David Peterson

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

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Shoot where you live, or, how to photograph life in your community

Shoot where you live, or, how to photograph life in your community

Sometimes the hardest photos to take are the ones of the places we are most familiar with. When was the last time you took a walk through your own neighborhood and found interesting things to photograph? If you’re like many people, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time doing that at all. Usually, when we decide to go out in search of photographs, we leave the places that are familiar behind in favor of unfamiliar, new, and therefore interesting things to take pictures out. But if you ignore the photographic potential of your own neighborhood, you are actually doing yourself a disservice. Not only are you missing out on photographs that will be important to you personally in the years to come, you are also missing out on photographic opportunities that you didn’t even know existed.

##Exploring your neighborhood

Whether you live in the suburbs, in a rural community or in a city center, start by walking around your own neighborhood. Spend some time looking at the details. Try to see the place you live through the eyes of someone who doesn’t live there. Try to view your neighbor’s fence or that row of mailboxes in a different way. Are there any interesting textures or patterns that you might be able to capture? What about color? Are there any places that you’ve never explored in your own neighborhood? Let’s say you never really gone into the local mom-and-pop market, or you’ve never stood at the top of the hill at the end of your street. It could be that you’ve never really spent a lot of time walking around your neighborhood at all—if you make an effort to explore the once-unseen corners of your community, you’ll almost certainly find details that surprise you. And if you traverse your neighborhood on foot, you’ll also notice that things look really different from the sidewalk than they do from the driver’s seat of your car.

The Old Neighborhood

##Try to capture a sense of life where you live

Your neighborhood, like any neighborhood in the world, has its own unique qualities and personality. Things happen in your neighborhood roughly the same way they happen all over the world, but with a certain unique tempo. For example, it could be that your neighbor three doors down always begins his morning by retrieving the newspaper off of his driveway (yes, it’s true, some people do still subscribe to the morning paper). It could be that your other neighbor always goes for a jog or walks the dog. As the day progresses, neighbors get in cars, take their kids to school, or send older kids off to the bus stop. Shops open for business, people pick up coffee, people go to work, have lunch and come home again—and those routines change only as people move in and out of the neighborhood.

If you know your neighbors very well, start by informing them that you plan to spend a day photographing life in your neighborhood. If they know what you’re up to, they’re going to be less surprised (and possibly annoyed) when they see you out there first thing in the morning snapping pictures of them as they get to their cars to go to work. And if you don’t know your neighbors very well, try to focus on the less personal details, or use this project as an excuse to knock on doors and introduce yourself. Being open about what you’re doing is going to help avoid the perception that you’re a weird stalker with a camera—that’s the last thing you want said about you, especially in your own neighborhood. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you should always get permission to photograph someone else’s child—even if it’s somebody you know.

Now when you’re working on this project, don’t just hang back and shoot everything as it happens. Think about how you can capture life where you live in an interesting and unusual way—even if there isn’t much that happens in your neighborhood that could be classified as interesting or unusual. Try to get some close shots. Look at the details. For example, instead of just zooming in on your neighbor as she embarks on her morning walk with her dog, try to capture the expression on the dog’s face. Try to capture that moment when she first puts the leash on her dog’s collar. Zoom in, and capture those moments that transpire between people and animals, or between two people, or between people and whatever it is that happen to be doing.

Jogger, the Green

##Street photography (even in the suburbs)

Neighborhoods and their personalities can vary a lot. You may live in an area that mostly has houses and not a lot of services—if that’s the case you may have to spread out a little and find the places where people congregate. Parks make good locations for this type of work, or you can go a little further and take photographs at cafés or corner stores. Even if you’re in the suburbs, this is still a form of street photography, so you’ll need to gather your courage. A lot of people find it exceedingly difficult to photograph strangers, and if that’s you, you’ll have to adopt a new strategy. For example, you can try stealth photography—a smart phone is great for that because you can pretend to be doing something else on it while you are secretly photographing suburbanites in their natural environment. You can also shoot from the hip, which is a technique that involves selecting a narrow aperture to assist with blind focusing, and taking pictures while your camera is hanging on a strap around your neck or literally at your hip. When you’re not looking through your viewfinder, people aren’t usually going to suspect that you’re taking photographs, and that will help you feel bolder. Shooting from the hip is fun but it does take some time to master, so if you’re not getting great results right away, keep trying. That one magical shot out of dozens that maybe didn’t work so well will really help get you hooked on this technique.

If you’re not planning to be stealthy, you can take one of a few different approaches. First, you can shoot first and not ask any questions later. A lot of street photographers just walk straight up to the person they want to photograph, take the picture, and walk away. Most of the time your subject is going to be so surprised that they won’t be able to think of anything to say to you before you disappear. Your next approach could be to simply strike up a conversation with your potential subject and then ask him whether or not you can take his picture. I think you’ll be surprised by how many people are flattered and perfectly willing to be your subject. Just keep in mind that you may get less natural photos, because your subject is naturally going to be attempting to pose for the camera. So once you’ve obtained permission, try to carry on the conversation so you can capture some natural expressions of the person laughing, or thinking seriously about serious questions. The less posed the photo will looks, the better.

If you don’t think photographing strangers (or even your neighbors) is necessarily for you, that doesn’t mean that you can’t still capture images of your neighborhood. Focus more on the non-animate elements of life where you live, such as fallen leaves on the sidewalk, or squirrels in the trees. If you live in a more rural area, try taking photographs of livestock or interesting outbuildings like barns and sheds. You could also shoot fences—weathered fences in particular make for interesting photos.


Suburban neighborhoods have occasionally been criticized for being a little cookie cutter. If your neighborhood fits into that mold, try to capture the repetitiveness of the houses and yards as a pattern. If there are any identical houses in your neighborhood, consider taking pictures of all of the similarities. For example, you can stand on the sidewalk and try to capture two or more identical homes in the same frame. You can do the same with similar mailboxes, similar cars, or similar people. Don’t forget those perfect, manicured lawns—the truth is that some people in suburban neighborhoods like to create a pretense that everything is perfect when it may not be, so if you can find the one flaw in that otherwise perfect landscape, capture it for a photo that contains some irony.


I won’t lie—photographing your own neighborhood can be a little bit of a challenge. It can be hard to find inspiration in ordinary places, and the place where you live can, on the surface, seem pretty ordinary. But the truth is that you can find something interesting to photograph no matter where you go, so if you’re not feeling inspired right away don’t worry, just keep looking around and eventually a subject will reveal itself to you.


1. Explore your neighborhood
2. Capture a sense of life where you live
– Photograph your neighbors (with permission)
– Try to find a unique perspective
3. Suburban street photography
– Use stealth techniques (smartphones, shooting from the hip)
– Shoot without asking, or
– Get to know your subject first, then ask permission
4. Look for patterns
– Photograph cookie-cutter houses or mailboxes
– Look for flaws

Uses for a small aperture

Uses for a small aperture

If you’re a beginning photographer, the concept of aperture can be a little confounding. Smaller numbers equal larger apertures? Smaller apertures equal larger numbers? That’s all pretty confusing.

Fortunately, modern cameras are designed to be easy for beginning photographers to use, which means that you may not have figured there was much point in learning about and understanding aperture, at least not right away. And because many modern cameras also have scene modes—which can help you make good choices about your camera’s settings without necessarily needing to understand what is happening behind the scenes—you have even less incentive to think about aperture.

But auto settings and scene modes can only take you so far, and at a certain point you’re going to want to have more creative freedom and control over your photos than what those automatic settings can give you. And one of the first things that you need to understand is what aperture can do for you creatively.

##Uses for a narrow aperture

In this article we’re going to focus specifically on the uses for a narrow aperture. When you select a narrow aperture, you are choosing to make the hole between your lens and your image sensor smaller. That smaller hole lets in less light, which limits your ability to shoot in low light conditions. But it does also do something positive for you—that narrower aperture gives your image a broader depth of field.

##Depth of field explained

Depth of field is the term used to describe the amount of a scene that remains in focus from foreground background. An image with very broad depth of field is completely sharp, from the foreground elements to the very distant background elements, while an image that has shallow depth of field may not have many sharp elements at all, beyond the subject or focus point itself. The reasons why you might choose a shallow depth of field over a broad one are creative. Shallow depth of field helps separate your subject from its background, while a broad depth of field maintains detail throughout a photograph.


The most common reason why you might select a narrow aperture is because you’re photographing a landscape. When you shoot a landscape, you typically want the entire scene to be in focus. If the entire scene is not in focus, it’s not really landscape—it’s an isolated object within a landscape. So when a photographer takes a photograph of a landscape, she will typically select a very narrow aperture of around f/22. If there is something in the very near foreground that needs to be kept in focus, it is even more important to keep that aperture narrow because you want that near object to be just as sharp as the distant ones.


Selecting a narrow aperture typically means selecting a slower shutter speed, so you may find that you can’t hand-hold your camera when you use a very narrow aperture, because your shutter speed will be too slow. Taking a photograph hand-held with a slow shutter speed can result in camera shake, which can give your photograph a jagged, blurry appearance. Except on a very bright day (and there’s a good argument for not shooting landscape photos on very bright days) it is a good idea to always bring a tripod along with you whenever you’re planning to shoot scenery.

Along with the tripod you will also need a remote release, which will allow you to make an exposure without actually touching your camera. During a long exposure, just pressing that shutter button can be enough to cause camera shake, so make sure you either have a remote release or that you use your camera’s self timer feature to count down around five seconds between the time you touch the button and the time the shutter opens.

##Macro photography

Similarly, you’ll want to select a narrow aperture when shooting macro photos. A macro photo is any image taken at very close range of a very small object. When you get close to a tiny object such as insect or a small flower, you’ll notice that you get much shallower depth of field even at apertures that would normally give you good clarity from foreground to background. That’s because the closer you get your subject, the less depth of field you’re going to have overall—and at those very close ranges your depth of field can actually be measured in millimeters. So you need to use those narrow apertures in order to bring the more distant details into focus.


Just like with landscapes, you may find that you need a tripod when shooting macros. This isn’t just because of the slower shutter speeds you’ll have to use (although that does factor into it), it is also because the closer you get to your subject the more any camera shake will be magnified. That means that you can shoot at reasonably faster shutter speeds and still get some noticeable blur caused by the movement of your camera. And the movement of your camera may also throw your focus point off, so you’ll get sharpness in parts of the frame that you hadn’t intended, while those you did intend to be sharp will end up blurry.


Have you ever admired a photograph like this one:

San Francisco - Pier 7

This photographer did not use any fancy post-processing techniques or filters to achieve this effect. This effect can actually be produced simply by selecting a narrow aperture.

The starburst effect is actually a function of those aperture blades, or the overlapping pieces of material that help adjust the size of the aperture opening. When light passes through the smaller aperture opening, it bends around the edges of those blades, which is what creates the starburst rays.

In order to achieve this effect, you need hard points of light such as a string of Christmas lights or a row of bright streetlights. And because you’ll be shooting at narrow apertures in the dark, you will need longer shutter speeds—which, of course, means that you will absolutely have to have a tripod.

Remember that when you shoot after dark you can’t really trust your meter, so it’s a good idea to take a few bracketed exposures. To bracket your shots, shoot one that is at your camera’s recommended meter reading, and then check your screen to see if you like the results. If not, take a few shots that are reading as underexposed, and a few shots that are reading overexposed, depending on how much darker or brighter you want the scene to be. Remember to adjust your shutter speed, not your aperture. To achieve the starburst effect, your aperture needs to remain narrow—for the most dramatic effect, choose f/22.

You can also get starbursts during the day if you use a narrow aperture and include the sun in the frame. Again, metering a scene like this one will be a challenge—because the sun is such a bright light source, your meter may want to underexpose the scene to compensate for all of that light. Bracketing your shots is going to give you the best chance at good results.

##Car light trails

Light trails are a fun and creative way to capture some interesting photos, and they also require narrow apertures. The reason why you need narrow apertures to shoot light trails is because these scenes are often shot with very long exposures—and long exposures require narrow apertures. Those very long exposures, in turn, are necessary to get a complete trail from the left of the frame to the right (although the speed of the traffic does have some influence).


A tripod, of course, is an essential part of the gear you’ll need to shoot light trails, but you’ll also need a camera that can do “bulb” mode and a willingness to experiment. Select a narrow aperture and use a remote release to open the shutter just before a car enters the frame, and then close it again just after it leaves. Check your screen and make adjustments to your ISO and aperture as needed—again, for night scenes like this you can’t completely trust your meter.

##Misty waterfalls

There are other creative reasons for using a narrow aperture, and one of them is because you may find yourself wanting to use a slow shutter speed even though the sun is out. A good example of this might be when you’re shooting a waterfall. You know those beautiful, soft, misty-looking images of waterfalls, which seem more like fog than actual water? Those are all shot with a slow shutter speed, and you can’t achieve a slow shutter speed during the day unless you’re using a small aperture, or you happen to be in a very dark place.

I will say that sometimes the smallest available aperture on your camera isn’t necessarily going to be enough to allow for a slow enough shutter speed for that soft water effect. Sometimes you need a neutral density filter to help cut back on the amount of light in the scene. This is mostly going to be a problem when you’re shooting in a bright place, or at a bright time of day such as the late morning or early afternoon. If, however, you are shooting during the golden hour—that hour just after sunrise or just before sunset—there’s going to be less light overall and you will probably get some pretty good images just by selecting a small aperture and long shutter speed combination. Remember (again) that you do need to use a tripod any time you are shooting with a slow shutter speed.



If the concept of aperture is still new to you, and you’re still a little shaky on it overall, I recommend you put your camera in aperture priority mode and spend a day—and possibly part of your night as well—shooting photographs with a narrow aperture setting (remember: narrow aperture corresponds to larger f-numbers). I think you’ll find it that you are so pleased with some of the creative effects you’re able to achieve that you will wonder why you didn’t step outside of auto mode sooner.


1. What is aperture?
2. Depth of field explained
3. Landscapes
4. Macro
5. Starbursts
6. Car light trails
7. Moving water

How ‘Creeping’ Can Improve Your Images

Filed in EXIF, Tips by 0 Comments
How ‘Creeping’ Can Improve Your Images

So you know how you follow some people on Facebook with great interest but don’t actually ever talk to them? The urban dictionary calls that “creeping,” which is similar to stalking but without malicious intent. This week, I’m going to advocate doing something similar with other photographers, only instead of keeping track of their Facebook posts, you’re going to be keeping track of their Flickr posts, and the EXIF data attached to them. Continue Reading »

How to Photograph School Plays and Performances

How to Photograph School Plays and Performances

Over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of moms and dads about family photography and some of the common challenges they face. Complaints vary, of course, from getting moody teenagers to smile to capturing sports and other fast action. But one of the events that almost every parent tries to photograph that seems to cause the most frustration is the school play.

Many (if not most) schools have an annual play production, complete with costumes and props and a homegrown script. It’s a big moment for most those pint-sized stars—getting on stage in front of all those parents can be nerve-wracking, but every kid who does it experiences intense pride in what she’s accomplished when it’s all over. For this reason alone, parents attend those stage performances armed with their cameras and determined to capture the best photos possible. But so many of these parents come away from the experience frustrated and disappointed with the results. What can be done to guarantee good results when photographing plays? Read on to find out.
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What Photographers Need to Know About Copyright

What Photographers Need to Know About Copyright

Have you ever worried about theft? Now, when I ask this question, I don’t mean the tangible sort of theft that might happen if you leave your camera in an unlocked car or if you set your camera bag down next to your table while you have a cup of coffee. I mean that less tangible theft that can happen when you put your photography online, on a public forum like Flickr, Facebook or Instagram. Can someone take your photos and use them however they like? What sort of protection do you have from online theft, and what steps do you need to take to secure that protection? Keep reading for the information every photographer needs to have about copyright.
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How to photograph the Great American Eclipse

Filed in Blog, Sun by 0 Comments
How to photograph the Great American Eclipse

If you weren’t planning to do any travelling this summer, you might want to do a little rethinking. Unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to live in a 68 mile-wide band that stretches across the US from Newport, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.

On August 21, 2017 the United States will be treated to the first total solar eclipse visible in the country since February of 1979—although the totality itself will only be visible to people living in or visiting that 68 mile wide band. For the rest of the US, only a partial eclipse will be visible—still a photo-worthy event, but not as spectacular as the total eclipse.
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Three ways to make your photographs look more professional

Three ways to make your photographs look more professional

Here is a question I often get from beginners and more advanced students alike: “How can I make my photos look more professional?” No matter what learning stage you’re at, it’s hard to resist the temptation to compare your photos to photos shot by pros—whether they are professional portrait photographers or professional magazine photographers who produce material for National Geographic and other photo-heavy publications.

Just about everyone would like to shoot photos that look like they belong in a magazine, but not all of us know exactly how to get that done. We may chalk it up to just not having the right equipment: “I need an expensive DSLR,” you might decide, or, “I need a really expensive lens.” But the truth is that equipment can only take you so far, and you can take truly professional quality images with something as simple as a smartphone. Read on to find out how.

One of the best ways to develop a sense for what makes a professional-quality image is to look at professional quality-images. I often recommend Flickr as a source for studying other people’s work, but perhaps an even better idea is to review the websites and portfolios of professional photographers, particularly people you admire. First, identify the genre in which you would like to achieve more professional-looking images. Then spend some time really studying the images of those photographers you admire. What do they all have in common? Are these things that you could apply easily enough to your own work? If not, what are some other ways that you could achieve professional-quality results? What is the photographer’s style and how could you develop your own style? These are all questions that you will need to answer before you can reasonably expect your images to start looking like the pros’.

##Fill the frame

One of the number one steps that professional photographers take to really create compelling images is filling the frame. This also happens to be one of the biggest mistakes that beginners make. We seem to have an inborn desire to include as much of a scene as possible whenever we take a picture, and that is a desire we need to fight against. Let’s take portraits as an example—how many times have you shot photos of your kids or other family members and just not been that happy with the results? If you look at some of the photos you thought were going be wonderful and just didn’t turn out that way I think you’ll find a common thread. In many cases it could just be that you didn’t fill the frame. For example, that picture of your child playing in the park is full of other distractions. There are other kids in the background, there’s a trashcan nearby, there are some parked cars in the distance. None of these extra elements is adding anything to the composition, and they are in fact distracting from your subject. That is one of the reasons why that photo may turn out to just not be very compelling—because your subject has been lost among all the visual clutter.


The simple solution to this problem is to just zoom in. Remember if you’re using a smartphone or a camera with digital zoom, it’s better to zoom with your feet—that is, walk towards your subject and fill the frame without using the zoom capabilities of your camera. If you’re using a DSLR or another camera with optical zoom, it’s okay to use your zoom lens to get closer—aim for filling the entire frame with your subject’s face or head and shoulders, unless you have a very compelling reason to shoot the person from head to toe.

An exception to this rule is if you’re shooting an environmental portrait and you need to include some context. Context can be very important for environmental photos because the goal of an environmental photo is to show your viewer how your subject is interacting or existing within a certain context. So for that type of photo it’s always important to zoom out a little bit and show your viewer your subject’s surroundings, but the same rules do apply to the extent that you don’t want to include any clutter in the background or objects that are not a part of the story you’re trying to tell.

##Find beautiful light

One of the most obvious differences between professional quality photographs and snapshots is in the light. A lot of beginners fall into this trap for the very simple reason that people tend to take photographs at the wrong time of the day, or in the wrong lighting situations.

Now, you may be asking, “What is the right time of day?” Well, that has to do with the direction of the light. When the sun is directly overhead, it doesn’t have as much atmosphere to shine through, so it is much brighter. And bright sun creates blown out areas and shadows that are an impenetrable black. This can create the dreaded raccoon-eyed portrait subject, and can also have more subtle effects such as obscuring detail. To avoid this problem, try shooting photographs very early in the day (an hour after sunrise) or very late in the day (an hour before sunset). We call this “the golden hour” because of the quality of the light—it’s soft and even and literally has a golden quality to it. You’ll find that if you aim for taking most of your photographs at this time of day you will end up with much better photographs overall.

Now what if you’re out shooting photographs and it’s mid day, and there really isn’t any way you’d be able to capture the same images if you waited until sunset? Now you have to start thinking about ways that you can improve the lighting situation that you’re stuck with. For example, if you’re shooting portraits you can use fill flash to help fill in some of those impenetrable black shadows. You can also move your subjects into better light such as open shade (note, avoid dappled shade such as what you get underneath a tree because that can provide for uneven lighting). You can also use a reflector or a diffuser to bounce light into the shadows or to diffuse the sun before it even arrives at your subject. These are all very good and reliable ways that you can make even those midday photographs look more professional.


Seeking out interesting light is another way that you can make your images look more professional—try backlighting your subject and taking advantage of lens flare and veiling glare, which is that low-contrast look that is so popular in portraiture today. You can also use dramatic lighting such as a single bright light on one side of a person’s face and darkness on the other. Anytime you use light that varies significantly from that standard, average midday lighting, you’re going to create an interesting photo.

##Develop a sense of style

This is actually one of the hardest things for beginning photographers to wrap their minds around. Professional photos look professional because they have a sense of style. A photographer who has a very strong style is someone whose work you can identify regardless of whether or not their name is attached to the image. Think for a moment about Ansel Adams, the famous landscape photographer of the 1900s. Most people who are familiar with Ansel Adams’ work can pick out one of his images from a selection of a similar photos, simply because his style was so well defined. I’m sure there are plenty of modern photographers and maybe even those you follow on Flickr who also have very distinguished styles. When you look at your Flickr feed and notice new images, do you have a pretty good idea of whose photo stream they belong to before you even click on them? If so, that’s because that photographer has a very well-developed sense of style.


So how do you define your own sense of style? Well, that is the $64,000 question. The actions that each individual photographer takes in order to create a sense of style can be quite subtle, and it could be as simple as always waiting for a certain type of light, having a strong sense of politics and shooting everything through that political veil, or even just applying certain stylistic changes to each photograph in post-processing. For example, you could shoot all of your photographs using a high ISO. You’ll get an image that has a lot of noise and looks gritty and photojournalistic, and if you convert all of your photos to black and white using the same desaturation procedure, then all of your photos are going to have the same basic style. You could also add a little saturation tweak to give your photos a sense of you, but remember that your goal is not to create a set of photos that look exactly the same, but rather a set of photos that appear to have been shot by the same person.



If you are still a beginner, remember that reaching this point in your photography takes a lot of time, skill and practice. Most of us are not going to achieve professional quality images right away—it’s a skill we develop over time and with lots of practice. So my final piece of advice for you is to spend a lot of time taking pictures. The more you practice, the more time you spend examining your work and asking yourself questions about how you might be able to make your photos better, the closer you will be to having a portfolio full of professional-quality images.


1. Study the work of pros you admire
2. Fill the frame
3. Find beautiful light
– Golden hour
– Use fill flash and reflectors
– Use backlighting
4. Develop a style

What you need to know about memory cards

Filed in Camera, Tips by 1 Comment
What you need to know about memory cards

Hey, do you remember when taking photos meant you actually had to know something about film? There was black-and-white film, there was color film. There was daylight-balanced film and there was incandescent film. There was high ISO film and there was low ISO film. To acquire all the knowledge you needed to have about all the different film types available, you practically had to have a degree in film.

Now thank goodness we no longer have to worry about film. Today you just pop in a memory card and you’re good to go. Because all memory cards are pretty much the same… except that they aren’t. Read on to find out why.
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What is mirror lock-up, and when should I use it?

What is mirror lock-up, and when should I use it?

You’ve come a long way since the first time you picked up a camera. Not so very long ago, you were still stuck in auto mode, and you really weren’t very happy with your photos. Your landscapes were boring and they weren’t very clear, with certain details sharp and others too blurry. Then you discovered landscape mode, and that was an improvement. But your photos didn’t really start to shine until you switched to aperture priority, and started using narrow apertures to capture those scenic images. Now you’ve got a tripod and a remote release, but you’ve noticed something—your images still aren’t always completely sharp, and you’re not sure why. Fortunately, the answer could be as simple as using a basic setting you may have not even heard of: mirror lock-up. Read on to find out what this setting is, and how it can improve your photos.
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What Photo Filters are Best

What Photo Filters are Best

Once upon a time, a “photo filter” was one of those things you screwed on to the end of your lens. Filters came in different colors, and some of them even added special effects to your photos, such as a soft blur or a starburst effect. Today we still use some types of screw-on filters (most notably the polarizing filter and the neutral density filter), but most other physical filters have fallen out of use—primarily because post-processing can now do what those filters could do without all the extra hassle and expense of buying them and carrying them around.
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How to Photograph Mischief

How to Photograph Mischief

I know, you hate it when your kids act up. No parent loves to find scribbles on the wall, broken family heirlooms on the floor or the dog wearing a pink tutu (well, maybe that last one wouldn’t be so bad), and no parent loves to have to discipline a child who isn’t behaving the way she’s expected to. But mischief, whether parents like to admit it or not, is a natural part of being a child. So it may surprise you to hear me say that I think you should photograph it.

Now of course, this is a challenging task no matter how you look at it. You know you don’t really want to encourage your children to be naughty, and as soon as you get that camera out to record their naughtiness, you’re sort of endorsing it. So you need to come up with some ways to capture mischief without making it seem like you’re giving permission. That is a challenging task. Read one for some ideas about how to do it.

##The blackmail photo

Every parent should have one of these. You know exactly what I’m talking about—it’s that photo of your child doing something really cute and funny, which will embarrass the heck out of him as he gets older. For example, I have a friend whose extremely macho 11-year-old, who, as a toddler, used to enjoy wearing his mother’s high heels. That is a photo that you absolutely must have, not only because it’s cute and funny but also because you can use it in the future as a viable threat for good behavior. “Make sure you come home by curfew, or your girlfriend is going to see that picture of you in high heels!”

Now, I will say that this is the sort of photo that needs to be kept under wraps—posting it on Facebook or framing it and hanging on the wall would just be plain cruel and I really am (sort of) kidding when I say you should use embarrassing photos as tools for blackmail. But it is the sort of mischief that you really do need to record on camera, not just because it laughably embarrassing, but also because it will remind you of some of the innocence of childhood, especially once your child has left that phase and moved on into the difficult tween or teenage years.


##The aftermath

Have you ever turned your back just for a moment, just for a split second, and when you turned around again you found yourself viewing the aftermath of an unprecedented disaster? Children have an amazing capacity for destroying things in new and interesting ways, and at dizzying speeds. And if you can get past your initial distress, these are the types of images that you should capture for posterity. Let’s say, for example, that your child has found a box of powdered laundry detergent or a bag of flour, and decided to pretend that he’s playing in the snow. This kind of disaster can happen very quickly—often in just the time it takes for you to step away to the bathroom. No parent is immune, no matter how much you think you might be, unless all of your stuff is locked up or stashed in high places.

Laundry detergent all over the floor is going to be a huge mess, for sure, but it’s great fodder for photography in the meantime. Those flour/soap covered hands and faces are going to be adorable all by themselves, but a photo of your chubby little angel sitting there with the powdered destruction all around her is going to be something that will make you smile for years to come. Maybe not during the next hour while you’re cleaning it all up, but trust me, someday.


When you’re photographing this scene, make sure that you include both child and disaster. Get down to your child’s level, and try to make the disaster look even bigger than it actually is. One way to do this is by placing your focal point on a pile of flour or detergent and letting your child fall out of focus in the background. Likewise, if the disaster had anything to do with a black sharpie and/or a white wall, you can stand at somewhat of an angle to the new mural, select a narrow aperture to give you broad depth of field, and fill the frame in such a way that the graffiti appears to go on forever. Include your child in that shot too, of course, and although I’m not sure of the wisdom of asking him to wield the tools of his trade, I think you need to include the black sharpie as well.

Now again, you need to do this with some discretion. You don’t want your child to think, “Mom loves it when I make it snow in the house!” or “Mom loves it when I decorate the walls!” You can take these photos while still conveying a sense of displeasure, for example, “I am texting this picture to your father so he can see what you’ve done!” will give you both an honest and valid reason for photographing the mess without also condoning it.

Children also like to turn those markers on themselves, so if your child decided to paint himself red so he could become a baby dragon, or brown like a werewolf, that will be a pretty awesome picture too. And take it one step further—get some shots of him in the tub while you are trying to scrub all those bright colors off. Or have fun with it and have him act the part—a brown werewolf or a red baby dragon chasing little sister or the dog around the house is going to be a pretty hilarious photo.


Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting go of your own personal hang ups—sure, your child wasted an entire tube of paint and sure, it’s going to be a pain to clean it off of him but there’s something to be said for giving his creativity free reign. Let him role-play a little and see what happens.

##Innocent mischief

There is such a thing as innocent mischief. How do you know when it’s innocent mischief? Because it’s mischief that bugs you, but in a very harmless sort of way. For example, your child may like to flip mindlessly through the channels on the TV set. That’s enough to drive anyone bonkers, but if it’s a habit of his, or he thinks it’s particularly hilarious, get your camera out. You might actually be surprised to discover that your camera can be used a little bit like reverse psychology. If you suggest to your child that you might be endorsing his behavior by taking a picture of it, you may find that he actually doesn’t think the behavior is so much fun anymore.

Whatever the end result may be, try to get a picture that lets the viewer know exactly what’s happening in the scene. Your child wielding the remote control and laughing hysterically is going to get that message across pretty well. Now, there may be some differences in interpretations—if your viewer doesn’t know your child, for example, she may think he’s just laughing at his favorite cartoon. That doesn’t really matter so much, as long as your images are well composed, and do a good job at conveying the silliness of the moment and your child’s personality.


You should also strive to capture a moment that you will be able to identify later on down the road—so make sure that you capture that moment as honestly as you can. That may mean taking a series of images—one of your child wielding the remote, and a couple of them over his shoulder with vastly different television shows on the set. On a similar note, mischief is nearly always accompanied by giggles (maybe not your giggles, but almost certainly the giggles of your child). Make sure that you are able to capture the spirit of the mischief as well as the mischief itself.

##Naughty mischief

Let’s say you catch your child in the act of some seriously naughty mischief, like throwing the cat in the swimming pool or drawing a star on the side of your car with a rock. Now, no one is going to argue that you should hide out in the bushes and take a picture of this while it’s happening, oh no, you need to save the cat first (or save your paint job). But you can photograph some of what happens after the event, and those photos can serve some very important functions. First, I promise you that one day it will seem funny when you think of that poor, dripping wet cat or your child’s beautiful but all too expensive art work. And as far as the family history book goes, it’s still going to be an important event because it represents a learning moment for your child, and maybe for you, too. And it may also serve as a stark reminder for your child of the importance of good behavior.

So how can you capture these moments without capturing the mischief in-progress? We’ve already talked about shooting the aftermath—the dripping wet cat (or the process of toweling him off) can be one way to record the event. But you want to record the lesson, too, so a photo of your child in time-out or looking longingly at his siblings while they play video games and he doesn’t will also serve the purpose.



Again, don’t think that taking a picture means you’re telling your child it’s OK to misbehave. A good scolding afterwards is always helpful. And if they ask you why you took a picture if it was something they weren’t supposed to be doing—be creative. Tell them you want to make sure they remember how much trouble they got in on that day, and the best way to do that is with a photo. Whatever you do, don’t avoid taking the picture, and if you do have to hide in the bushes with your 400mm lens, well, I’m not going to say anything. What’s important is that you’re capturing a broad slice of family life with your camera, and that includes anything worth remembering, whether it’s good or bad, naughty or nice.


1. The blackmail photo
2. The aftermath
– Get down to the level of the destruction
– Make the destruction look bigger than it is
3. Innocent mischief
– Make sure the moment is identifiable (at least to you)
– Capture the spirit of mischief (facial expressions, etc.)
4. Naughty mischief
– Photograph it, don’t condone it

What is a 35mm Equivalent Focal Length?

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What is a 35mm Equivalent Focal Length?

Your first DSLR is a big deal. In many ways, it’s a rite of passage from casual photography to serious photography, and it really does open up whole new worlds of creativity and learning. But it also adds some layers of complication to your hobby, and a big one for a lot of new DSLR owners has to do with those interchangeable lenses and their associated focal lengths. Just when you thought you understood what 14-42mm means, you probably noticed that thing in parenthesis: “35mm equivalent 28-84mm.” What the heck?
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If you live in the Western world, you’ve almost certainly had significant exposure to the idea that “more is better.” You see this it pretty much everywhere you go—people buy bigger houses when they don’t really need them, the portion sizes at restaurants are enough to feed a family of six from a single plate, and the drive to accumulate—whether it’s more pieces for your wardrobe, more rare collectibles, or simply more things than your neighbor has—seems to be ingrained in our popular culture. So it’s not surprising that when you first start to take photographs, you may approach them with the idea that “more is better.”
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How to Photograph Family Drama

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How to Photograph Family Drama

If the family photo album really was a way to accurately gauge the perfection of the modern family, then modern families all over the world must be perfect indeed. Photo albums are full of smiling, well-behaved children, parents who never lose their cool and family vacations that always go exactly as planned. And that’s not because all other families really are (more) perfect (than yours), it’s because most people only photograph the good, and they avoid the bad like the proverbial plague.

Happy moments go in the photo album, and unhappy moments? Well, let’s just pretend that never happened. Should this be your approach to family photography? Read on to find out the answer. Continue Reading »

Photo challenge: Photographing Opposites

Photo challenge: Photographing Opposites

I’m sure you have heard the expression “opposites attract.” It’s a bit of a cliché, to be sure, but clichés often exist because there is some element of truth to them. And while it may not be completely accurate that everyone is attracted to his or her opposite, what is true is that people are attracted to visual representations of opposites. If you’re stuck in a photographic rut, try this challenge: look for pairs of opposite subjects and try to capture them in a compelling way. Keep reading for some ideas.

##The appeal of opposites

We like to look at photographs of opposites because they are objects that we don’t expect to see together. Opposites give us visual contrast, and when two objects contrast in a big way, they give your viewer something to think about. Let’s take a look at one example:


In this image we have two dogs, which it’s hard to argue seem to be complete opposites. One of these dogs is big, and the second is small. Because of this contrast in size we immediately make assumptions about the other differences between these dogs. Some viewers might think the small dog seems vulnerable next to the large dog. Another viewer might interpret the interaction between the two dogs as being almost brotherly—the little dog is looking up at the larger dog with an expression that could be interpreted as something like admiration.

When we see two opposites together, we can’t help but imagine what might happen next. For example, what is stopping the giant dog from having the smaller dog for breakfast? Because that small dog seems vulnerable, we start to worry a little bit about him. And anytime a photograph can inspire that kind of emotion in a viewer, it’s going to be a lot more compelling than, say, a photograph of either one of these dogs sitting alone.

##How to find opposites

Just about everywhere we look in nature there are opposites, or at the very least things that can be represented as opposites. For example, you could say that a desert and a rain forest are opposite, although, it would be a difficult to capture both of those things together in a single photograph. However, with a little creative thinking, you could suggest the idea of dry vs. wet or even rainforest vs. desert by juxtaposing two representative objects together. For example, a few green leaves placed on dry, cracked earth could make a statement about the challenges of life in dry conditions. And if you want to be a little more adventurous, you could search for bodies of water in dry places—rivers do cut through deserts, and a photo of running water traveling through an unlikely place will give your photo some pretty compelling contrast.


Opposites can be human beings as well — try photographing a dirty child next to a well groomed child with perfect hair. Or photograph twin toddlers, one crying and the other smiling (just wait a few minutes, one of them will almost certainly find something worth screaming about). Then ask your viewer to speculate on how well he thinks those two children get along. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if the answer is correct—those two twins might get along famously in the real world—the important thing is to capture the two children in such a way that inspires your viewer’s imagination, regardless of how accurate his conclusions may be.


If you need a simpler approach, think in terms of colors. At some point in your artistic career, you’ve probably encountered a color wheel:

The color wheel is a simple tool that can help you understand the relationship between colors, but it can also be used to help you create photographic opposites. Colors that appear opposite one another on the color wheel are called “complementary colors,” but you can also think of them as literal opposites. The opposite of blue is orange, the opposite of a green is a red, and the opposite of purple is yellow. When you place two opposite colors into a photograph, you get a very striking contrast between those colors. That helps draw your viewer’s attention into the scene, and creates a very appealing composition.

Blue and Orange

Now what about objects that don’t really have opposites? If you have kids, you know that they tend to be fascinated by the idea of opposites, and convinced that every object must have one. “What’s the opposite of yarn?” you’ve probably been asked. Or, “What’s the opposite of shoe?” Now clearly there is no literal answer to either of those questions, at least not in the same sense as we know for certain that the opposite of cold is hot, or the opposite of dirty is clean. But we can think about ways to juxtapose two objects that seem to contradict one another. For example, we could include a finished, knitted blanket in a photograph with a ball of yarn as a way of contrasting the two—one the raw material, and the other the finished product. We could juxtapose a high heel shoe next to a sneaker. Neither of these pairs of objects are necessarily opposites, but they do create a dichotomy or a strong contrast.


##Your project plan

Now if this is the sort of project idea that appeals to you, you could just set out one morning with a goal of wandering around until you blunder into some good sets of opposites or contrasting objects. However, I rarely recommend this approach because it tends to not be as fruitful as an approach where you have a solid plan. Now you don’t have to type out a detailed outline or anything, but at the very least you should think about some of the opposite pairs you might want to photograph so that you’ll have a game plan when you leave the house. Make a list of potential subjects—black and white, for example, old and young, wet and dry.


And remember to think outside the box of strict opposites—you can also think about ideas or concepts you might want to communicate to your viewer, and find contrasting subjects that convey those concepts. For example, let’s say that you want to communicate your thoughts on climate change—you could contrast dying trees with a gas-powered vehicle such as a large pickup truck.

Think about places around your community where you might see strong contrast. In some towns, there is a clear separation between the poorer communities and the wealthier ones—is there a place where the contrast is obvious, such as a low-income apartment block across the street from a suburban neighborhood? What about the place where the city meets the country—is there a line between civilization and nature? This is going to require some brainstorming, so it’s worth some thought and planning.

Finally, try thinking in technical terms—what are some of the things you typically keep in mind when trying to capture a photograph, such as light and shutter speed? What if you lit your subject with a single, bright light on one side of his face, and let the other side fall into shadow? That might make a strong statement about the two contrasting parts of his personality, his “Jekyll and Hyde.” Or you could use motion blur to create contrast. Put your camera on a tripod, then have two human subjects stand side by side. Select a slow shutter speed and ask one subject to stand as still as possible, and ask the other subject to walk out of the frame during the exposure. You’ll get motion blur on one subject and (hopefully) a sharp image of the other subject, which will amount to a photograph of opposites—moving and standing, or restless and restful.


This can be a really fun project but again, it requires some contemplation and certainly some experimentation. Start with a simple photo of opposites, like in the first example above of the two contrasting colored chess pieces. Then see if you can move on to more complex ideas about contrasting elements or opposites. If at first you can’t seem to really capture the contrast between two things in a compelling way, don’t worry—you have the great luxury of being able to delete and reshoot if things don’t work out the way you’d envisioned the first time around. Think of how you can adjust your camera angle, the way you’ve juxtaposed the two objects and how they are interacting with one another. Try different ideas and then decide later on which ones worked and which ones weren’t as successful. The only way you’ll really know for sure is if you brainstorm and then try every idea that occurs to you. Remember that ultimately your goal is to create images that make your viewer think—if you can do that, then you’ve succeeded.


1. How to find opposites
– Look for opposites in the natural world
– Find examples of opposite people
2. Use opposite (complementary) colors
3. Find contrasting objects, even if they aren’t strict opposites
4. Make a plan
– Brainstorm first
– Think in technical terms