AS THE holidays approach, folks will be posting more photos on social media than usual. Maybe some new phones (and even new cameras), holiday gatherings, family gatherings, and holiday decorations. I know I have posted these “tips” before. But I think they are worth repeating. I continue to see a few things that make otherwise pretty good images well . . . not so good, online. I see this more on Facebook than anywhere else (but maybe that’s because I spend more time there than any other site :-)). The same issues are prevalent on Instagram, though. Do you want your images to stand out? There are really just a few “rules” to follow to get you there.
Watch Those Horizons
THIS IS still the most common issue I see. And, surprisingly, I see it more often than we should from some pretty good photographers. In my mind there is nothing more obvious (and deleterious) to an image (especially one with a well-defined horizon – like water) than a crooked horizon. Look at my illustration. Our eyes will fool us at first, due to the many interesting (and perhaps beautiful) elements of the picture. But eventually, your subconscious will tell you something is wrong here. My mind immediately wonders how all that water doesn’t drain out of the scene. 🙂 I think it is a combination of things. In the case of the experienced shooters, it probably results from handheld shooting. For most of you who are probably using your smartphone, of course everything is going to be handheld. All the more reason to be aware of this concern. The best approach is to try to get it level when shooting, and there are some handy aids for that. Virtually every camera today has grid lines that can be turned on that superimpose the frame and give you a point of reference for horizontal and vertical orientation (more below). Most dedicated cameras and many smartphones also have a “level” app that can be turned on. Use them. They are your friend. And finally, even if your result has an unlevel horizon, you can almost always fix that. Almost every phone camera now has an “app” where you can very easily level up the horizon on a photo you have taken (many of them are “one-click” automatic). If not, “there’s an app for that.” Don’t believe your own eyes. Most of us have a bias and while we think we are shooting level, we are not. I have proven that to myself empirically time and again. It is the easiest thing to fix and perhaps the most dramatic improvement you can make.
There is nothing more deleterious to an image than a crooked horizon
Most cameras and some smart phones today have a feature that you can turn on that incorporates a “level” tool. If you have it, turn it on!
I STILL see a lot of images that are not in sharp focus. With your cell phone there is usually only one “culprit” here. You are not “telling” the phone where to focus. Cameras that have autofocus (most of them – and all cell phones) have “sensors” that tells the camera what part of the image to focus on. Most of the time, the sensors (usually multiple points) are set at a general, fairly wide setting, with the camera software “programed” to get the image in focus. And in most cases that gets it right. But if you are very close to your subject, or there is a very distant background that has some detail, getting sharp focus front to back is more of a challenge. This is mainly because of something known as depth of field (DOF). For serious photographers here, if you aren’t familiar with DOF, you need to do some research and study, and understand it. For smartphone users, it is probably less critical. This is – in part – because most smartphones today incorporate 2 or more lenses and the mix and the software figures DOF out. Most of the time they get the right part of the image in focus. But only if you point the focusing mechanism at the correct target. Usually, the sensors detect contrast or detail and that is how they determine sharp focus. If there is an area in the image with sharp detail or contrast that is not your subject, it is important not to point the focusing sensor at that area, or it will “fool” the camera into focusing on the wrong thing. This often results in a blurry image. Get to know how that focusing bracket on your phone works (they are probably adjustable and movable). It will improve your results. But be careful. Look at the illustration below. Newer cameras can incorporate multiple focus points as below. They contain relatively sophisticated programmed in algorithms. They work pretty well in many situations but can also be “fooled.” If possible, I think it is best to set just one focus point and know where it is. On my cameras, I focus set to a single, movable (by me) AF sensor point. I feel that I then always know where the camera is “aiming” for focus. The illustration below shows a multiple point AF setting, with the rectangle activated and placed at the point of focus (as noted, on my own cameras – at least for still photos – I have all the other points “turned off” so you do not see them, and I am only using the single rectangle focus point). [I may change these settings if I am trying to shoot a moving target].
THERE ARE a couple other reasons for blurry shots. They both involve movement. In a still photograph, we are trying to capture an image outline in sharp detail. The shutter opens for a “moment in time” and then closes. It attempts to “freeze” the image during that time. Certain things influence the length of time the shutter remains open. Light is required for exposure and the less available light, the longer that shutter must remain open. I am oversimplifying this a bit, but it probably works well for smart phone users to think this way. If you are using a DSLR-type camera, you should familiarize yourself with something known as “the exposure triangle.” Movement occurs in one of two ways. If you are handholding your shot, and the time is fairly long, your body’s natural shake and movement will move the camera, resulting in blurriness. Today virtually all phone cameras have built in “image stabilization” (IS), which is essentially gyroscopic technology designed to counter our body tremors and movement. They work amazingly well but are not failsafe. The second way is when the subject moves. Image stabilization will not help with that. Subject movement happens most often when there is wind, or when the subject is animate (animals and humans).
THIS IS one of the harder ones. Most smartphones do a very good job in even lighting conditions. Where all cameras show their limitations is with difficult lighting. The difference between dark areas and bright areas in a picture is often referred to as contrast. “High” contrast images often have very dark and very light areas within the frame. The human eye is very good at adjusting our vision to that contrast. The camera sensor; not so much. In spite of leaps and bounds forward since the early days, digital sensors have limited ability to properly expose over a large range of contrast. In some pictures, you will have to make a choice about what you want to be well exposed (the bright areas or the dark areas). Usually, that is going to be the darker areas. Most often I see the problem in “people” portraits, where you can barely see faces. Often this happens on a very sunny day, or late in the afternoon when the sun is still bright, but very directional, raising the contrast and creating deep shadow areas. What is happening? Cameras have another sensor (meter) in them that “reads” the light and tells the camera how to expose an image. They calibrated to expose whatever they see at a setting known as “neutral gray.” It tries to properly expose the area it reads. But it has difficulty distinguishing between those very bright areas and the deep shadows. Newer meter technology has been “programmed” to kind of “recognize” a scene and adjust the overall exposure. It works pretty well, especially in even lighting conditions. But high contrast still confuses it. So, our result often shows the inability of the sensor to capture both light and dark areas beyond past a certain point. In the photo below, the strong direction of the sun and the visor on the subject’s cap are creating deep shadows. The meter tries to do its best to expose the overall photo. You can see that most of the image is decently exposed, but perhaps the really important part – his face, is largely in shadow. If he weren’t wearing sunglasses, you would probably not be able to see his eyes.
HOW DO we address this? As we talked about with focus above, it is important to know what part of the image you want correctly exposed, and how the camera is going to accomplish this. Like exposure, there is usually an indicator of where the meter is pointing (often the same bracket or point as the focus sensor), and how much of the overall scene it is measuring. On higher-end cameras, we have the ability to fine tune how wide an area the sensor/meter reads. That capability is usually there, with some digging, on your smartphone, too (and if not, there is probably a downloadable app that will do it). if you meter the area the faces are in carefully, you will get them exposed and visible. But if the contrast is too bright, this may be at the expense of incorrect (usually over) exposure of the rest of the image. In the image above, we may need to purposely overexpose the entire image to get the eyes properly exposed. It is possible (even probable) that the sunny, bright background will be completely blown out though. So sometimes you have to make a choice. When you have control of the situation, a better approach is to try to move your subjects into what we refer to as “open shade.” Not dark shadows, but out of the bright sunlight. This evens out the lighting conditions and gives you a better chance for good exposure. And, when all else fails, if you turn on your flash (I know that is counter-intuitive on a sunny day) and pop some flash into the shaded area, you may get a better result. What that is doing is actually trying to “even” out the contrast, by lighting the shadowed areas. Since flash covers a very limited distance, it can be very effective. In the photo above a controlled pop of flash (referred to as “fill” flash) would probably help this image. But easiest, and perhaps best would be to move him to an area with less high contrast conditions, such as the “open shade” we discussed. You usually have control over things like that. Based on our natural intuition, it often comes as a surprise that bright sunlight is not always best for photography. It is also a good thing to be aware that certain environmental elements contribute to lighting issues. Water and snow, particularly, can create high contrast and reflect bright sunlight. Exposure meters often have difficulty with snow and water scenes, and it may be important to adjust accordingly.
Guidelines are not meant to be slavishly adhered to. They can, and sometimes should be broken
YOU MAY think I am getting too deep here, and that a discussion of composition is for artists and serious photographers. O.k., sure. But again, why not use just a few “tips” to make your personal snaps stand out? The main principle I follow is to ask: “what is my subject and what am I trying to convey?” It really doesn’t have to be to philosophical or analytical. But once you identify the subject it is much easier to think about the best way to portray it. There are some guidelines that may help with this. They may make the process more mechanical, but that is not actually a bad thing as it can get you where you want to go without having to think too hard about all the other esoteric considerations. The first guideline is the most important of all: Guidelines are not meant to be slavishly adhered to. They can, and sometimes should be broken! 🙂
If camera lenses are round, why are all our photographs square? – Stephen Wright
WE HAVE already covered another aspect of one of these tips above: the level horizon. But while we are talking about horizons, lets address a point that can make a huge difference in your images. And that is to consciously think about where you place the horizon. There are some “rules” that classic artists have developed over the years that are applicable here. Probably the most common “rule of thumb” is to use the so-called “rule of thirds” when placing a horizon (and subject) within the rectangular frame we deal with in photographs (I think it was comedian, Stephen Wright who asked: “if camera lenses are round, why are all our photographs square?” 🙂 ). In most cases, putting the horizon in the middle of the frame results in a less dynamic, often boring image. What I also see, is that sometimes we get so excited about our beautiful subject that we don’t see other things in the photo. If 50% or more of your image is plain sky (even plain blue), or plain water, you are most likely not accomplishing the dynamic image you think. Your eyes and brain see the image and fool you into thinking that is what you are capturing. The camera is mechanical and doesn’t have that “brain” function. Think about bringing your subject more “front and center” and excluding (or at least limiting) plain backgrounds and foregrounds, which will usually have the effect of moving the horizon up or down. That is usually a good thing. One major exception to this rule is the “mirror-type” reflection image. Often that image looks most dynamic when the break between subject and reflection is dead center (but even then, not always). Almost all cameras (and many smart phones) today have a feature you can turn on which superimposes a “rule of thirds” grid in your frame. This not only helps with composition but can also help with level horizons. I encourage you to turn this feature on!
PLACEMENT OF your subject within the frame is closely related here. It involves not only the horizontal placement, but the vertical placement of an image. I refer to this as balance. If you are making a close up “portrait” image, you will probably just center the person or persons and it will yield the result you want. But if the person or people are doing something, you can often make the image more interesting by adding context. Are they looking at something? If so, it is usually preferable for them to be looking into the photo instead of out of it. Is there something that gives it context (a new car, a boat, mountains, etc.)? Then you may want to place parts of the image at the intersection points of that “rule of thirds” grid. I recently read a comment by a pro who suggests that this is really the wrong way to look at this issue. He argues that the placement of horizons and subjects within the frame is not nearly as important as what you are trying to convey with your image. I won’t disagree with him. But I might say it a little differently, as I did above. Guidelines are just that: Guidelines. They are not meant to be slavishly adhered to. But knowing them and thinking about them can certainly help to make your photos better in many instances. I hope maybe some of these things will help someone make some better photos during this holiday season. Above all things, have fun!