Archive for March, 2017
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
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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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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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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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.
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.
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.
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
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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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 »
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.
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
At some point, just about every photographer turns his attention away from those more obvious subjects, and points his camera at the things that we don’t often see—those tiny, thumbnail-sized things that we pass by every day but rarely stop to appreciate. Macro photography is a very attractive genre for many photographers, and it’s becoming more accessible as camera technology improves, and the cost of dedicated macro lenses goes down.
But if you started shooting macro without a whole lot of formal instruction, you may have noticed that your macro shots don’t look like a lot of those beautiful macros that you’ve admired on Flickr, or in magazines like National Geographic. To understand what I mean, keep reading.
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Ah, the family vacation. If you have small children, you’ve long ago left behind the idea of a romantic holiday in Paris, visiting The Louvre or backpacking in the high country. Your holiday destinations no longer include wine trains, fancy restaurants, and nightlife. These days your vacations are all about the kids.
Of course, I think it’s pretty safe to say that all but the snobbiest of parents love Disneyland. Even if you don’t much like the crowds and the long lines, you have to love the looks on your kids’ faces when they get to meet Elsa, Captain Jack, or The Mouse himself in person. But theme parks can be hazardous, too, both for your sanity and for your camera. What are some of the best (and safest) ways to capture those theme park adventures? Keep reading to find out.
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