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Some Tips for Casual Shooters

The ubiquitous black gondola (shown here with the also common blue cover) is a favorite subject of photographers Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

The ubiquitous black gondola (shown here with the also common blue cover) is a favorite subject of photographers
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

September and October, and particularly during the “fall foliage” season, are prime vacation times. Many love the cool crisp fall air, the relatively less crowded venues, and are often attracted to destinations known for their fall foliage. Elsewhere, fall creates beautiful light and beckons vacationers for many other reasons.

This year looks, from all indicators, to be a year that will yield spectacular foliage as our mixed hardwood forests in the Northern parts of this country turn before dropping their leaves for the winter. With manifold lakes, mountains, rivers and ponds for backdrops and reflections, many travelers will be making memories with their smart phones, tablets, and small travel (“point and shoot”) cameras.

I see hundreds of images on the internet these days most taken with smart phones or tablets. There are just a few “tips” I would offer to perhaps make these images “better” memories.

Make sure the Horizon is Level

This may be the most common issue I see with many of the 100’s of photos posted on line. There are so many of these tilted photos that – If I didn’t know better from scientific proof – would lead me to believe that the world really is flat – and tilted! And not only tilted, but in the majority of cases, tilted to the right! I know from many of my left-leaning friends, there are are a fair number of left leaning shooters out there, but they still lean right when behind the viewfinder. We don’t see the earth tilted right or left with our eyes, but the apparatus we are using to capture the scene – or something in the scene – fools us and the end result is a tilted horizon. I have been shooting with an aid (either a bubble level or a built in level in the viewfinder/screen) for some years now, since my friend, Al Utzig recommended it. I still am amazed when I shoot an image without any aid, thinking the horizon is level and then view it, to see it is not. The level doesn’t lie. Our eyes (and mind) does. It especially shows up with images where there is a well-defined horizon (like those sunset images on your favorite lake, where if you look carefully, you would wonder why the water hasn’t drained out of the lake). J. Don’t let the other objects in the image fool you. They might just be tilted. But the horizon never is.

Think about the Sun

We have all see images – usually of people – where you can hardly see them because they are so dark in the image.

More often than not, these images are made on a perfectly clear, bright, sunny day. But as often, something creates a shadowed area in which the subjects are shrouded. This circumstance is created because of the angle and brightness of the sun. It is why portrait photographers love outdoor conditions that are “bright overcast” rather than bright, clear and sunny. The overcast creates a flat, even lighting, where the bright, clear conditions often create harsh brightness and deep shadows.

The human eye sees these scenes exactly as they are – clear and well-exposed. So why can’t we get it right with the camera? After all, it is a “smart” phone, right? While technology has moved light years in just a few calendar years, we still do not have any optical technology that holds a candle to the human eye, nor computer (yes, digital cams are computers) that matches wits with the human brain. That combination (eye and brain) corrects any lighting problem in a nanosecond, without us realizing it. And it sees a huge range of contrast from very bright to very dark, in great detail. Unfortunately our phones (cameras) are not that good. They “see” a very narrow range from bright to dark, and the computers in them then try to decide which of the tones are the most important to the image. But they just aren’t so “smart.” Unless we give them some direction, they will see a dominant tone in an image and try their best to expose it (more often than not, the brighter tone). And in the process of exposing the brighter tones, they will render darker tones, well – dark. There are a couple of “fixes.”

We could just turn the folks around and have the sun at the shooters back. A couple of problems with that: First, the “scene” we are trying to capture doesn’t lend itself to that. Second, when we do turn them around, they are looking into the bright sunlight and therefore, squinting. And last, the direct sun on them is often creates a harsh effect. So how do we fix the problem without turning them around?

Old San Juan Artisan's Market Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Old San Juan Artisan’s Market
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

There are a couple of “fixes.” The first and often the best, is to turn on your flash. Wait a minute. Flash? In the broad daylight? In bright sunlight? Yep. The flash will “fill” in those areas the computer is telling the camera to render as dark, evening out your image. A second fix is to move in as close as your subject will allow (“telling” the exposure meter built into the camera to measure the light closer to the subject.

Use the “Rule of Thirds”

The rule of thirds is an almost hackneyed rule used by artists and photographers to try to make images more dynamic. Too many otherwise nice images are composed using what I call the “bullseye” effect. The camera has a focus aid (often a square or round bracket in the viewfinder or on the screen), and the default position of that aid is dead center in the frame. So we tend to follow its lead and put our subject dead center in the frame. If the subject is a closeup without any surrounding context, that probably works. But again, the premise here is that you will be out seeing the sights and want to either capture the sight or capture friends and family with a feature of the site as a prop.

The rule of thirds says that a more dynamic composition divided the image into thirds both horizontal and vertically and places important parts of the images at one of the points there the dividing lines intersect. Many cameras now come with a grid that can be activated with lines at the “rule of thirds” point. A useful compositional aid, if you have it. If not, try to imagine your viewing screen or viewfinder divided in thirds in both directions.STONE HOUSE MANASSAS BATTLELFIELD NP MANASSAS, VA 082720100003_tone compressor

For much of the “travel” imagery I see, this is particularly important for the vertical placement of the horizon in an image. With one primary exception, placing the horizon in the middle of your viewfinder is a recipe for a boring image. The primary exception is when you are creating a mirror-image reflection. Even then, be careful not to overuse that.

You have to think about Image Sharpness

In “the olden days” (as I used to say when I was a kid), travelers shot with Kodak Baby Brownie cameras, or Instamatic Cameras. They were “fixed” focus, which meant they used optical formulas which pretty much guaranteed focus in most situations. This mean very short focal length lenses, with relatively small openings (apertures). Only “serious” shooters back then had cameras that were capable of being focused by the user.

Problems with image sharpness are caused by a number of factors. Movement (either your subject or yourself while holding the camera) is one. This is exacerbated as the focal length of the lens increases. Another is the actual optical focusing of the lens. “Fixed” lenses are not common on today’s cameras. Instead, most have some focusing capability. While desirable, this also causes issues from user misunderstanding.

The reason most lenses today are focusable is because of the advent of “autofocus” technology (AF). And, thankfully for those of us with old and poor eyes, AF just keeps getting better and better. But it is still an optical-mechanical technology. Which means it needs some guidance. On smartphones and tablets, there is generally very little user-adjustment. But the guidance is still happening. The software is telling the sensor you are aiming to focus at a particular spot. There is often a green confirmation. You must know where on your screen is telling the lens to focus. Most cameras have a bracket (see above), that will tell you the part of the image you are focusing on. It might not be your subject! But it will focus where it’s told, rendering what appears to be an out of focus image.

The second cause is not understanding the mechanics of your “camera.” If you are shooting with a camera with a very long zoom range and trying to shoot under relatively low lighting conditions, you will likely get blurry results. This is a function of the optics. If your subject is moving, you will likely have the same result. With cell phones the first problem is more likely, as the lenses in these cameras tend to be relatively short.

The above “tips” are just that. They are not “set in cement” rules. And even if they were, all artists know that “rules” are made to be broken. The tips should make general images “better” images and to be kept in mind as rules of thumb while shooting. As the old saying goes, “your mileage may vary.” Don’t be afraid to experiment and to break the rules. But breaking the rules work better when you know them and understand the consequence of breaking them.

Copyright Andy Richards

Copyright Andy Richards

I will be “out for a couple weeks” on travel. Hope to be able to bring some new images back and perhaps something to discuss here. In the meantime, safe travels, have fun, and be safe!

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