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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!


Size Matters!

Certainly, a hackneyed, old phrase, but in matters of digital photography, it is a fact. The size I am referring to is the digital sensor, but not megapixels; physical size. There are a fair number of parallels to the film-based systems we used before the so-called, “digital revolution.” But with digital sensors, there is a significant difference; technology. Very much like the computer industry, by the time the latest and greatest sensor hits the market, it is already “old technology” (there were major technological advances in film, too, over time, but they happened in a matter of years, rather than months).  This is a very technical subject that many others out on the net explain in technical and engineering details that I cannot begin to match.  This is a layman’s perspective.

The consumer camera began to drive new technology advances

The first digital cameras were adaptations of 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera bodies that were used to build digital imaging tools (today referred to as a Digital SLR; or DSLR). They had very small imaging sensors (significantly, smaller than the rectangular cross-section of a single 35mm film frame), and were capable of producing only around 1.2 megapixel (MP) images. They cost $20,000 to $25,000; not within the budget of most photo-enthusiasts.

Digital image-making brought a new phenomenon to the camera manufacturing industry. Suddenly, the consumer camera (we often refer to them as “point and shoot” or “P&S”), began to drive new technology advances which often first appeared in the consumer P&S cameras, only to be put into the higher-end “pro” cameras later.

Sensor Sizes Compared

How does this all relate to sensor size? The P&S cameras have a much smaller image sensor in them than the DSLR cameras and the newer Medium Format digital cameras that are now available on the market. I currently routinely carry and use 3 different cameras: a Canon G12 P&S, a Nikon D7000 “DX” sensor camera, and a Nikon D700 “FX” sensor camera.  As the illustration shows, there is a pretty remarkable difference in sensor sizes (if you would like to do your own comparison, I used this really cool tool to make this illustration). Especially when we can upload and view all three of these at relatively the same viewing size on our computer monitors, and—within reason—make similar-sized print images from all three. But there is a notable difference in the quality of these images.

Why did the original cameras not have a sensor identical to the 35mm film cross-section that those bodies were designed for? The answer is simple; technology and cost. The technology that continues to “knock our socks off” today was the most limiting factor back in the late 1980’s. The cost to manufacture even a 1.2 megapixel small physical sensor was prohibitive. A 35mm size sensor cost as much as 20 times the cost to manufacture the smaller sensors. And while over time manufacturers rapidly designed and manufactured sensors holding many more photo-sites (hence, more megapixel capture capability), the cost to manufacture larger physical sensors remained expensive. This explains why the cost of the so-called “full-frame” DSLR is still substantially higher that a higher megapixel DSLR with the smaller sensor.

Why weren’t the original sensors identical to the 35mm frame size?

Megapixel Wars.  For the first 10 to 12 years after the introduction of the consumer-affordable DSLRs, there was a huge emphasis—and indeed a “race”—for more and more megapixels. Megapixels translated in many people’s minds into higher quality. There is some truth to this, but it is only part of the story.   When I talk about “size” here, I really mean the physical size of the sensor, more than the number of megapixels.  As Thom Hogan recently noted in his D800 review, the megapixel increases are linear, not geometric.  In other words, the 36 megapixel sensor in the D800 does not create images 3 times larger than the D700’s 12 megapixel sensor (in fact, Hogan estimates that the increase from the D700 to the D800’s image sizes are about 70%).  The arguably more important part of the story is the quality of those megapixels.

My first DSLR was the Nikon D100; a 6 megapixel camera. My “upgrade” to the D200 was 10 megapixels. My current “pro” model D700 is a 12 megapixel camera; while my “backup” D7000 is a 16 megapixel camera. Logically, it would seem that the progression from D100 to D7000 kept getting me to the best sensor. But that is not the case.  The older, 12 Megapixel D700 sensor still yields a much higher “quality” image than the 16 Megapixel D7000 sensor.

You might think that the progression from D100 to D7000 kept getting me to the best sensor. But that is not the case

At the time I bought the D100, there were point and shoot cameras available with higher than 6 megapixel counts. But I could still produce a cleaner, better quality image with the D100 that could be printed larger (I have 13 x 19 prints of images made on the D100 that are indistinguishable at that size from prints made from D700 12 megapixel images). Nikon’s newest “entry-model” consumer DSLR is the D3200, which is a whopping 24 megapixels (only the pro D800 beats it with 36 megapixels – the largest megapixel DLSR available at this writing). One would think it should make “better” images than the only 12 megapixel D700. But it cannot even come close!

The primary reason for this is size. You can readily see the difference in the image sensor sizes of my 3 current cameras. And the number of photo-sites that are packed onto the sensor and the size of the photo-sites make a huge difference in the quality of the image produced. This is most obvious in the low frequency (shadows and low light) side of the digital photographic equation.

Cruise Dock; Port Everglades, FL
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

Noise.    When a sensor captures light it is converting light to electrical signals and certain “stray” signals can produce a grain-like pattern or effect in an image that is referred to as noise. This noise is largely created by low frequency signals (often the product of low-light conditions), but also by heat and other anomalies in the electronic processor. A small sensor, with many photo-sites packed onto it can create more degrading noise than a larger sensor. It can generate and accumulate more heat because it has less area to dissipate the heat energy. At the same time, the larger photo-sites are capable of capturing more and better detail, yielding a better quality digital image. These higher quality “raw” images, in turn, yield much better files to work with in the post processing stages. The image here, taken at the Princess Cruise Terminal in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in the early morning hours, demonstrates this. The noise is simply un-manageable. The same shot, taken with the D700 would have been salvageable.

G12                                         D7000                                         D700

Angle of View.    Another controversial area over the years has been the concept often referred to as “crop factor,” or “magnification factor.” When manufacturers began making digital interchangeable-lens camera bodies, they simply adapted the current, 35mm SLR body. While one might wonder why they didn’t just design and build a new “digital” body, the most obvious answer is probably again based on economics. It was probably much less costly to adapt the 35mm SLR body. And, it meant not having to create a completely new lens mount and require all of us to buy a whole new series of lenses. They had a ready-made consumer, just waiting to purchase the DSLR and use their existing lenses.  The composite above is shots from the same tripod position, taken a 140 mm on all three cameras, at their maximum aperture.  The G12 is obviously with its built-in lens.  The Nikon is with a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom.

The “crop factor” / “magnification” debate doesn’t really matter

The first sensors were significantly smaller in cross section than the 35mm film frame. The SLR lenses were designed for the larger 35mm cross-section. So, the sensors only used some of the inner part of the lens circle, effectively “cropping” the outer part. The effect of this was to create a narrower angle of view. The appearance is a “telephoto effect.” The practical effect was that you lost your wider angle and “gained” a longer view on all of your lenses, by a factor of 1.3 or 1.5. Because these sensors were similar to the size of the (largely failed) Nikon Pronea APS film camera, they came to be known as “APS” size sensors (Nikon has since denominated their “APS” sized sensor as a “DX” sensor).

There is no such thing as a “full frame” camera

There has been a considerable amount of debate and even “flame wars” on the internet over this concept. It really doesn’t matter. The debate is, for practical shooting, silly. The reality is that if you have a wide angle lens, on an APS sensor, it just won’t view or capture as wide. Conversely, if you have a longer lens, you get a longer angle of view on the entire sensor, effectively increasing the “telephoto” effect of the lens. Depending on your intended use, this can be a good thing or a bad thing (I actually made my recent backup decision to buy an APS size sensor partly on the premise that it would give me slightly more length for certain wildlife shooting).

Likewise, the controversy over whether a camera is or is not “full frame” is non-productive. But I’ll weigh in anyway :-). There is simply no such thing as a “full-frame” camera. I know that might draw some debate, but it is just a reference point. To a lifelong 35mm shooter, “full frame” means 35 mm (24mm x 36mm). But to a Medium Format or View Camera user, that’ hardly “full.” Indeed a View Camera 8 x 12 sheet of film makes a so-called “full frame” 35mm look like what it really is: a Postage Stamp! Again, it’s a reference point. To my way of thinking, the larger the better.

But there are practical considerations. When I bought my 6 megapixel APS frame D100, I carried a couple 2G flash cards around. With my 12 megapixel “full frame” (Nikon refers to their 35mm size frame as “FX”) D700, I use 8G cards. With the new D800 36 megapixel FX sensor, I don’t even know how large the cards would have to be. And with each of these increases in file size, an equal increase in hard drive storage and computer processing power (memory) is needed. At some point, it may become overkill. When Nikon announced their Flagship D4, at “only” 16 megapixels (same as the D7000 consumer body), many of us thought it might signal the end of the megapixel wars). But they have since released the D800 FX 36 megapixel body. Interestingly, the D800 is the “entry-level pro” camera and the D4 is the flagship pro body at a significantly higher price point (suggesting that a lot of working pro’s don’t consider the megapixel issue significant anymore at 16 megapixels). I cannot personally see a need for more than double the capacity of my D700 which creates some splendid digital images, in low light conditions.

It is difficult or impossible to get those pleasing out of focus effects on a point and shoot camera

Canon G12; 140mm; f4.5

Depth of Field.    Interestingly, sensor size also affects depth of field. This is analogous to the film reference above (as was the comment about “full frame, Medium and Large Format). It relates to the field of view and image size geometry. I am not capable of explaining the science, here and will leave it to more capable persons. But as a general rule, the smaller the sensor, the greater the depth of field for a given lens focal length. This explains why it is difficult or impossible to get those pleasing out of focus effects on a point and shoot camera.  As you an see, the G12 image, which is shot at its longest focal length and its widest aperture, still captures the background in reasonably sharp focus.  On the D700, everything is blurred except the main subject (of course a big part of that is the wider aperture).

Nikon D700; 140mm; f2.8

In the end, it is still first and foremost, about quality! When the consumer affordable DSLRs first came on the market, there was an immediate hue and cry for a “full frame” (i.e., 35mm size) sensor. The main reason, I believe, was because those of us used to using 35mm didn’t like the change required when thinking about and using our existing lens arsenals. I bought an 18mm lens and it solved my concern. Over time, the camera lens manufacturers have answered the call by designing lenses specifically for the APS sensor size. This has created some of its own issues, as we now have 35mm size sensors available. A “DX” lens on my “FX” D700 will have a big black vignette circle in the viewfinder, but will simply crop the image to the DX format. It just means we have to plan and think about what and how we are shooting.

My primary criteria for purchasing a camera will always be its sensor quality

When the D700 came out, I immediately decided to buy it. The sensor size really had absolutely nothing to do with it. I had “moved on” to the smaller sensor / lens combinations and had a bag of lenses that worked well for me. Buying the D700 made me have to re-think that and it was, frankly, in the short run, a nuisance to do so. Eventually I have sorted that all out. But my primary criteria for purchasing the D700 – and it will probably always be my primary consideration in purchasing any camera, was sensor image quality. And there is just no question on my mind that the camera I have in the bag that yields the highest quality image, is the one with the biggest sensor.

For lots more than you ever wanted to know about sensors, sensor size, and electronics, see Wikipedia and this DPreview page.

Why is My Image Blurry?

Those who read my Blog know that I am a Tripod-Zealot. I know there are circumstances where a tripod is just not going to work (my friend, sometime mentor, and talented professional photographer, Ray Laskowitz, often points out how important good hand-holding technique is if you want to get some images). But in most of the shooting I do, there is no good reason not to use a tripod. And too often, a handheld shot will look “good” on screen, but will simply not hold up when enlarged, because of even very minute camera movement. But now that I have once again led (misled?) you down that path, it is not really what this blog is about.

I am a Tripod-Zealot

Here is an example of one of those times when the lack of a tripod is not the culprit. It is, however, a case where using an “automatic” feature of the camera may have waylaid an otherwise good image. A friend sent me a night time image of a small harbor. From her vantage point, she could see shoreline and boats in the fore and middle ground and water and then the distant shore, with lit buildings in the background. Her shot was “framed” with some low-hanging branches from trees on the shore where she was standing. She had set up on her tripod and considered the far shore as her focusing point. But the buildings in the distance were blurry. My friend’s question involved whether the quality of her inexpensive tripod caused camera movement or vibration.

Maybe. But in this case, I don’t think camera movement was the problem. I think the issue was that the image was simply not in focus. Why? It appears to me that the focus point that the camera chose was the leaves/branches in the immediate foreground! Hmnn. Think about that for a minute. “The focus point that the camera chose.” More in a minute…..

Camera movement, once mounted on the tripod, can only really be caused by external factors like wind, or vibration (i.e., if you are set up on a bridge and cars keep driving over it, or if, after carefully setting up the shot with a long lens, you wait until everything is perfectly still, and then touch the shutter release). So my friend was correct in questioning whether an “inexpensive” (really, one that is not structurally built to be sturdy and vibration-free, regardless of cost) tripod can contribute to poor image quality. Long focal lengths can “magnify” this error. It is a concept that is often hard for us to accept. It has frequently struck me as ironic that folks will go out and spend $2-500 on a tripod and then not use a remote release (and then, ironically, there are times when putting a “hand” on the tripod-mounted camera can actually help damp vibrations — tripod technique is a topic of importance, but not really the focus here).

In order to properly use automatic settings like AF, we must control them

But looking at this image, I have assumed those things away. The image was shot at 50mm — certainly not a long telephoto. It was also shot at f-11, so DOF shouldn’t be a serious problem here. Modern cameras (and “old eyes” in my case) have taught us to rely on AF. And AF is a wonderful technology. When used properly it is “failsafe.” But I have to re-emphasize the phrase, “when used properly.” AF only works when you understand what it is doing. It is mechanical. Like all automatic features, it does not think for you. You must set a mechanical point on the camera to determine what object the camera will focus on. When the camera indicator says focus is locked, trust me, it is locked and in focus (obviously, like all things mechanical, either the camera or the lens me have a defect which will affect this). But focused on what? That is the critical factor, and it relates back to the phrase I repeated above: “the focus point that the camera chose.” If we are going to truly control our image-making, we must not let the camera make any choices! This is why I advocate, learning rules and fundamentals first and then letting the automatic stuff make our lives easier. In order to properly use automatic settings like AF, we must control them. In this case, she set up the image, and pre-focused on the distant buildings. Let us assume that she focused on a well-defined part of a building and the AF indicator gave her a true reading of locked in focus.

What happens next is critical. With the default setting on most modern automatic DSLRs (SLRs, too), the camera re-focuses every time you re-actuate the shutter release. Not realizing that she had the AF bracket (focusing point) floating and that it chose to focus on the near, the camera took charge and made the arbitrary decision to focus on the low hanging branches! Here’s my comment to her:

It is important to understand how focus and DOF work together. The important parts of this image are not in sharp focus, which means we need to think very carefully about what was the focus point. If you were using an AF focus point and it moved, it tried to find something if could focus on (that would probably be the boats in the foreground, or the tree branches–which appear to me to be the most “in-focus” in the image). So, in short, it looks to me like your camera (note it was your camera and not you) focused on those leaves. Maybe you did focus on either infinity or the far buildings. But if your AF was still on, the second you touched the shutter release, it tried to re-focus.

If we maintain focus on the far away buildings @f/11 with a 50mm length we obtain acceptable focus throughout the image. This is simply a matter of optics. The optical Depth of Field (DOF) would ensure that in this case (in theory, finding a focus point about 2/3 of the way into the image will obtain maximum “acceptable sharpness” from front to back. The topics of DOF and “hyperfocal” distance are well beyond the scope of this blog, but worth some study, for the serious shooter). The best way to do that is for us—the photographer—to control the focus point.

Think about that for a minute. “The focus point that the camera chose.”

I will often try to find a point 2/3 into the photograph. But sometimes, particularly in a night shot, that is simply not possible. Take some time to figure out how to be sure the lens is focused on infinity (the furthest focal point out) before you go out next time. If you can see (or if the AF can see) well enough to focus on one of the far objects, go ahead and do that (the little confirmation light will tell you if you have been successful). But if you cannot, then set the lens on infinity. Once you have achieved proper focus, Turn AF off.

On most modern SLR/DSLR cameras, those little red brackets in the viewfinder are not only indicative of the focus point, but also can signify where the center of the light-metering system is reading. So, I may want to focus on one point of an image, and then meter the light on another point. It is a bit of a nuisance to have the camera try to re-focus every time I move the bracket. One way to avoid this is to use the AF only as a focus-check. In other words, focus using AF, then switch it off. This is a bit of a nuisance, too, in my opinion. Another method is that most camera bodies will also allow you to set a focus-hold button which is on the back or top of the body. You can focus and then depress and hold the focus-hold button and move the bracket or set up around (the same button can generally be reversed to do the same with exposure, making it an exposure-hold button). Both of these approaches come within the “PIA” definition to me. I would much rather simply switch to manual mode and do things the “old-fashioned way.” But as I have said here a number of times, the automatic settings on the camera are there for our convenience. Once we understand the fundamental exposure equation and how the camera measures and treats it, why not use the convenience tools? My camera (and I will bet most others do, also), has a setting which allows me to de-couple the AF from the shutter button. With that setting, AF is ONLY triggered by the little button on the back of the camera and NOT by the shutter release. That way, I can focus and then not worry about that getting changed when I do any other action, including trip the shutter. While this may not be the optimum setting for handheld “action” shooting, I find it works well for static landscape shooting from a tripod.

Taking Your Photography to the “Next Level” (6)


Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

This final installment in the series, is written, as much to myself, as it is to any other reading audience. It is an ongoing experience for me and will probably be as difficult to write as it is “live.”

Good Photographers Make Images

A photography instructor some years back, critiquing an image-assignment, said something which, while certainly not an original thought, has always resonated with me in my approach to photographic imagery. Photographic artists don’t “take” pictures . . . we “make” photographs. I am firmly in that camp.

I am not speaking so much about reportage and sports photography though I still think it applies – the photographer chooses the perspective, the lens, the depth of field and the parts of the scene to include or exclude. She also chooses when to capture the image (what has been referred to as “the decisive moment”).

Good photographs are not “taken.” They are Made

Before we can make a good photograph, we need to do some preparation. We have spoken about the physical part (choosing the right equipment for the shoot, knowing its use intrinsically, and knowing how to capture a technically good image). I am now speaking of mental preparation. We need to think about what we want to accomplish, and how we want to present the image. We need to think about what parts of a scene will effectively show what we want our viewer to see and how our equipment captures and presents that image. This is a concept teaching professionals call visualization, or pre-visualization.

Visualization Tools

My friend and mentor, professional photography teacher and talented artist, James Moore, starts every new student (whether a “seasoned professional” or a rank amateur) with an exercise that is designed to make them think about this process. Jim has the student think about the physical limitations of the camera lens—its “aspect ratio,” what parts of an image will fit within that ratio and how the image will look, using rules of good composition. He teaches them to understand how an image will render using the most commonly used focal length/aspect ratio combinations. His method is extremely simple, and at the same time, very “freeing,” of our tendency to become tethered to our gear. Jim has the student make a simple frame (e.g., out of mat board) with the opening cut in a rectangle with the same aspect ratio as their capture device. Again, this is not original invention on Jim’s part. I have carried one of these in my camera bag over the years, gleaned from one book or website or another. It doesn’t really matter what size this cutout is – just that the aspect ratio be correct for your capture device (sensor size for most of us). However, Jim has his own very creative approach to this visualization method. I don’t want to give away all his secrets J, so I enthusiastically recommend going to his website and signing up for one of his workshops, classes or one-on-one mentoring sessions!

My friend, Kerry Leibowitz, in his Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog, illustrates why previsualization is so important, in his article about the (almost counterintuitive) use of telephoto lenses and isolating important elements in a scene to make a meaningful image with visual impact. Kerry clearly explains the limitations of the photographic visual media from a viewer’s perspective. I think this supports Jim’s aspect-ratio and focal length exercise as in invaluable tool to visualizing and understanding this process.

Alain Briot, in his Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity, and Personal Style, references this cutout viewer, and even goes to another level of purchasing an optical viewfinder which duplicates his aspect ratio. These are useful tools. In my “day job” I do a fair amount of speaking to groups. I often use a Powerpoint presentation and one of my most important tools is a remotely operated switch. While nearly every sponsoring group sets up a speaker’s podium and microphone setup, I never use them. I need to be able to get out and take a measure of the audience and make a more personal bond with them. The point of these viewfinder tools is to “step away from the podium” (our tripod-mounted cameras and lenses), move around, get low (and sometimes high), and look at a scene with all the freedom and creativity we can; and to try to make a more intimate “connection” with our subject.

I am usually lazy (Jim would chastise me, I am sure) and don’t pull the viewfinder cutout out of my vest pocket. But I do—and I strongly recommend that you do, too—start my exploration of a scene without the tripod. Several of the “new” photographers I have had the pleasure of helping over the years have made me envious of their very good “vision” in their imagery. Often, they are the same folks who later really balk at my insistence that a tripod is a fundamental feature of most good landscape photography. There is a reason. Tripods are not only a bother to carry and set up; they are limiting. But the answer is not to leave the tripod at home or in the car. It is to leave it on the ground until you have decided on your composition. Then, bring the tripod to that point and set it up around the camera position.

Tripods are not only a bother to carry and set up; they are limiting

Visualization Theory

Reflections; Cascade River, Minnesota

In July, 2010, I made a trip to the Minnesota “North Shore” on Lake Superior. One of the images I made was of the Cascade River. While standing at the edge of the water, down in a deep canyon, I noticed the colors and swirls of light reflecting on the water in the foreground. Using the widest lens I was carrying, I tried to include the distant waterfall, its journey through some very interesting and colorful cobblestones, and the colorful swirls in the foreground; lots going on in the image. James Moore gave a very insightful 3-part critique of the image on his website. It is a critique that I will read and re-read. There is a lot of good information in there just in terms of compositional technique and things we can do in the digital darkroom afterward.

Taking Good Composition Skills and Visualization into the Field

Good visualization means composing and making these images in the field, and not relying on Photoshop after the fact. It means learning composition theory; when to follow and when to break the classic rules, and putting them in practice in-camera.

Are you supposed to see what I just pointed out in this critique in the field? Ideally, yes. Learning to see more effectively as a camera sees the world, learning to compose to bring order out of chaos…to simplify…to achieve the ideal of “less is more” does take time. Stronger and better photos are created when you study all of the different models or forms of composition that give you a starting point for creating framing your subject. When you understand the purpose of those models and when you practice applying them relentlessly with different scenes you will begin seeing everything that I pointed out above. In other words, creating stronger compositions by “cropping in the field” instead of the darkroom occurs with time and practice and diligence – (James Moore, 2010)

To me, this has meant a bit of a change in my fundamental approach to shooting. In previous years, it was almost a “badge of honor” to count the sheer number of images I was bringing home. And likewise, almost a given that the vast majority of them were destined for the trash can. With digital, there is certainly potential for it to be even worse, as there is really no tangible cost to taking and “wasting” images. However, I think snapping away many shots of the same image is in many cases directly counter-productive to this concept of visualization. As advanced-skill photographers, we really ought to be able to compose an image and take a limited number of exposures, with each having a specific purpose. With the tools we now have (notably, the histogram) for measurement immediately post-exposure, and the confident knowledge of our technical skills, we should be confident that we will bring home the image we visualized.

Instead of snapping away, we should be taking time for contemplation, discovery, and application of the principles of good composition. We should be thinking about how our particular choice of lens and capture mode will depict the image in front of us, and how that will ultimately look to the viewer. This is, in a word, visualization.

Visualization as Part of the Planning Process

Visualization doesn’t begin when you reach your scene. Visualization may even be a constant process, which is part of your subconscious. And it is certainly a process of thinking about what you want to present, emotionally, during the planning process of your photo shoot. Planning my fall, 2010, trip to Vermont for my third Fall color trip there in a 5-year period, it occurred to me that I wanted to take something “more” away from the trip than I had in previous years. I wanted more than just some “record” shots of some of the iconic scenes New England has to offer. One of the Scenes of Vermont Forum participants is a professional photographer from Massachusetts. He made a comment one day on the forum, quoting Jay Maisel. Maisel speaks of the something extra that separates a technically good scenic photograph from a really remarkable photograph. He calls it “gesture.”

Call it what you want, but I began thinking from that point about being more contemplative and deliberative about my approach to each planned photographic scene. I learned from that trip was that if you don’t step away from the camera and shutter button and take in the scene, you are likely not to see those things that contribute to truly remarkable images; things like unusual or animated cloud formations, reflections of objects you might otherwise miss, and the like. My best images from Vermont, 2010 have an extra “something” that came from taking a more deliberative process at each location and “seeing” things I might not have seen in a previous time.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be instances when you will make use of the ability to quickly capture many images. Nor am I trying to discourage a photographer from taking as many good images as they feel. There will be times when the circumstances to not allow for long periods of contemplation before taking the shot. When I was in Alaska in May of 2010, we traveled up into the Yukon on the White Pass Railroad. Moving at 25-40 mph, with view after breathtaking view coming into view and then quickly back out of view, I set up my VR, handheld, at as fast a shutter speed as I could get away with in the light conditions and just fired away. I got some images I will never be able to duplicate in my life time.

But more and more, I am finding myself using much less digital space and taking fewer images. At the same time, I believe that, for the reasons above, they are generally better images. The process of making a good photograph needs to be deliberate. It must be based on a good foundation and a well-internalized understanding of the fundamentals of good composition, applied in the field.

Taking your Photography to the “Next Level” (5)

Know Your Equipment

There is nothing worse, nor more frustrating, than to be in the field, with a photographic opportunity facing you, and not know how to use your equipment to capture the moment

I have admitted previously that I am a (recovering?) gearhead :-). This blog is about equipment, but it’s really not about “gear.” We all have our own likes and dislikes on equipment and I have certainly posted my share—and will continue to do so if I feel strongly about something. In recent years, I have tried to winnow down my gear to what is really useful to me, so perhaps the GHA (gearheads, anonymous) meetings are working.

Seriously, if you have read this far in my series, you are probably a determined photographer and by definition have a certain amount of requisite equipment. There is nothing worse, nor more frustrating, than to be in the field, with a photographic opportunity facing you, and not know how to use your equipment to capture the moment.

Read the Manuals and Study the Equipment

This means you have to study the equipment and your manual. I do not mean just a cursory review, but study it—with camera in hand. Like any other learning process, it also means trial and error. You must try things, realize you haven’t quite understood it, and go back and re-read. Highlight things. Treat it like you are studying for a proficiency exam.

If you are like me, you find the manuals (universally shipped as pdf disk files now) difficult to follow and understand. It is well worth researching and purchasing an after-market book on your equipment. I have long been a fan of the “Magic Lantern Guides” series. I keep the D700 (my current body) Magic Lantern Guide in my bag when I travel. Occasionally, I will pull it out with a highlighter and re-read sections of it. I invariably find something new I didn’t know already.

Men: Yes–You must read the Manuals!

Use the equipment, look at the menus, study the controls, and customize the camera for your own shooting style. This means all your equipment. If you haven’t used a tripod head before, you need to practice with it so you are not fumbling with it (or worse yet, dropping a $3,000 camera/lens combination). When I went to Maine in 2009, I had the recent good fortune to upgrade my tripod and head system from the quirky Bogen-Manfrotto pentagonal QR-system to a Carbon Fiber leg set and Arca-Swiss standard dovetail QR-system. I took it out into the yard for a dry-run a couple times and it definitely took me some getting used to. So did changing from lever lock legs, to the Gitzo-style screw tightening system. When you are trying to move into (or out of) position quickly it is important that those actions be comfortable and second-nature. You cannot be practicing when the real thing comes along.

If you use dedicated Flash, you must, likewise, understand both its controls and the in-camera flash controls intrinsically. It too, has a manual and must be “practiced” with.

Understand How Your Equipment Works and What it is Doing

Every modern DSLR camera is packed with features. Many (if not most of them) frankly should be ignored and turned off by serious photographers. I have often found myself wishing I could order my camera the way I order computer equipment, specifying each component I want or don’t want. But some of the features are quite useful and can be time-saving (and occasionally, image-saving) items. “Automatic” settings I frequently use include auto-focus (AF), and the aperture priority and shutter speed priority modes. What I can accomplish with these settings can be done with the camera set to fully manual mode. And you must understand how to do that and what is happening before you can truly understand and appreciate these modes.

Recently, a friend sent me a “help!” e-mail. She is an accomplished photographer with many wonderful images under her belt, and lots of creativity. She was shooting a nighttime skyline shot, and was frustrated because while she thought she was doing everything “right,” important parts of the image were “blurry.” She wondered about whether some external factors were causing the problem, such as inadequate support (tripod), wind, etc. On closer examination, the problem was more fundamental. The image was out of focus. In order to make crisp, sharp images, you have to understand the physics of depth of field, but you also have to understand what that technology is doing! She set the image up, composed, and focused on the correct point in the image. But the camera controls were set to AF, and the AF was triggered by actuating the shutter. So, where was the camera’s AF point set? If it wasn’t set on the right place, the camera would re-focus on whatever the AF point was actually set on. In my friend’s case, it was certainly not an instance of not knowing how to get a crisply focused image. Rather, it was a case of know being thoroughly familiar with the equipment, how it was set, and what it was doing. We have all been there. It is the reason we need to practice with our equipment, and know how it works. She has the good fortune of living near the image and will undoubtedly go back, armed with new knowledge, and re-shoot. Imagine if it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Practice Makes Perfect

There are times when this hackneyed old phrase applies 100%. This is one of them. You have to go out and use your equipment enough that you aren’t fumbling around with controls. Its features (at least the ones you will use in the field) must be automatic, so you aren’t thinking about them when you need to be shooting. This means you must get out and shoot with the camera in real shooting conditions. One of the many wonderful pluses of the advent of digital shooting is the ability to “waste” as many shots as you want with only battery drainage being involved. So you can now, at virtually no cost, go out and practice features of the camera, see the results (and mistakes) and work to understand and perfect these features. This is especially true of new equipment. It is just not a very smart move to buy a brand new piece of equipment and pull it out for the first time on a trip or an important shoot.

But there is another thing to be wary of. We are human. We don’t remember things we do not use all the time. So, if you are like me, and have other endeavors (like a day job 🙂), there may be extended periods of time in which you don’t touch the camera. If you have an important shoot, event or trip in the near future, by all means, get that gear out and refresh your memory.

It is just not a very smart move to buy a brand new piece of equipment and pull it out for the first time on a trip or an important shoot

My own most embarrassing moment came only a couple years ago. Having shot seriously for over 25 years and having some notoriety among friends and family as being “a photographer,” my wife asked me to bring my camera along for the investiture of a former boss of hers as a judge. I wasn’t the “official” photographer (or I might have taken it more seriously). But she was counting on me to have some images she and her co-workers could share. Earlier in the year, I had made a significant change y shooting process that involved a change in the camera functions (I turned off AF on the shutter release in favor of the dedicated button on the back of the camera). I used it briefly, liked it and then put the camera away for several months. Because it was a completely new process for me, I forgot about it. At the event, I pulled out the camera at the appropriate time to do some pre-focusing and composing before the ceremony and could not get the AF to work (obviously, because I had turned it off). I figured it out later that night after I got home. Some pre-event familiarization would have avoided the problem.

Seek Other Resources

As I am writing this, I am looking at the “Nikon Creative Lighting System Digital Field Guide” which I have highlighted and dog-eared to understand how to use my flash system (obviously, if you use another manufacturer’s equipment, there will be parallel third party manuals for them, too). Some of your equipment does not really come with a good manual, and sometimes you have to search out there for “how to” help. It is worth spending some time doing that, at the bookstore, on Amazon, and online (e.g., in blogs). For you Nikon shooters, I find D-Town TV website with Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski useful and entertaining.

Have a Shooting Process

Like most things in life, we all approach shooting differently. I marvel at the amount of conversation there is out there about the best way to carry equipment into the field. I don’t really care how you do it as long as it works for you. The important thing is to have a well thought out shooting process that works for you and that works for the particular shooting event. For me, most often, that means wearing my dorky photo vest. But most importantly, it means having those items of equipment I will need in the field in that vest, always in the same place, and in some logical planned way. When I need a filter, I want to know exactly where I can grab it. When I need a change of batteries or a of CF card, again, I want it to be subconscious to reach it and quickly make the change. Likewise with lens changes. I always keep specific items in specific pockets of the vest, so I am not fumbling around looking for them. There will be a certain amount of trial and error at first, but eventually you need to come up with a consistent process.

Plan for the particular shoot. If I am going to be indoors, I will need different equipment. If I am going to be on a boat or other moving platform, I may have different needs and requirements. If I am traveling by public transportation, I carry a different gear set. Shooting in the winter, or in the rain requires some thought about gear and packing. In the back of my vest, I always have a large (I use one I bought in a Coleman camping store some years back) rain poncho. The poncho is large enough that I can put it on and drape it over my camera and tripod all at once. When I am not using it for rain protection, it doubles as a ground cloth. I also try to remember to carry towels and garbage bags—particularly if I am anticipating wet weather.

You need to have a consistent process

(Next and final installment; “Visualization”)

Taking your Photography to the “Next Level” (4)

This small, rapid flowing stream is the namesake of "Mad River Canoe" but is actually not navigable by canoe. It has many drops with interesting waterfall patterns and lots of moving water

Understand Exposure

Making images separates snapshots from creative photographic images

For our purposes, I will treat “exposure” more broadly than its technical meaning. In this blog post I mean understanding and controlling the amount of light in an image, and such things as the aperture and shutter speed. The reason understanding these things is important is that they allow the photographer to progress from “taking” pictures to making images. And, makingimages is what separates snapshots from truly creative and sometimes even art-quality images. In order to truly understand this concept, we must understand that what the camera and lens capture is not what the human eye sees. We must understand how the mechanism captures light and images in order to effectively use it to create images that are pleasing and compelling.

This image was taken with Fuji Velvia transparency film, a relatively narrow latitude film. The successful exposure here is a combination of good light condtions and understanding how to expose the important areas of the image

If I had my way, I would teach all serious new photographers with a very simple, film camera with transparency (film). There would be nothing “automatic” on the camera and all settings would be required to be made manually. In my view, nothing highlights exposure errors and weaknesses better than a low-latitude, transparency film. But I won’t have my way. It is getting harder and harder to even find transparency film and it is only a matter of time before the same will be true of film based mechanisms. And today, the vast majority of new photographers start with digital point and shoot cameras. At the same time, the latitude (ability to capture a range of light in a given exposure) on the new sensors continues to increase over time. For those who are using the cameras to capture snapshots of family memories, events, etc., that is, of course, a boon. For those who understand the science of how exposure works, it is also a plus. As a learning tool for an aspiring photographer; not so much.

To truly understand these concepts, we need to first turn off the automatic settings and use our cameras manually

If you own a digital SLR or an advanced Point and Shoot digital camera, you realize that they all now have numerous “settings.” To understand how they work, you will need to spend some “homework” time reading the manuals. Why does the camera offer one setting that makes aperture size a “priority,” and another that makes shutter speed a priority? Why does it have these settings, in addition to one that just picks the “correct” combination of these for you? To truly understand these “automatic” settings, you must understand at a very basic level, how things like aperture, shutter speed, and controlling light quantity affect your images. Until you understand, and master, the concept of “correct” exposure and how to manually achieve it, the “automatic” exposure tools on today’s modern cameras will continue to be an impediment to making truly great exposures. Don’t get me wrong. I am not “bashing” the technological advances in modern cameras. I am only saying that in order to truly appreciate them, we need to get behind the scenes and understand their “dna.” And until we do that, we need to “turn off” all those fancy settings and use the camera as a “manual” tool. There are really only 3 controllable factors here: Aperture, shutter speed and sensor sensitivity (ISO speed).

Controlling Light

The best way to “control” the quality of light is to understand when it happens and be there

The previous post in this series (Shoot in the Right Light) spoke about the quality of light. While we mentioned some ways to manipulate the light to alter or partially control the quality of light, we can probably agree that our ability to do so is limited, and that the best way to “control” the quality of light is to understand when it happens and be there. We can (and must) control the amount of light, however.

In my tutorial, “Getting Exposure Right,” I go into detail about how “f-stops” or “exposure values” work, how to meter the light and how that relates to the camera’s exposure sensor. I recommend reading that tutorial for a technical understanding—hopefully in a non-technical read, of exposure and exposure theory. I also reference Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure,” as, in my view, the best and most understandable explanation of these concepts by a very talented pro. My point, here, is not to re-hash those things.  You must not only get the quantity of light measurement correct,but you must also make judgements about which parts of an image are most important in terms of “correct” exposure.  In keeping with my premise that great photographs aren’t taken, but are made, you must understand—and you must control—these aspects of your photography in order to move to the next level.

Controlling Aperture

The real important aspect to understand about aperture is Depth of Field

In my first tutorial, “How F-stops Work,” I detail (hopefully in a readable and understandable way) how the aperture and shutter speed settings work together on a camera. Again, I will not re-hash that here. I do want to address why understanding these things is important to making good images.

At its simplest level, aperture settings simply change how large or small the lens opening is. As the F-stops tutorial notes, this is really mainly elementary math. The larger the opening, the greater the quantity of light which strikes the exposure surface (film or sensor). Too much light yields a blown out image and too little, yields an image which is too dark with no detail. As the tutorial also explains, we can control the amount of light in two ways: by varying the aperture size or by varying how long the light is allowed to strike the surface (shutter speed). This begs a couple of questions in my mind. First, why does there need to be more than one combination of openings? And, second, if technology is so good, why not let the camera do all that stuff for you?

Modern lenses are only capable of rendering parts of an image sharp

To the knowledgeable advanced photographer, the aperture issue is much more important than “exposure.” The real important aspect to understand about aperture is Depth of Field (DOF). We often see discussion of the concept of image sharpness. In reality, we are talking about “apparent sharpness.” In terms of apparent sharpness, DOF is what our eye sees as apparently sharp from front to back in an image.

I made purposeful use of "shallow" DOF here to push the subject into the foreground.

Unlike the human eye, modern lenses are only capable of rendering parts of an image sharp. The rest of the rendered image is unsharp to varying degrees. There is usually a segment of every image that is rendered apparently sharp. How wide (from front to back—admittedly a difficult concept in a 2-dimensional image) that portion of the image is, is referred to as DOF. Remember my comment earlier about not being able to capture what our eyes see? This is where understanding DOF—and manipulating it—is critical to our creation of good photographic images. In some cases, we want the entire image to appear sharp. But in so many others, we want out of focus parts of the image. Out of focus areas can creatively (and subliminally) emphasize our subject. The can cause the viewer to focus on colors, shapes and movement rather than details. Understanding how this works and using it to our creative advantage is what differentiates good photographic images from just “taking pictures.” If we let the technology do all these things automatically, without understanding what is happening, we give up the opportunity to create!

Controlling Shutter Speed

How F-stops Workalso covers the topic of shutter speed in terms of exposure. Once

Atlantic Ocean surf, Bar Harbor, Maine

more, however, this is but an elementary aspect of shutter speed. The true power in understanding shutter speed again lies in how we can use it to create images. The ability to control shutter speed gives us the ability to deal with motion. Sometimes, we want to use shutter speed to control motion; sometimes to suggest it. And, sometimes, we use it to create ethereal effects. Very fast shutter speeds do two things: they “freeze” subject motion and camera motion. The water spray in this ocean surf shot is frozen in the air by using fast shutter speeds. Slow shutter speeds can suggest motion (creating “motion blur”). They can also create an ethereal and very beautiful effect in some cases, particularly when there is moving water. I have been fortunate to get to know some very talented photographic artists over the years. One of my favorite photographers is working pro, Ray Laskowitz. Ray has an image on his website where he makes remarkable use of his knowledge of camera controls to create a very cool image of a classic car. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate my point. Ray has his knowledge of these things so internalized that he is able to put them out of his conscious mind, as he make some very creative images. His is a “next level” I aspire to (maybe several nexts J) Ray’s images are worth studying for creativity.


Flash can also be used enhance each of the above exposure controls. Most obviously, flash can be used to add light where there is not enough “quantity.” However, this is very limited, as the intensity of the flash at the point it is created dissipates extremely rapidly. As noted in the “Shoot in the Right Light” blog previously, flash may also be used in very bright conditions to even out strong shadows created (referred to as “fill-flash”).

Stroboscopic flash has an extremely short, but brilliant duration. This can be used to freeze action (it in effect overrides the shutter speed in many instances). If you understand how to use your flash, you can often combine motion freezing effects with motion blur in the same image for some great creative effects.

Use the Appropriate Tools to Create (rather than “take”) Photographs

Use them wisely, as tools of convenience, as you knowledgeably make your images

In order to achieve professional, creative photographic images, you must understand the theory of exposure and how each of the exposure controls relate to each other. You must also understand how the other areas discussed in this series relate to each other. You cannot, for example, achieve some of the slow shutter speed results without a tripod or other camera support. And there is often nothing to be gained from putting the above knowledge into play if you are not in place during periods of good light.

Once you understand what each of these controls are doing for you photographically, you can begin to use—and appreciate—some of the “automatic” features of your camera. But remember not to let those automatic feature dictate either the image or what you are doing. Use them wisely, as tools of convenience, as you knowledgeably make your images.

Taking Your Photography to the “Next Level” (3)

Low angled, early morning light just after sunrise

Shoot When the Light is Right

The quality of lighting on the subject is the “be all and end all” of photography. You can have all the other elements in place, good shooting technique, spectacular subject, the right equipment—but if the light quality is not good, you are going to get “ho-hum” results at best.

How often have you photographed on a beautiful day (e.g., at the beach, or on the lake or at the ski slopes), shot a gorgeous scene, and then been underwhelmed by the resulting image? It just doesn’t look like that calendar shot or magazine image you had in your mind’s eye. You would think that when we see the beautiful sunshine and colors would be the best time to capture them with a camera. But it isn’t. Why not?

The quality of light is the “be all and end all” of photography

Arguably, the two most incredible “technologies” known to man are the human brain and eye. No man-made technology matches their capabilities. Yet to someone who doesn’t understand the differences between the human eye-brain combination and the photographic process, that very technology can be a significant stumbling block to making good photographic images. We let the eye-brain technology fool us. The eye is capable of seeing a huge range of light to darkness (sometimes referred to photographically as “contrast range”). Currently, the best camera/lens combination is severely limited in the contrast range it can “see” and importantly, capture (however, for a different view of this subject, see High Dynamic Range Photography). We measure the “steps” of contrast range in “exposure values” (EV), or “f-stops.” To put this in perspective, a camera can currently capture perhaps 7 of these steps accurately. They human eye can register and see thousands of these steps. The brain then “corrects” these values so that we actually “see” thing that simply cannot be captured by the camera.

early, bright overcast conditions make this image possible

This means that as photographers we must seek lighting conditions that allow us to capture the subject in a limited contrast range. And, there are simply limited times during the day that fit this criteria. The two most common times center around sunrise and sunset. I think I have mentioned the words, “work,” “commitment,” and “inconvenience,” previously. In order to be in place to make an image during these “best light” times of the day, you have to get out of bed very early in the morning and often be on location during regular “mealtimes.” But do it you must, if you want good results. The twilight glow immediately before sunrise is, in my view, one of the best times to catch magical lighting. From then until the sun gets too high, creating two much contrast, is usually a very short window and you need to be there and be ready. Likewise, there is usually a short window just before sunset and then the twilight just after the sun disappears.

It is primarily a matter of the angle of light

What is so special about these times? It is primarily a matter of the angle of light. When the sun first rises, and when it sets, its low angle cuts through the atmosphere (and its impurities) at an angle which creates wonderful, soft, glowing colors, without high contrast. These are the images captured by the camera that are truly memorable and spectacular in print. Because of the way the earth moves around the sun, lighting angles (as do daylight hours) vary with the seasons. During the later Fall and Winter months, the sun is often at a low angle for much longer periods and it is often possible to shoot for longer periods of time after the sun rises and particularly before it sets. This is one of the things that makes Fall in the continental U.S. such a great time to photograph nature.

There are other lighting conditions that can create good images. When the weather (and thus, the light) is changing (i.e., just before or after a storm breaks), dramatic lighting conditions can occur, with shafts of light and lighting at dramatic angles. And, certain subjects lend themselves to days of bright overcast lighting conditions. The overcast skies filter the light and create a much lower contrast, even lighting. This condition is a good time for shooting bright colors (as long as you do not have to include the overcast sky as part of the image), as the low-contrast allows the camera sensor to capture the full range of color. It is also a good condition in which to shoot things like close-ups of flowers and shots of waterfalls.

Controlling the Light

What has been said so far might lead one to think that there is no point in shooting unless these lighting conditions are present. Indeed, one of my most valued mentors and a highly talented professional, Jim Moore, intimated exactly that point to me recently. So what do we do during the “bad light”? As a rule, I try to shoot during the “good light” periods. During the middle of the day, or in those times when it just doesn’t happen (rainy or cloudy overcast mornings or evenings), if I am on a photo shoot, I use those times to “scout” locations and sometimes to take “practice” shots to analyze compositional opportunities (which has really only been made possible by the advent of the digital age). On balance, it is probably the most photographically productive use of those times.

But what if you are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or a location that you cannot simply return to—or wait out until the conditions are present? There are some things you can do to alter or “control” the conditions, depending on the subject and how you plan to depict the image.

Use a Polarizer – A polarizing filteris probably the most useful tool I carry. I have been able to “save” images during times of the day when it is really too bright to capture the image under ideal light. It is not a “fix-all,” but it can in limited instances, be used to equalize or knock down some of the contrast. It is probably best used around highly reflective surfaces like water.

This high contrast, late morning shot was made using a polarizing filter

Neutral Density Filters – A second filter that can be very useful is a neutral density (ND) filter. Its function is to filter out some of the light reaching the sensor, but in a neutral way. The polarizing filter actually filters out some of the blue light rays which tend to be haphazard and therefore create unwanted directional reflections. So it is a discriminating filter. The ND filter should be (some less expensive filters can have color casts) non-discriminating. While this will not change the quality of the light, there are, again, limited instances in which you might be able to “save” an otherwise un-makeable image. These filters are made in the same “steps” as we measure light in for photography. I carry several, including 2, 4 and 6 stop variations. It is possible to “stack” them to get other combinations.

Back in the film era, the filter in the family that was a serious difference maker was the split neutral density filter. This filter would have approximately 1/2 its surface as a ND filter and the other 1/2 clear. The technique involves placing the clear part over the shadow area and the ND part over the bright area. The theoretical result is again to “flatten” the contrast between these areas of the image. Again, they come in different “stop-values.” The difficulty was always getting the line placed correctly. With images that had jagged lines (e.g., a mountain range top where the sky was bright but the mountain in shadow) are always difficult. There are filters with a “hard” line of demarcation and filters with a gradual or soft line. Many photographers continue to use these filters very successfully. I never really got results I liked with them. With digital images there are techniques that work better for me, using blending and HDR techniques, after taking a series of different exposures in the field. Keep in mind that anything you place in front of the lens is going to degrade the image quality some. It is a matter of degree.

Use Flash – Another way to “flatten” contrast differences, particularly in bright sunlight, is to use flash. What? Flash on a bright sunny day? Seems pretty counter-intuitive. The old Kodak film used to come with a little folded up insert that had photographic “tips” among other things. One of them was to put the sun over your shoulder. That would make sure the subject was lit. So you are on the beach, taking a family portrait, you remember that adage, and you put the sun over your shoulder to have the people’s faces properly lit. What do their eyes look like? All squinty and closed! But if you turn them so they are not looking directly into the sun, in order to properly expose the bright beach scene, their faces will be in shadow. Learning to use your electronic flash to “fill” in some of that shadow, will produce surprisingly nice results. I use a remote cord to get the flash unit off the camera. Sometimes that might mean you need an “assistant” to hold the flash unit.

Screens and Reflectors – If the subject is small enough, you can also filter the sun with a translucent screen of some sort to flatten the light or use a reflecting panel to fill in shadow areas to “flatten” contrast. Photographic companies make any number of these contraptions, but with a little ingenuity, you can make your own. Use cheesecloth and some suitable framing material (pvc pipe works), foamcore, and aluminum foils as materials.

If the light quality is not good, you are going to get “ho-hum” results

The bottom line here is that if you want dramatic, memorable, art quality images you need to learn to work with the light, recognize good quality of lighting, and be willing to get out of bed early and be willing to miss a mealtime!