and was blessed with wonderful early morning sunlight. The covered gondolas is not original on my part. I had seen at least one other photographer do this. What it would need was very early light in order to make an exposure long enough to capture the motion of the rocking gondolas. This meant either very early morning, or evening. I chose morning because there would be less people, and less activity on the Grand Canal, producing just some gentle rocking. I use this image on my Facebook LightCentric Photography Page Cover.

Lombard Street
San Francisco
Copyright Andy Richards 2014

In 2014, we returned again to San Francisco for several days. I made more trips to the Bay Bridge. I also walked to the San Francisco Giants ball stadium. My daughter took us to Lands End, to see the Golden Gate Bridge from a different perspective, and to Jones Beach. But what I remember the most is walking from our SOMA location, all the way across town and uphill to Lombard Street (the famous s-curved, brick-paved, switchback street that is a “must photograph” when you visit). I made the usual images (except for the nighttime shot with the streaky headlights). Then I looked for something else to shoot. A unique perspective that possibly nobody else had ever done. I think I might have been successful.

Sailboat
Narragansett Bay, Newport
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

In 2016, I made a last minute trip to join my buddy, Rich, who was in Newport, Rhode Island for business. I flew in on Thursday evening and we spent two days shooting.  Friday morning, I was on my own and walked around the downtown area and the wharfs, making lots of photos of boats, buildings, etc. Everything was a more or less nautical theme. That evening we went to shoot a lighthouse that Rich had found earlier in the week (Castle Hill Light). This was a photogenic lighthouse, and as we often do, we arrived early to scout best perspectives for shooting. And then we waited on the light. It is often worth waiting for the absolute last of the light to see if anything magical happens in the sky. To our west, the sun set over Narragansett Bay, with beautiful orange skies, but no real photographic interest. But as we watched and waited, this white sailboat approached and passed. Knowing a little about sailing from my past, I made note of the wind, and calculated that the boat (it was actually a large, tour charter boat on the last leg of the day) would come about and come back toward us. I quickly swiveled my tripod head around, took some metering measurements, and waited to frame the boat where I wanted it to be.  I knew I would get 2-3 shots at best of this quickly moving boat.

Tokyo Tower
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

2018 has been kind of a slow year, photographically. But we absolutely made up for that in 2017. In July, we spent a week in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. We saw many amazing sights and I did my usual early morning walking around both cities. I was intrigued by Tokyo Tower, lit at night, and worked hard to find a good place to photograph it from. I took a few from a couple different places. But it turns out that the best I could do was through the window of our Tokyo Hotel.

Santorini, Greece
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

In September, we made our 3rd, and much anticipated Mediterranean Cruise. We again spent several days in Venice. One of the other places I had seen and wanted to shoot was the Greek Island of Santorini. We had a wonderful tour guide, who happened to also be a photographer, and he the right time and place for us to be to get shots I am certain I would never have found without his help, in spite of the research I had done.  Did I mention that Venice is “eye-candy” for photographers? Ditto Santorini.

Well.  This was an interesting exercise for me.  I tried to keep it to not more than 15 images. There were many more that perhaps fit the bill. And I am sure there will be more to come. As always, thanks for reading.