How to photograph farms, ranches and rural places

Filed in Landscape, Tips by on June 9, 2017 0 Comments
How to photograph farms, ranches and rural places

Even if you live in the city, a visit to a rural place can be cathartic. Rural places are quiet, homey, and down-to-earth. And they have a beauty that is somewhere between the rough beauty of an urban area and the perfect beauty of nature.

The process of photographing a rural setting requires careful attention to detail, because you want to capture a real sense of place as well as a visual interpretation of the place you’re visiting. So it helps to really think about what your goals are and to have them well-mapped out before you embark on your photo shoot. Keep reading for more.
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How to simulate sunshine

Filed in Sun, Tips by on June 9, 2017 0 Comments
How to simulate sunshine

There’s a reason why golden hour photos tend to be more pleasing than photos shot at other times of the day, and it’s not just the soft light and gradual transition between shadows and highlights. People love golden hour photographs because they’re warm. That orange light makes us feel as if we are standing out in the sun ourselves, and the sun is one of those universally appreciated sources of energy. It’s no cliché to say that the sun is life-giving, without it, the world would be a bleak and terrible place indeed. We love the sunlight because it’s the light that nourishes and sustains us, and as such we are drawn to golden hour photographs because no other sort of photograph reproduces the sun in quite the same way.

Now here’s a fun fact for you: you don’t have to wait until the golden hour to capture that warm, sunny feeling in your photographs. You can even do it indoors, or on an overcast day. Read on to find out how.
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What is Auto HDR?

Filed in HDR, Tips by on June 9, 2017 0 Comments
What is Auto HDR?

Modern digital cameras can do a lot of things that their predecessors even as recently as 10 years ago could not do, but they’re still not perfect. And one of the challenges that digital photography manufacturers have always faced is producing cameras that are capable of capturing a full range of tones in a high dynamic range situation. Even today, the best DSLRs on the market still can’t achieve this in every situation. But there’s good news—many newer model cameras have an automatic mode designed to combat this problem. It’s called “Auto HDR,” but just what does it do and more importantly, should you use it? Keep reading to find out.
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Spelunking with your camera

Filed in Lifestyle, Tips by on May 25, 2017 0 Comments
Spelunking with your camera

I love visiting caves. First of all, they’re great on hot days when the outside world is oppressive, because they’re usually a nice cool refrigerator temperature inside. But they’re also beautiful—caves are full of interesting structures and formations that you don’t see anywhere else in the world, and if you’re not taking photographs when you’re visiting one of these beautiful places, you are missing out. Keep reading for some tips on how to get amazing photos in commercial caves.

[Top image Cave Adventure by Flickr user darkday.]

It can be really tricky to take photographs inside of a cave. First of all, commercial caves may have a lot of restrictions placed on photographers, from a moratorium against tripods to outright banning flash. The good news is that modern camera technology gives us a lot of ways around these restrictions, so you just have to have a plan and a good understanding of how to capture fabulous photographs in low light.

##Protect your gear

The first thing to remember about commercial caves is that they are made out of rock. Your camera and solid rock aren’t friends. And quite often you are going to be walking down staircases, ducking through narrow walkways with low ceilings, and there is going to be rock sticking out at all angles pretty much everywhere you go. If your camera isn’t protected, that may be the end of your camera (and I won’t even mention the part where the park service will really not appreciate you bashing your camera against those fragile stalagmites). Make sure you’re carrying your camera on a strap around your neck so there’s no risk of dropping it, and carry it in front of your body so that there’s no chance of bashing it against a wall or staircase. It’s a good idea to put your camera in a padded sleeve instead of wearing it naked around your neck—that is going to help protect against unexpected happenings like if you stumble over a step or encounter a protrusion you didn’t see in the dark. And I probably don’t need to lecture you too much about your own personal safety—commercial caving operations aren’t going to let you in without a helmet, knee pads or other safety gear (depending on if you’re on a walking tour or are planning to repel into the cave). So follow all safety guidelines laid out by the operation, and don’t do anything or go anywhere that isn’t permitted on the tour.

##What to bring

It’s useful to ask in advance whether or not tripods are allowed—if you’re taking a tour, it’s probably going to be moving along pretty quickly, so it might be worth asking if it’s okay for you to hang back for a few minutes while you set up your tripod and take a photo. Be prepared, however, to be told that tripods simply aren’t allowed—most tours just prefer to not have to worry about someone who might spend too much time lagging behind the group or getting in the way. If you are told that tripods are OK, make sure you have a tripod with a quick release so you can set up and break down quickly and avoid inconveniencing anyone (the last thing you want is to be the guy that convinced them to adopt a “no tripod” policy). If the cave allows self-guided tours or private tours, that might be a better option—just be sure you’re not getting in the way of other groups of people.


If tripods are allowed, make sure you also have some way to remotely release your shutter, because you don’t want to muck up that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with camera shake. If you have a remote shutter release bring one, if not, make sure you know how to use your camera’s self timer. Most commercial caves are well-lit enough that you won’t need to use shutter speeds in excess of 30 seconds, so your self-timer function should be enough. Just set it to countdown five seconds and that should be enough time for the vibration to cease before the shutter actually opens.

Most commercial caves allow flash photography, but some don’t. It’s always a good idea to find out what the policy is for the cave you’re planning to visit, since the answer will impact your decisions about what addtional gear you might need to bring with you. If the cave does allow flash, make sure you’re using an off-camera flash. On-camera flash really isn’t going to produce satisfying pictures—because it’s direct, you’re not going to get a lot of detail-defining shadow, and you’re probably also going to get unwanted anomalies such as glare, especially off of damp surfaces (which tend to be everywhere inside of caves). And because caves are often full of airborne moisture, you may end up with images that have a hazy appearance, which can happen when that direct light reflects off those airborne water particles and back towards the camera.

You can use your external flash with a synch cord or with a slave unit—the synch chord is a connected way of firing the flash at the same time as you make the exposure, while the slave unit is a remote trigger. But if you’re using a tripod you may find it simpler to just put your camera in bulb mode and then walk to wherever you need the light, and fire it manually. This is going to give you a lot of flexibility because it will allow you to add light to multiple parts of the scene in a single exposure. Remember also to adjust the strength of your flash if you’re getting light that seems too bright or overly harsh.

It’s a very good idea to shoot in RAW since it’s going to be difficult to predict the color of the light. In commercial caves, the light is likely to be incandescent, but if you’re adding flash then you’re going to have more of a mixed-lighting situation. Because it’s extremely simple to adjust white balance after the fact when you’re shooting in RAW, it’s a very good idea to put your camera in that mode so that you can adjust the white balance later if you didn’t get it right in camera. And because you run the risk of over under-exposing in certain areas especially in those dimly lit caves, shooting in RAW will capture the most detail that your camera is capable of capturing, which means that you’ll be able to make exposure corrections as well.

This is also an excellent argument for lowering your ISO. Your photos are going to have some dark areas, and higher ISOs will increase the chance of noise appearing in those places. Try not to deliberately underexpose photos with the idea of lightening them later in post-processing because that can actually exacerbate the noise problem. If you’re going to be hand-holding your your camera (which may be necessary if you’re taking a guided tour), err on the side of overexposing at higher ISOs rather than underexposing at lower ISOs. If you’re lucky enough to be allowed a tripod, keep your ISO low and opt for longer shutter speeds.

Warm glow

Ideally, you want to shoot at larger apertures instead of higher ISOs, so bring a 50mm prime lens if you have one. A 50mm prime lens has a maximum available aperture of at least f/1.8, which will allow you to shoot in those darker underground conditions. If you are on a group tour, you can take a few photos with your off-camera flash but remember to be courteous—most people are going to find it really annoying to have that flash going off repeatedly over the course of the tour, so save your flash for only the most photo-worthy rooms in the cave.

##Use a wide-angle lens

Most of the caverns in a cave are quite spectacular in scale, depending of course on the individual cave. It does pay to have a zoom lens with a wide end, say 17 to 35. Without that wide angle it’s difficult to capture the scale and structure of acavern, so it’s nice to have a wide end as well as a somewhat narrower end for shooting details. You can bring multiple lenses but remember that there’s a lot of moisture in the air inside a cave, and moisture could lead to condensation inside your camera if you’re switching lenses. It’s best to avoid too much lens-switching while you’re inside the cave, and avoid it altogether if possible.


Another thing that can help create a sense of scale in your photographs is to add a person—place your subject at the mouth of the cave, for example, then stand back a little and use a wide angle lens to capture the scene (remember that you’ll need to expose for the cave itself or your camera may default to exposing for those elements outside the mouth of the cave). The diminutive size of the person compared to the mouth of the cave and the cavern itself will create a sense of enormity in your image, which can help communicate three dimensions to your viewer.


It’s worth noting that the presence of your camera may cut back somewhat on the adventurous parts of your cave visit—don’t expect to be doing a whole lot of repelling or crawling around on your belly with your expensive DSLR in tow, unless of course you promise not to blame me for the destruction of your gear. While it certainly is possible to spelunk in an extreme sort of way with your gear, you do so at your own risk. And even if you don’t plan to do anything claustrophobic, remember that not only are caves full of potential camera-destroying hazards, but a camera whacked hard against a feature of the cave can also cause damage to the cave as well. So exercise great caution and if you’re at all concerned, consider buying a military style case to protect your gear from bumps and moisture. And don’t forget courtesy, too, the last thing you want is to be banished from a commercial cave because you didn’t follow the rules. Above all, make sure you take as much time as is allowed to think through your photos, and take lots of them. Consider your cave visit to be a once-in-a-great while opportunity, so make the best of it.


1. Protect your gear
– Carry your camera in front of you
– Choose a soft body case
– Don’t change lenses while in the cave
2. What to bring
– Ask if tripod or flash is allowed
– If tripods are permitted, bring a remote release
– Use an external flash
3. Shoot in RAW
4. Keep your ISO low
5. Shoot at larger apertures
6. Use a wide-angle lens
7. Include a person to give the image a sense of scale

What in the heck is that thing for? A photographer’s guide to using the black flag

Filed in Equipment, Tips by on May 25, 2017 0 Comments
What in the heck is that thing for? A photographer’s guide to using the black flag

If you own a set of photographer’s reflectors, you’ve probably got a pretty good handle on what most of the different versions are for. The white reflector can be used on a bright sunny day to bounce light back into the shadows, softening them up and eliminating the dreaded raccoon eyes look. The silver reflector can be used on an overcast day, when you need just a little extra boost to the highlights. Similarly, the golden side can be used to simulate the look of golden hour sunset or sunrise light. And the translucent side is actually a diffuser — to use it, you simply place it between the light source and your subject and it diffuses or softens the light, which eliminates the need to bounce light into the shadows. But there is another surface included with most reflector sets that you may find just a little bit perplexing. It’s the black side—and if it’s not at first obvious to you what it’s for, you are not alone. Many photographers simply archive that black side because they can’t really think of a use for it, and the rest of those reflectors seem to do everything that’s needed anyway. Aren’t you just a little curious, though? Read on to find the answer.


What if I told you that there is actually a good use for that black side, and that you shouldn’t simply squirrel it away in your camera bag, never to be seen or thought about? The black side of your reflector kit is called a black flag, and it’s use is referred to as “flagging.” Once you really understand how the black flag can help improve your photos, I think you’ll find a lot of different uses for it.

##What is a black flag?

A black flag, although it seems to be in a completely different category than those reflectors and diffusers, is actually a very similar tool. The black flag can be used to control light, just like a diffuser or reflector can. Diffusers soften the light, reflectors bounce the light, and flags actually remove or block light. If you don’t have a set of reflectors, you can use a black piece of foam core as a black flag, just as you can use a white piece of foam core as a pseudo-reflector.

Just as with any reflector, diffuser, or similar tool you either need to have someone to hold the flag for you or you will need to have some light stands and clamps that you can use to adjust and position the flag before you take the photograph.

[img src="black-flag-amazon"]Westcott 306 20-Inch 5-In-1 Reflector (Black)

##When to use the black flag

You can use a black flag to increase contrast in a scene. One example of when you might want to do this is if you are shooting on an overcast day, which tends to be very flat and almost two-dimensional looking because the light just doesn’t have that much dynamic range. Another example could be a studio image where you’re trying to achieve a high contrast look. It could be that you’re shooting a small object and you’d like to deemphasize the background—you can do this by placing your black flag in front of your light source and moving it until the shadows fall on the background. This is a way of reducing the light on the background without also having to underexpose the shot, which would have as much effect on the subject itself as it would have on the background. This can help separate subject and background and create a more dramatic and more three-dimensional look in your photograph. You may find that you need to combine reflectors with the black flag and that’s perfectly acceptable—let’s say you darken the background so much that part of the subject falls off a little bit at the edges. Use a reflector to create an outline on that side of the subject and bring it a little forward from the background.

Cake On a Dark Background

A black flag can also be used as a sort of stand in for a lens hood – if you have a light shining towards the camera in such a way that it may create flare, you can place a black flag between the light and your camera so that the light still hits your subject where you want it to but is directed away from your lens so it doesn’t create any unwanted glare.

##Using a black flag with your flash

You can also use a pseudo-black flag to modify the light from your onboard flash. A piece of soft black foam, wrapped around the bottom of your flash will stop your flash from hitting your subject directionally, and will also prevent the light from spilling out into the room in such a way that it creates a distraction for people who might be in the area. This can help improve your photographs, but it can also help make you, as a photographer with a flash, more tolerable to the people who are around you simply trying to enjoy the event. All you need for this technique is a soft, flexible piece of foam that you can buy at any craft store and one or two pieces of elastic, such as basic elastic hair ties, to hold the foam in place. Wrap it around the bottom of your flash and up the sides and it can be used to bounce light even though it is not white or silver. The bounced light you get from a flag will be much softer and less obtrusive than bounced light from a direct source such as a white ceiling or wall. Position the flash so that it is pointed over people’s heads, and you’ll get a soft light with beautiful highlights and shadows.


##Using a black flag on an overcast day

On a sunny day, you can use the black flag to block off a little bit of light at the same time you’re bouncing light back in with the white reflector. On an overcast day, you can place the black flag on the opposite side of your subject as the sun (or wherever the sun would be if it wasn’t behind those clouds). You want the black flag to be close enough to block light that is coming from that side—this will help put it back that third dimension that is so often missing from images shot on flat, overcast days. If you’re not sure about the effectiveness of these techniques, I always recommend taking two test shots, one with and one without the modifier so you can see exactly what’s happening to your subject’s face when you add the black flag.


Think of your black flag as a portable shadow. You can use it any time you need to add a little bit of dimension to your scene, or when you need to block out the intensity of light from any sort of light source. You can use it to create compelling, three-dimensional-looking photographs by strategically positioning it in such a way that it darkens at the background or adds shadow in places where it would have otherwise been difficult to achieve. Remember when you’re traveling with your black flag to also travel with a reflector, because there may be situations where you want to add a little extra light at the same time as you’re removing it from other parts of the subject. But whatever you do, don’t just a stash that black flag in the back of your reflector kit and pretend it’s not there. You can really achieve great results with the use of a black flag, just so long as you understand how to use and position it.


1. When to use a black flag
– On an overcast day
– To create higher contrast
– To separate subject from background
– To block light or prevent lens flare
2. Using a black flag with flash
– Wrap black foam around your flash
– Use it to bounce light
3. Using a black flag when it’s overcast
– Place it opposite the light source

Why Does ISO Impact Dynamic Range?

Filed in ISO, Tips by on May 25, 2017 0 Comments
Why Does ISO Impact Dynamic Range?

Most photographers avoid using high ISOs in certain situations—when shooting macro images, or landscapes, for example. But if you ask the average photographer why she avoids those higher ISOs, you’ll probably get a fairly limited reply. “Noise,” or more generally speaking, “quality” are the reasons most people will give for avoiding high ISOs, but did you know that there’s more to quality than just noise?
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Shoot Fabulous Photos Even on a Cloudy Day

Filed in Miscellaneous, Tips by on April 27, 2017 0 Comments
Shoot Fabulous Photos Even on a Cloudy Day

Depending on who you ask, cloudy days are either an awesome time to take photos, or they are a terrible time to take photos. So which one is it? Read on to find out. Continue Reading »

How to photograph the weather

Filed in Miscellaneous, Tips by on April 27, 2017 0 Comments
How to photograph the weather

When you read this article’s title, you probably thought it was just going to be another tutorial about photographing the rain, or the fog, or rainbows or snowstorms. But in this case, I am going to be talking about photographing the weather as an entity – because the weather isn’t just about the temperature or what falls from the sky, it’s also about how those things impact us and the world around us.
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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

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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

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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