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

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

smartphone users are primarily who I am directing these suggestions to

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

Horizons

Tilted Horizon

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

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

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

Hotshoe Bubble Level

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

Viewing Screen Grid Lines

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

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

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

Correcting a Tilted Horizon in Post-Processing Software

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

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

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“Going Straight”

Tilted Horizon

In my early days of blogging, I posted a series on “fundamentals” for photographers.  I don’t fancy myself a pro, or necessarily a qualified teacher.  I don’t have “credentials.”  I am self-taught, with a small amount of formal training, and many generous and talented friends.  However, I have helped some friends and family get their arms around the basics of photography, to advance beyond so-called “point and shoot.”  In fact, the genesis of my blogging here was reducing a few long-winded e-mail messages to writings that I thought could help others who have struggled as I did.

The internet and high quality smart phones have made everyone a “photographer” these days

That was a long time ago.  I have moved away from the “tips and tutorials” thing and leave that to other writers and bloggers out there, many of whom are much better qualified than I.  If you want to see my simple-minded approach to teaching, you can see my series here.  But every once in a while, my observations on-line give the urge to pontificate.  The internet and high quality smart phones have made everyone a “photographer” these days.  The technology in both IOS and Android (and others) phones today is impressive, with good lenses, good resolution, and many apps designed to assist that process.

But technical quality doesn’t guarantee a good photograph.  There is still a basic skill set required.  While technology has made good exposure (with sophisticated metering capability), and sharper images (with image-stabilization technology and ever sharper lenses) possible, there are a couple things that still require a different “built-in” but sometimes not effectively mobilized technology – the brain.  Being as guilty as the next guy, I find that in my own case, failure to take advantage of this marvelous technology (the brain) is often borne of laziness, or lack of observation of my surroundings (both during and after the image has been made, during post-processing).  While I have tried to avoid this problem, I am sure you can find an example or two of what I am going to criticize, in my “online” presence. 😦

Technical quality doesn’t guarantee a good photograph

I thought about doing a “Top 10″ things we fail to do.”  But wouldn’t be what I honestly think.  I pointedly avoid the left and right leaning political points of view here.  But there is one case in which I have to admit that I abhor leanings in both directions.  There is really one primary one that I see time and again (and when I – or someone else – catch it in my own work, I am always disconcerted).  That one thing is the left-leaning or right-leaning horizon.  I see it so often on Facebook that it has become “fingernails on a blackboard” for me.  It is the single most prominent fault (at least in my observation) of the 1000’s of posted images on the internet.  And here’s the thing:  It is fixable!  It is fixable before and after the shot (though it is always better in my mind to try to “fix” it during the shooting process).

And here’s the thing; It is fixable!

Starting Out “Straight”

One type of Hotshoe Bubble Level

Before we make the image, we have several aids available to us.  Perhaps the best (but not always feasible) one is to use a fixed camera stand (tripod) and install a bubble level on the camera hotshoe (of course, your smartphone doesn’t have a hotshoe 🙂  – more on that one later).  Before a couple of my colleagues persuaded me to use a level, I thought my own eye was pretty good at judging that.  The level proved otherwise (note, however, that not all levels are created equal.  It is worth buying one from a good source and then testing it to be sure it is accurate – I used a carpenter’s level to test mine).

Where is that thing on my smartphone?

Of course, it is not always feasible (or convenient) to shoot from a tripod.  And some of those to whom I am preaching here, don’t shoot with a dedicated camera, but use their smartphone.  In most modern cameras, the software options include an on-screen (or in-viewfinder) graphic level.  These are great tools (of course, they need to be checked and calibrated for accuracy, and there is some anecdotal commentary online that they are not always completely accurate – and there is an answer to that below).  Where is that thing on my smartphone?  To the best of my knowledge, neither the top Android (I use Samsung) and IOS phones do not have that as a built-in option.  But there are several free apps that will add that feature.  I am test-driving one called “Camera Level” that seems very much like the in-camera built-in level in my Sony cameras.  It automatically loads into your smartphone’s camera (after appropriate “registration/permission”).

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

Most software now also offers a “grid” pattern on the screen or in the viewfinder.  While I find this can be a help, your eye will still fool you.  The level won’t.  I do not think there is any good reason not to use this technology regularly.

Rehabilitation is Available

When “curating” my images after a shoot, there is little doubt that even when using these tools, I still have occasions where the image is tilting.  Fortunately, there is help for this in post-processing.  Today, virtually every post-processing software application has an automated “straighten” feature.  But even in the day when that wasn’t part of the software features, there was always a way to accomplish this.  I primarily use Photoshop and it was easy to create a straight line (using an available “grid” overlay, or a “guide”) and then rotate the image so that the horizon was straight.  And because it is possible that the level methods described above are not always accurate, it ought to always be part of your process to make sure that things are level that should be level.  Our eye will fool us from behind the lens.  But the image won’t and it will be one of the first things the astute viewer will notice.  I often quip, when seeing that ubiquitous sunset over water, “I wonder why the water doesn’t just drain out of that picture?” 🙂

There are some drawbacks to the post-processing “fix.”  It very often may require you to crop out important parts of an image, in order to straighten it (Photoshop’s impressive “content-aware” cropping can in many cases repair that problem).  It is also true that there is not always a “horizon” to reference from.  It can then become more challenging.  Straight lines that “should” be horizontal or vertical can be used, but you have to take into consideration perspective distortion created by lenses now.  But careful analysis of the photo should tell you which lines “should” be horizontal or vertical – or at least if you have to make a choice, which are aesthetically preferable.

Have a great day, be careful out there, and watch those horizons.

“I wonder why the water doesn’t just drain out of that picture?” 🙂