Three More Beginner Photography Questions :: Digital Photo Secrets

Three More Beginner Photography Questions

by David Peterson 1 comment

When you're new to your camera, you will most likely just stick with your auto modes. After all, the photos your camera takes are all pretty good. You never really get camera shake or motion blur, and your photographs are usually pretty well exposed. There comes a point in time, though, when pretty good isn't good enough anymore, and that's when you're going to want to move out of auto mode and into the more advanced settings. But before that happens, you have to understand why certain problems happen, sometimes even in those auto modes, and what you do to correct them.

[This is a continuation of my "Beginner Photography Questions" series. See the first post here.]

"Why the funny color?"

Did you know that whites only really look white because we expect them to? Yes, that’s a bit of an over-simplification, but the fact is that the light can dramatically change how the color white appears to your camera, even though to you it might not seem anything other than a basic white.

  • Canon EOS REBEL T3
  • 3200
  • f/3.5
  • 0.6
  • 23 mm

Harpo #75 (AKA, White Balance Depleted) by Flickr user D()MENICK

Your eyes know that a white t-shirt or a piece of paper is meant to be white, so it doesn’t really matter if you view it at sunset or indoors or outside in the shade—it’s going to look more or less white to you because that’s what you expect. If you take a photo of that same white t-shirt or piece of paper at sunset, then indoors, then outside in the shade, however, it may not actually look like the same white in every single shot. Why not?

Because the actual color of “white” depends on the color of the light. At sunset, the light is a warm orange color, and it will make everything it hits look slightly orange. Likewise the color of artificial lights is also warm. Outside in the shade, however, the light is a lot cooler, so white will look slightly blue. And under fluorescent lights white may look green, and not in a good way.

The reason you don’t notice this in every photo is because your camera has a feature called “auto-white balance,” which is designed to evaluate every scene and figure out where the white point is. It will then balance the colors in the scene so that the whites will look white. For that indoor photo, it will compensate for the yellowish cast of the light by adding blue. In the shade, it will compensate for the bluish cast by adding yellow. But it doesn’t always guess right. Like your autofocus system, your auto white balance system is only as good as its best guess. So in scenes where there isn’t any white, for example, it may guess wrong and you’ll get a color cast.

Auto white balance is pretty good most of the time, but this is a good example of why you should always take a test shot whenever you change locations, to test not only for exposure but also for white balance. If you’re in a situation where your camera is capturing an unwanted color cast, try manually setting your white balance according to the conditions (“incandescent” if you’re indoors, “daylight” if you’re outdoors, “shady” if you’re in the shade, etc.)

  • Nikon D7000
  • 400
  • f/8.0
  • 0.001 sec (1/2000)
  • 155 mm

Munnar Sunrise by Flickr user pangalactic gargleblaster and the heart of gold

If you’re feeling creative, you can use your white balance to actually add color to a scene—for example, if you’re photographing a beautiful sunset and would like to deepen the reds and oranges, you can select the “cloudy” white balance setting, which will put additional reds and oranges into the photo.

"Why isn’t the sky blue as I remember it?"

A few things in life are constant. The sun rises and sets every day, the moon orbits the Earth and the sky is blue. Except in some of your photographs, or if you live in England. If you live in England, your problems are a little more complicated, however if you're taking pictures on a bright, sunny day the reason why you don’t always get that brilliant blue color in the sky is actually pretty simple. In fact the answer has not to do not with the color of the sky, but with the intensity of the light.

  • Nikon D50
  • 200
  • f/8.0
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 18.3 mm

Charles River, 17 December 2009: Cloudless blue sky, rippled waters by Flickr user Chris Devers

If you take a photo on a bright day, especially close to noon, you're going to get a sky that looks very pale blue or maybe even has no color at all. The reason why this happens is because of dynamic range. Dynamic range is the term photographers use to describe the variation in tones between black and white. When the dynamic range is very broad, like it is at midday on a sunny day, there may be as many as 12 (or more) stops of difference between those shadows and highlights. On a cloudy day, you don't have this problem—the dynamic range on a cloudy day can be as low as three stops. But of course you don’t get blue skies on a cloudy day.

The problem with that broad dynamic range is that your camera can’t cope with it, so it ends up blowing out the highlights (making them overly white) and deepening the shadows. And guess what the brightest highlight in many scenes is? Yep, it’s the sky.

So the best way to handle this problem is to simply not shoot photos that contain the sky on a bright sunny day at midday. Instead, choose partly cloudy days—if you can time your shots for those moments when the sun is behind the clouds, those clouds will act as a filter and will soften up the light, allowing you to capture the blue in those parts of the sky that are peeking through the clouds. Alternately, you can simply shoot at either end of the day. During the golden hour, you’ll get clear blue skies tinged with some steaks of orange (depending on how close the sun is to the frame)—and if you wait until just before the golden hour (or just after, if you’re shooting in the morning) you’ll get a much richer blue in the sky than you would in the late morning or early afternoon.

You can also cope with this problem by using a filter. There are two different kinds of filters that could potentially improve your skies—the first one is a graduated neutral density filter, which is like a pair of sunglasses for your lens. The graduated neutral density filter has a dark half and a light half, so you can use it to darken the blues in the sky while keeping the rest of the image unchanged. This is one very effective way to reduce the amount of dynamic range in a very bright scene.

You can also use a polarizing filter, which will deepen the blues in the sky as well as cut back on glare and reflections and make other colors appear brighter and bolder. Polarizing filters are less effective at midday, so this isn’t going to be a solution for your midday white skies—instead use them when the sun is either on the left or right side of where you’re standing. Polarizing filters are circular, which means that you need to rotate them to get the best effect. To use one, look through your viewfinder as you turn the filter, and when the blue deepens it’s time to take the photo.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • 125
  • f/9.0
  • 0.02 sec (1/50)
  • 17 mm

Mirror on Yosemite Valley in Fall by Flickr user Loïc Lagarde

"Why are my photos so dark (or bright)?"

One thing that almost every beginner does is shoot in matrix or evaluative mode. Most cameras default to one of these modes (they’re essentially just different names for the same metering technology), so you may not even be aware that this is what you’re doing, or that you have any choice in the way your camera meters the light.

Matrix/evaluative mode works great in almost every shooting condition. That's because camera manufacturers have made matrix/evaluative metering modes really smart. For the most part, they work on a basic premise: that every tone in any given scene is going to average out to roughly middle gray. In other words, if you take the highlights and the shadows and average them together with all the rest of the tones in an image you're going to get an average that’s somewhere in the middle, like pavement or a Weimaraner. Most of the time that’s going to be pretty close to the truth, so the system works very well. And manufacturers are going even further and including databases of information that include the correct metering for thousands of scenes that you might be likely to encounter. And the technology gets smarter and smarter all the time, too.

But it’s still not perfect. For example, what do you suppose would happen if you sent your daughter out to play in the snow wearing a white parka, white boots and white snow pants? You’d have a classic white on white scene, and when you're using matrix or evaluative metering your camera is going to get it all wrong. That’s because even though you and I both know that there are mostly whites in that scene, your camera thinks that there must also be blacks and grays, and it’s going to give you settings that reflect those assumptions. The result will be an underexposed shot.

Many modern cameras have a way to cope with snowy scenes in that very long list of shooting modes—in “Snow” or “Beach” mode, your camera will add exposure compensation so that you get true white snow instead of a dull gray. But even without scene modes, you can easily learn to recognize situations where your meter might have trouble—the flip side to snowy scenes, of course, is very dark scenes—such as what you might get if you were to shoot a close up of the face of a black animal. In both these situations you can correct the problem with positive or negative exposure compensation (marked with a “+/-” symbol). Use positive compensation (+1/3, +1/2, +1 etc.) for underexposure and negative compensation (-1/3, -1/2, -1 etc.) for overexposure.

It takes some experience to recognize scenes that might fool your meter—another good example is stage performances, which tend to have very broad dynamic range between the dim lights in the seating area and the spotlights on the stage. If you find yourself in a similar situation, try switching to spot metering, which is the mode that meters only what’s in the center of the frame rather than taking an average of everything in the scene. Place the spot over your subject’s face and use those settings to make the exposure (note that you may need to add or subtract exposure compensation depending on how dark or light your subject’s skin tone is). You’ll get a well-exposed face, but the rest of the scene may fall off into complete darkness. That’s OK, because when you’re shooting stage performances you don’t need any details beyond what’s been lit by the spotlight.

Use spot metering in any situation where it looks like your camera might not get the exposure right—just pick an object that looks like a middle gray (green grass usually meters about right), place the spot over that object and then use those settings to make the exposure.

You should also get into the habit of checking your histogram—that’s the little graph that pops up after you shoot a photo (and sometimes before, depending on your camera). Don’t worry, reading a histogram is a lot easier than it seems—you really just need to make sure that the graph isn’t skewed to the left or the right. If it’s skewed to the left that means your photo is underexposed, and you need to add exposure compensation until the histogram is roughly in the middle. If it’s skewed to the right the opposite is true—add negative exposure compensation to correct the problem.


Taking pictures is as much about trial and error as it is about what you read or hear from other photographers. Photographers by nature are very visual people, otherwise we wouldn’t be so drawn to photography, which means we are also very visual learners. The great thing about making mistakes is that they’re excellent learning tools. So don’t be afraid to take a few bad photos—the important thing is that you try to understand what went wrong so you can avoid similar problems in the future. If you can think your mistakes through without getting discouraged by them, you will very quickly leave the realm beginner and enter the realm of the intermediate or advanced photographer.

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  1. Mercedes says:

    Wonderful and master lesson. Than you

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