Category Archives: Composition

Easiest Way to Get a Good Shot

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Here is a very simple tip if you want to capture nice photos: find ONE subject and isolate it from everything else. That’s it.

Why do you think that shallow depth-of-field portrait shots look nice? It’s not just because of the creamy/blurry background but because shallow DoF isolates the subject from any background distraction. If the background is simple and non-distracting you do not need shallow DoF to get a good portrait shot. Studio shots, where the photographer has full control of the environment, are normally shot at f/5.6 or f/8 or even f/16 because the subject is already isolated.

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The main reason why n00bish shots look crap is because beginners tend to cram everything into the frame. This one goes especially to the n00b landscape photographers who would sell their kidneys just to get the widest lens possible. They want it ultra-mega-wide so they could include EVERYTHING in the frame. That’s the quickest way to get a crappy shot. STOP.

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Find a subject that you like and have a really good look at it then ask yourself: what is it with this subject that I really like? Is it the entire subject or just some parts of it? Is it because the subject is in a particular environment? If you can’t answer those simple questions then your shot will look crap.

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Once you find your subject, concentrate on it. Isolate it from everything. You may have to zoom in or get closer to your target. Do everything you can to single out the subject then take the shot. Now check your LCD and assess if you like your framing. If you think that it’s too empty or too simple then find something that will complement the subject. Zoom out or get into a different angle. Just make sure, when you do want to include more elements in the frame, that they will enhance the subject and NOT conflict with it.

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So again, the quickest way to get a nice shot is to pick ONE subject and make sure that nothing else is in the frame. Go out and try it. You’ll thank me.

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Shooting the Moon

How could something so simple be so difficult to shoot? If anything, the photos I will be posting here are examples of my failure to get a moon shot that I’m happy with. Let this be a lesson of how NOT to shoot the moon LOL!

I mean if all you ever want to do is shoot the moon directly then it’s easy: Get your longest lens then use the sunny f/16 rule and overexpose by a stop. But that’s boring. Every photo of the moon that was captured in this manner looks exactly the same so what’s the point other than showing off your long lens? Let’s consider then something more challenging and exciting…

How about adding an interesting foreground? If this is what you want then timing is everything. You would want to shoot when the moon is rising while it’s not yet completely dark. Why is this? Remember that the moon is directly lit by the sun so the sunny f/16 rule applies. Depending on atmospheric conditions, you’d probably want to overexpose it by a stop or two so a good approximation is ISO 100, f/11, 1/125s. With these settings, your foreground will be severely underexposed when the sun is well below the horizon. If you expose for the foreground, you will overexpose the moon. This is what happens:

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One way of approaching this problem is by making two separate shots: one to expose for the foreground and another to expose for the moon. Careful though because you don’t want the sky to look too different. Since you’re doing composites anyway, you might as well zoom in at the moon. I think I shot the foreground too wide in this one so the moon looks unusually large. Note that the moon is also a bit overexposed because the correct exposure would have resulted in a darker sky and caused halos when superimposed over the foreground shot.

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Another thing you would have to consider is that when you include a foreground it will need to be very far otherwise it would fall outside the depth of field and look blurry. You can’t just use a small aperture because you will end up in a longer exposure and result in a blurry moon due to subject movement. The moon moves quite fast especially when using long lenses. A far foreground also means that it will have to be tall enough to cover your framing angle. So here’s what happens when your foreground isn’t far and tall enough:

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Note the grainy shots. This is what happens when it’s too dark. I had to push the ISO to freeze the blood moon and to expose the foreground properly.

Lastly, here’s my most recent attempt to shoot the August 10 supermoon:

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I made a stupid rookie mistake. I didn’t realise that my camera was set to auto ISO until much later. That’s ISO 800 with my Olympus E-M5. I do have low ISO shots but they were shot much later when it was already too dark and the magenta tint in the sky was already gone. They weren’t worth processing at all. It would have been the ideal time for a shoot because moonrise was just ten minutes after sunset. There was enough ambient light for my foreground rocks to balance the luminance of the moon. It was so frustrating.

Shooting the moon is my nemesis. If you guys have better tips then please share them below.

Tricky Fifty

The nifty fifty. The classic 50mm lens of photography. The stuff of magic. The lens that can do it all. The fastest lens in your arsenal…and possibly the cheapest as well.

This lens has been proven in street photography and photojournalism. Classic photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and even the more modern Steve McCurry have been known to use this lens during much of their career.

But how does this lens fair in landscape photography? What does it take to capture landscape photos with the 50mm?

I mentioned briefly in one of my posts this particular landscape photographer who shot with film and most of his fantastic shots were made by the 50mm lens. Study his shots very closely before you continue.

Here’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest problem faced by a landscape photographer: how to create the illusion of depth. A photograph is basically two-dimensional so how do you make it look 3D?

The issue is that the 50mm is a normal lens. It is a close approximation to how the human eye sees things. We perceive depth because we have two eyes but our cameras can only use one lens to record a photograph. Try closing one of your eyes and notice how everything looks flat. That’s how a camera sees a landscape: flat and boring. This flatness worsens as you increase your focal length. A 200mm lens for example will bring your foreground closer to your background, an effect we call lens compression. I have covered this effect in detail in my one of my old posts. And that’s why a landscape photographer would usually prefer a wide-angle lens. A 35mm lens is sometimes good enough but others want to go much wider with 24mm. Shooting with 17mm or even 14mm is quite common as all-manual third-party prime lenses are getting relatively cheap. All this, for the sake of depth; to create that separation between the foreground and the background. That 50mm just isn’t good enough.

So how do you separate the foreground from the background? You may not have much choice really. You’re lucky if your intended foreground is far enough from your background. You can try moving closer assuming that your foreground will still fit in the frame. This is actually very difficult in practice because the 50mm is quite tight. You normally will have to stand back which makes a flat scene even flatter. Bottom line is, you really can’t use this technique except in very special cases.

Next problem: depth of field. N00bs like to use the fast 50mm because it gives them that nice bokeh that they have always been longing for. It is precisely because of this very shallow DoF that landscape photography with a 50mm becomes a nightmare. At f8, the hyperfocal distance is about 35 feet which means anything from 17 feet to infinity should look sharp. Now 17 feet is quite far for a foreground. Remember our first problem with background separation? If you move closer, your foreground will be out of focus. If you step back, the scene becomes flat. Lose-lose situation. So you stop down to f11. At this aperture the hyperfocal distance is 25 feet. Still not close enough. So you stop down further to f16 just to get that foreground and background in sharp focus. But then at this aperture everything will start looking blurry because, you guessed it, diffraction starts to kick in. You will have to sacrifice sharpness with depth of field. Can you feel the frustration now?

So how do you create depth if you can’t separate the foreground from the background without getting one of them out of focus? Well there are other tools that you can use.

Use lead-in lines: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winter/0008.php. The dead tree leads you deep into the scene.

Use frames: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0150.php. See how the branches frame the main subject which is the flowing creek.

Use contrast and shadows: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0009.php. Here, the almost-black trees provide a reference point for the brighter leaves in the background. It also uses a different kind of lead-in line by using the base of the tree trunks to form a curve. Here’s another example of shadows and contrast: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winterII/0099.php. See how the silhouette of the trees become a reference point. It creates the illusion that the brighter mountains are farther. The farther the mountain, the brighter they become. Very clever.

Ok enough of the limitations. Let’s discuss where in landscape photography a 50mm might be useful.

It is easier to isolate your subject with a tighter lens. The 50mm is very good at this that is why it is a common lens for portraiture. It simplifies your composition. Simple is good.

You can use a circular polarising filter (CPL) without the fear of having your sky look uneven. Ultrawide lenses are really bad with CPLs. With UWA lenses, you will notice that half of your sky will have perfect blue but the other half is just dull and lifeless.

Your 50mm lens is perfect for panoramic stitching. Shoot in portrait orientation and take 4 to 5 shots sweeping across the scene and stitch for a nice 1×3 panoramic shot. If you shoot with a wide angle lens, you will capture a huge part of the foreground which will not blend easily when stitching. It will also make your final photo look distorted. A 50mm though will be perfect.

This post was not meant to discourage anyone from using the 50mm in landscape photography. As a matter of fact, the examples I provided here showed us that with the right subject and solid technique, the results can be amazing. You will have to think twice though before you decide to bring that lens on your next trip. It can be a good challenge to see what you can do with it.

Good luck!

Go Find Your Own Spot

These were the words I would never forget. It was one of those photography meetups where people show (brag) their good shots. There was this particular star trails shot along a railway that really grabbed my interest. I kindly asked the photographer where it was. His reply was a very cold “I’m not telling. Go find your own spot.” I was only a beginner back then; barely two months of doing serious photography. There was no way I could have done a better shot than this very experienced guy. I learned my lesson very early. I swore I would never do the same thing to other togs.

Why are some photographers very protective of their new-found locations? I never really bothered asking them. I just think they are insecure.

Let’s suppose that every photographer would share every good spot. Does that mean every shot would look the same? Far from it! The location is only one part of the equation. A photographer has to SEE. Even if a photographer copies the shot of another photographer there are still way too many factors that would affect the image. That’s why we never trust the weatherman because there is no way we can predict what it’s gonna be like when we arrived at our destination.

Here’s my shot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

I bet you a thousand bucks that you won’t find a shot that looks like it. Compare it with Ken Duncan’s shot from the same location:

http://www.kenduncan.com/gallery/open-edition-prints/jefferey-st-wharf-sydney-skyline-sunset-nx5567-oe-detail

His obviously looks way better than mine. He captured the same scene when the sky showed a magnificent array of colours. My shot had a different stormy mood.

It’s not just the weather. Choice of equipment matters a lot as well. Ken Duncan most likely used a 6×17 panoramic camera loaded with Velvia 50 film and a 90mm lens. I, on the other hand, used my cheap Olympus E-P1 and equally cheap and mediocre 17mm/2.8 lens. I just stitched multiple shots to arrive at my panoramic image. That’s why my shot looks wider. Our exposures would have been very different as well. Ken would have set his to about f64 which means that at ISO 50 the exposure time would be long enough to smoothen the water and produced some cloud movement. I can’t stop down my lens smaller than f8 without significantly sacrificing image quality due to diffraction. The E-P1’s native ISO of 200 would have also made my exposure time a lot quicker than his. Of course, if you are really anal, you can check the EXIF data of a shot you like and bring exactly the same set of equipment and use the same settings. But then what does that make you?

As you can see, it’s not just the location. How you react to the situation when you get there matters too. I have my own favourite locations but because of the ever-changing weather patterns, my photos look different because of how I approach the same subject. Sometimes the tide isn’t low enough that I would get rock pools. There are times when they are so low that I would get sand ripples. If the tide is high then I can do long exposure techniques to get some movement in the water. Of course there are those times when non-photographers are there and they become part of the shot.

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(These two shots were about three years apart.)

And then there’s imagination. A photographer does not have to show what’s real. Reality, most of the time, is just plain boring. What was shot and the final image could be very different from each other.

It’s not just about the shot. Sharing locations is also a very good learning process. If another photographer manages to produce a better shot than I did then that image becomes a learning tool for me. Why did I not see that angle?! That’s a clever perspective! I didn’t think it would look good in monochrome as well. That same spot actually looks better during sunset! And so on… If the other photographer’s shot looks completely uninspired then I didn’t really lose anything, right?

On a slightly different experience, I remember being at Luna Park in Sydney while I was just there strolling with my point-and-shoot camera. I haven’t even started doing real photography back then. I saw this puddle of water where there was a very nice reflection of Luna Park. That was a very memorable moment for me because a “pro” blatantly copied what I was doing. Years after, I managed to sell a few copies of that image. Not sure where the pro went with his. You can read about that experience here.

Don’t be afraid to share your favourite locations with other photographers. In fact, you might want to invite them to shoot with you next time you visit those spots. It’s all about your own vision and that’s something that nobody else can duplicate.

Happy shooting (and sharing)!

So You Want To Capture Nice Photos

Well who doesn’t want to capture nice photos? Afterall, that’s the main reason why you purchased that new DSLR, right? You had to upgrade from your crappy point-and-shoot to an expensive camera hoping that you can capture professional-looking shots. So you post to “photography” forums humbly introducing yourself as a newbie and asking the question, “how do I learn to make fantastic photographs?”

The newbie is then bombarded by different answers by forum “experts”. The most common replies are worth mentioning:

1. Learn how to shoot in manual mode.
2. Learn about the exposure triangle (with a special mention of the book “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson).
3. Shoot using only prime lenses. Throw away your kit zoom because they will only make you lazy.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. No wonder why only a few n00bs survive their first year. Those who do survive continue collecting lenses, buying new cameras while making crappy photos.

Crappy photos are not caused by imperfect exposure, or by shooting in full auto mode or by cheap kit lenses. Crappy photos are caused by not knowing where to aim your camera. Plain and simple. It’s common sense…and that’s why forum “experts” ignore it.

A perfectly exposed shot made by an expensive fast prime lens is still crap if you do not know where to aim your camera. Sorry but that is how it is. It’s not your gear. It’s not the technical foo. It’s where you aim it.

Your camera is expensive because it is smart. In most cases it will nail the correct exposure. Those “experts” who pretend to know how to shoot in manual mode are most likely just fiddling with the exposure sliders, following what the camera is telling them. They are no better than monkeys doing exactly what the zoo keeper is telling them what to do. Years of research have been done by real experts so that your camera can figure out the correct settings in just about any situation you throw at it.

Yes, a fast prime lens is nice to have. It will guarantee that every shot you take is very sharp and crappy. There is nothing worse than a very crisp and sharp but crappy shot. It spells rich but dumb.

Having said those harsh words, let me give you a solid advice: learn where to aim your camera. Learn proper composition. A good way to start is to google for the following topics in composition:

1. rule of thirds
2. lead-in lines
3. patterns, repetition, rhythm
4. light and shadow

You do not even need to use your DSLR to learn how to compose. Your mobile phone camera is more than good enough. I would even go further to say that your phone camera is the best way to learn composition because it only has one button. No other technical foolishness will distract you from the task at hand. You basically learn to POINT and shoot.

Let me give you a very important tip in composition:

Before you even attempt to take a photo of something, consider WHY you even wanted to take a photo of that something. Surely there must be something in it that attracted you to it. Something that made you make a second look. Concentrate on that something. If you can’t find that something then don’t shoot. It means that the idea is not clear in your mind and that will reflect in your shot as well. If you force it, your shot will only look cluttered.

For example, if you happen to visit the Sydney Opera House then you can’t help but notice that the thing that attracts you most to the structure is it’s unusual shape. Your task is to find a way to make that shape stand out. You don’t just aim at it and shoot. Consider what might be in the background or foreground that could potentially merge with the structure and ruin the shot. A typical n00b shot would include their friend or family member in the foreground. Now why is this bad? Because that will divert the attention to the human figure instead of the Opera House. I’m not saying you should not include family members in your travel photos but do not expect fantastic shots with them in the frame either. If you do happen to capture nice shots with your friends it will be a portrait shot of them but not a shot of the Opera House.

Let’s move further. Grand it may be, you don’t just shoot the Opera House and expect a masterpiece. The Opera House dead center in the frame is boring. That’s what every tourist does. To shoot the Opera House, you have to forget that it’s the Opera House. Let me explain:

When composing a shot, you have to spot your main subject and then forget about the subject. What I’m saying is, forget that it’s the Opera House. It’s just a bunch of “curvy triangles”. Now you want to make those curvy triangles stand out inside a rectangular frame. Position it in such a way that the viewer will not stray away from the rectangular frame. Consider which side or corner of the frame you want the viewer to start looking and where you want them to end. You want them to end at the Opera House. It means there should be no other lines or shapes or colours that would divert them away from those curvy triangles.

Here is an example of the use of rhythm, repetition and contrast:


When capturing this shot, you will have to forget that these are rock formations (the famous Three Sisters). In this composition, I used the pointy shapes as if they are “stepping stones” that will force the viewer to “hop” from the lower left hand corner of the frame going into the frame. What makes this composition even better is that the constant “rhythm” of the “hopping” movement is suddenly interrupted by the shorter rock formation. The viewer has nowhere else to go but to go back. But then going back, the natural slope of these “stepping stones” forces the viewer to move forward into the frame again following the same hopping pattern. The viewer is “trapped” inside the frame. Another thing that made this shot effective is the contrast of warm light hitting the mountains and the cold colours of the background valley. This makes the mountains pop out of the frame. It’s a very simple shot. There are no distractions.

So again, composition is about breaking down everything into lines, shapes, colours and contrast and then neatly organizing them inside the frame. Those are not rock formations, they are pointy triangles. That’s not afternoon sunlight, that’s orange. That’s not rain in the valley, that’s blue.

To end this post, let me repeat the most important thing about photography: Knowing where to aim your camera is what makes good photographs. It’s not your camera or perfect exposure or fast lenses. It’s all about composition.

Landscape Photography Appreciation #2

Welcome to the second part of this series. In this post I hope to cover some of the differences between landscape photography and portraiture.

Why portraiture? I have joined all sorts of photogaphy groups and forums and noticed that amateur photographers are usually divided into two groups: landscape and portraiture. Very few people are exclusively into macro or sports or street and if you want to meet them you will probably have to join specialized groups. And besides, if you are still a beginner you probably should avoid doing those other types of photography because they may slow down your progress, or worse, force you to develop bad habits (stop shooting flowers).

Another general observation is that landscape photographers usually suck at portraiture and portrait photographers usually suck at landscape. It is a rare combination to find a photographer who is an expert in both. I have done a fair amount of model photoshoot sessions and all I can say is that it is very very tiring. 🙂

Anyway, let’s move on and discuss the major differences between these two areas of photography. Treat the rest of this post as “landscape photography for portrait photographers”. I will try to use my own portrait shots as examples on how you might use landscape photography techniques in portraiture to ease the transition. Please be mindful that I am not a portrait photographer so the examples may not be in the level you expected.

LIGHT. Portrait photographers need not wake up at 3AM or stay up until midnight to capture the right amount of light (or the lack of it). In landscape photography, you are at the mercy of mother nature to provide you with that magical ingredient. While portrait photographers rejoice at the sight of a grey, flat, gloomy day, landscape photographers would rather go through their old photos hoping to find something worthy of editing. Flat light is bad light but portrait togs love it because that allows them to shape it using artificial lights. Even extreme hard light is fair game for portraiture because they could diffuse it over a relatively small area or balance it with reflectors.

Portraiture can even do the extremes and still achieve acceptable output (don’t even try this with landscapes):

Blown highlights don’t matter in a lot of cases and sometimes they are intentional:


Even extreme contrast is fair game:


Unfortunately, control of light is something that can’t be done in landscape. Portrait photographers who venture into unplanned trips will come home with photos that suck. If you are not willing enough to be on location at least an hour before sunrise or an hour after sunset then don’t even try landscape. Simple as that.

COMPOSITION. Do not put your subject dead center in the frame unless you have a good reason to do so. In portraiture, you can safely ignore this rule all your life and still come up with keepers and maybe a magazine front page or two. Look at the portrait shots of Steve McCurry; they are all composed the same way. Look at the shots I posted above. In landscape photography, this is suicide.

You have probably read about the rule of thirds. There’s a good reason why beginners learn about this rule first. It’s not just about blindly following this “rule” but understanding how it works and where it applies.

Here’s the rule in action:


And here’s how you break it:


In fact, that last shot breaks a lot of rules such as “avoid clutter and simplify”, use a powerful and distinct foreground, use lead-in lines to create an illusion of depth and so on. What other rules can you think of?

It is quite obvious when rules are being followed without understanding why. There was this shot posted in our group by a portrait photographer where she tried to capture a sunset. Mind you that she is an experienced portrait photographer and I am a fan of her work. Anyway, she used the rule of thirds by having the horizon placed on the lower third and the sun positioned a third of the way from the left side of the frame. I do not have permission to use her photo but essentially, it looked like this (the colours I have chosen portray the relative luminance of the entire scene)


Perfect rule of thirds! But the shot is very poor and she knows it. Aside from other “mistakes” such as the underexposed and empty foreground and boring sky, what’s wrong with having the sun at the center? Why place it along the leftmost third? Instead of using the simplicity and balance of symmetry, the rule of thirds has rendered her shot into an awkward composition. Compare it with this shot for example:


Now if I can have a mermaid sitting on one of those rocks then I would have the perfect portrait shot 🙂

DEPTH OF FIELD. In landscape photography we strive to have everything in focus. From the nearest object up to the farthest background, it is essential that they are all in sharp focus. Therefore, it is critical that every element in the frame must work together to create a harmonious whole. The subject must be prominent and obvious. Anything that does not contribute to the image must be removed during capture. Simplification is key. Clutter is a mortal sin.

In portraiture, it is very easy to isolate the subject. Just use a mid telephoto lens and open up the aperture to blur the background. That’s it! Of course it quickly becomes very boring if all your shots are like this but people keep doing exactly the same thing. The problem here is that they do not learn how to compose a shot and it shows when they attempt to shoot landscapes where the whole frame looks very cluttered or empty. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: those who rely on background blur do not know or will never learn to compose a shot.

When taking photos of people, try to use the background instead of just rendering it as a big blob of incomprehensible blur:


By doing so, your transition into landscape photography becomes easier while at the same time it adds interestingness to your shots.

FOCUSING In portraiture, you are advised to always focus on the eyes. If you can only focus on one of them because your chosen DoF is too shallow then target the nearest eye. This is usually performed using advanced autofocus mechanisms in the camera and lens. A lot of beginners complain about how their cameras can’t keep track when using continuous AF. They blame their gear for not being able to properly execute the ultra shallow DoF cliche at f1.4.

You will be delighted that in landscape photography you can get away with even full manual focus. In fact, manual hyperfocusing technique is highly recommended and is superior in every way compared to AF. Learn how to hyperfocus in this tutorial.

I believe that these are a few of the most important differences between landscape and portrait photography. Learn them by heart if you want to widen your horizon. I, on the other hand, will try to learn more about portraiture because I do suck at it LOL!!!