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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.


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