Tag 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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Mood Swings

Today I decided to photograph the same location but with different elements in the shot just to see how the mood changes from one frame to another. I find it interesting to see how light and human figures affect the feeling of a location. These shots were partly inspired by Joel Meyerowitz’s book “Cape Light”.

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N00bism #1

In the next few blog posts I will try to cover some of the most common newbie mistakes that even a lot of experienced photographers fall into. I expect that not everyone will agree with my observations and opinions but I hope these posts will make you seriously think about what you are doing.

So numero uno (#1) in this list is ULTRA SHALLOW DEPTH OF FIELD.

Most newcomers to DSLR photography have this wild obsession on shallow depth-of- field. It’s quite understandable because point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras have very small sensors such that everything from the foreground to infinity are in focus all the time. They don’t want that anymore. Those everything-is-in-focus shots look very amateurish. They want their subjects to “pop” and look pro. It won’t be long before they learn new terminologies such as “bokeh” and “fast lens”, and start the endless craving for expensive, heavy, wide aperture telephotos.

Those who have the money are the first ones to post portrait shots where only the eyes are in focus, the nose blurry and the ears barely recognizable. Their 85/1.2 lens has made the human subject look like a puppy with ears folded back waiting for a good pat on the head. I mean, come on…why the heck did you even waste your time looking for a “nice location” for the photoshoot when the background in all your shots all look like a big blob of blurry mess?!!! You might as well cut and paste your subject into a pre-made wallpaper image. The conflicting ideas are just too funny: they want a nice location but aim to blur everything except the subject.

Look at how real pros do it. Watch them use the background to complement their subjects. Good backgrounds add context to the image. They shoot at f5.6 or f8 and some even shoot at f16. If they do have to shoot at f2.8 they would normally step all the way back to achieve enough DoF.

And it’s not just with portraiture. Macro n00bs do this as well. The lenses focus very close to their subjects and they shoot at 2.8 such that they can’t even get one eye in focus. Stop down to f16 or f22 for Pete’s sake.

I haven’t stressed this one enough but I have always thought that reliance on ultra shallow DoF is for those who can’t compose a shot.

I’m not saying that portrait shots with nice blurry background don’t look good. They do and that’s why everyone is doing it, n00bs included. Especially if you are an experienced photographer, if most, if not all, of your shots look like this then what’s separating you from all the newbies?

Think about it.

Stranded: a light and lens challenge

How many shots of a stranded boat can you make in 30 minutes?

This was the challenge for me today. I visited Scarborough with no real intention to shoot. I just strolled around trying to finish the roll of Kodak Gold 100 that I loaded in my Nikon FM3A two weeks ago. I also brought my Pentax K5 IIs just in case. It was still too early for a shoot when I arrived but the cloud formations looked like there was a potential for a burst of colours later when the sun sets. And so I went back to the spot where I shot a stranded boat before. That boat’s hull was leaking so there’s no way it’s going anywhere.

I arrived at the spot a bit early. The light was still ugly blue but nevertheless, I fired some test shots using my 10-20 lens. The clouds looked ok so I crouched low and took this frame:

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This is why you never shoot in bad light. It will suck no matter what you do. I was thinking that maybe later I can use the same angle when the sky turns red. I tried landscape orientation to compare:

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The low lying clouds have covered the sun so the light was flat. However, previous experience told me that this could result in sun rays if the clouds would break just a tiny bit. With my ultrawide angle lens, there was no way I’m going to capture both the boat and the sun in such a way that the sun would at least be large enough in the frame to be of significance. So I switched to my trusty, cheap Sigma 17-70mm.

How do you capture a big boat while at the same time make the sun appear larger in the frame? Lens compression. (If you do not understand how lens compression works, please read my article on “Understanding your lens”.) I stepped back about 30 meters away from the boat and zoomed in. By now, the sun was just above the mountains and well below the clouds:

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The shot above was taken at 70mm. At this zoom range, the boat could no longer fit in the frame. How I wish that the boat was turned about 45 degrees and not parallel to the horizon. Not only will the boat fit into the frame but the composition will look a lot better. Anyway, that’s beyond my control so I just shot whatever was available for me at that time. Here I thought that the sun was too bright for this backlit shot. I needed to make it smaller. So I walked towards to boat and shot wide at 17mm:

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So now I’ve got the sun much less intense, I’ve got light falling on the ripples in the sand and I’ve got reflections of the boat as well. But now I was desperate for a different angle. I walked towards the front of the boat for my 45-degree angle and noticed that there were houses and buildings in the background. That will ruin the concept of being stranded so I had to change my angle slightly. I saw the glasshouse mountains very far along the horizon and thought that they can be used as background and so I went for lens compression again but this time making sure that the whole boat fits in the frame. This was what I got after stepping back about 30 meters and zooming in to around 50mm:

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No sun this time but I have mountains for the background. Another advantage of this angle is that I don’t have blown highlights. The light is a bit flat though. Good thing that the clouds added a bit of drama otherwise the shot would have failed miserably. Compare this with the first photo. In the first photo you could barely see the mountains even if you squint. Lens compression does wonders.

Still determined to get the sun in my shot, I tried a weird composition. I positioned the boat to the left of the frame. Still zoomed in from a few meters got me this:

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Now I’ve got the sun plus light reflections on the mud puddle. Not bad, I thought so I tried shooting wider from the same position:

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I have deliberately placed the horizon on the upper thirds to avoid the bright sky that wasn’t covered by the clouds which would otherwise ruin the shot completely. This also allowed me to include more of the ground where rock silhouettes and water reflections add interestingness to the frame. I still find this composition a bit weird because the boat is facing away from the frame.

By now the sun has already dipped below the horizon. I wanted to shoot some more but something different. Who would have thought that mud would look this good?

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With that last shot I decided to call it a day.

A few very important lessons in this experience:

1. Not all landscape shots are wide. Medium telephoto and even telephoto lenses add variety to your shots. You need to understand lens compression to make full use of your (kit) lens.

2. Bad light is bad light.

3. Try backlit shots. They look good.

4. Zoom lenses do not make a lazy photographer. Those who say so are either ignorant or just masochist I-shoot-prime-only-because-they-are-megafast-and-ultra-bokeh pretenders.

There will be a next time…

Some Thoughts on HDR

When I started doing serious photography around mid of 2009, HDR was kind of the latest craze. My reaction when I first saw HDR images was one of amazement. I never expected photographs to be so vibrant and detailed. HDR images looked surreal I just had to try making one myself.

Looking back, I have now understood why I was bewitched by those out-of-this-world photographs. There were several reasons I can think of:

1. I have never seen fine art photographs. Paintings, yes but never photographs. I blame my art subjects because they never discussed photography as an art form.

2. I was used to taking snapshots with film cameras. I did own several point-and-shoot digital cameras but they were there just to record personal experiences.

3. I have never attempted to retouch my photos. I thought that if my photos sucked then maybe I just don’t know how to capture them.

4. I didn’t understand the art of photography. I did not understand light and exposure. I didn’t think about composition.

I thank HDR for making me appreciate fine art photography. Without it, I probably would have continued being just a casual shooter.

Fast forward to the present, I can say that I have been exposed to all sorts of fine art photographs and have learned to appreciate most of them. I now have a bit of understanding on the role of light, even its absence, in creating pleasing photographs. I still struggle with composition and sometimes it is quite frustrating when I come back from a photoshoot with barely any keepers.

So what has this got to do with HDR?

I have realized that the best photographs are the simple ones. The lesser the clutter, the better they are. Most of the time.

So again, what has this got to do with HDR?

A photograph, ideally, must have a single subject. Everything in the frame must contribute to that single message. I once read in a book that before you click the shutter, SIMPLIFY first. You know that a photograph is finished when there is nothing more that you can remove from the frame.

Here lies the problem with a lot of HDR images: they show details all over the frame even in the shadow areas. The argument behind these HDR images is that the photographer wanted to recreate the dynamic range of human vision; there are details everywhere. No blown highlights, no black shadows. (Taken to the extreme, the resulting image becomes flat and lacks contrast. To counter this massive drop in overall contrast, some photographers mindlessly increase local contrast to create details. The result of which is the haloing effect.)

This, I believe, is a result of failing to understand how humans SEE. Humans have very narrow field of focus. If you stretch your arms out and spread your fingers, you could not focus on both your thumb and pinky. Your eyes actually roam around very quickly, gathering details along the way and the brain assembles all the separate data into a cohesive whole. There is no confusion.

Compare this to a frame of photograph where the eye is focused only on a relatively small area. If there are details all throughout the frame, the brain gets confused because the entire view is now crammed into such a small space. By presenting details in both highlights and shadow areas, the brain could no longer concentrate on one subject. This makes the photograph overly complicated and cluttered.

Basic rules of composition, if you believe that there is such a thing, tell you to arrange the elements in a frame in such a way that the main subject becomes the center of attention. Every other element in that frame must not contest the significance of the main subject. The brightest area of the frame catches the eye first so usually this is where you position your subject. By unnecessarily showing details in the shadow areas, you force the viewer to divert his attention away from the subject.

Another example is the basic composition technique of using frames: e.g. a tree in the foreground that frames a house which is the main subject. This “frame” is supposed to force the viewer to concentrate on the house. Improper use of HDR will show details on the tree thus diverting the eye from the house.

HDR is not a bad technique. Sometimes, it is even necessary. It is the improper use of HDR that makes weak photographs. I’m not referring to cartoonish HDRs (they are a completely different level of bad photos) but even “realistic” HDRs can be harmful to your art. Just be careful.

Welcome to My Playground


This is the title that I gave to the photograph which I posted in Flickr. I chose the word playground to portray fun and joy. For me, fun should always come first in photography.

But what does it take to capture such a simple photograph?

The main ingredient is light. Photography, afterall, means painting with light. Not just light intensity or brightness but the quality of light as well. In landscape photography, there are two choices: dawn or dusk. Anything in between is just a variation of the word CRAP. Dawn and dusk have different qualities of light. When you are in the east coast and facing east, dawn will give you a warm orange light while dusk gives a cooler magenta glow. If you are in the west, it’s the opposite. Depending on your location or the time of year, you can have both at the same time. The photo below was taken at dawn as well but notice the magenta tint:


Shooting at dawn has several advantages compared to dusk. People are generally too lazy to wake up early which means you have the entire spot all to yourself. No distractions. For those who have day jobs it means you can still shoot during weekdays especially during summer where a typical session ends around 5:30AM. You’ll be home before the rest of your household is awake.

Dusk sessions have advantages as well. You can shoot longer even up until blue hour kicks in and get nice long exposures. Cityscapes look fantastic when artificial lights turn on.

Anyway, let’s concentrate on the first photo. I woke up at around 3:30AM to prepare myself. My friend’s house is still a 20-minute drive to my place where we agreed to meet. While waiting for him, I started putting on my ski gear because it was just 6 degrees outside. I checked the weather report again to make sure that our target location is free of any weather disturbances. If we suspect heavy clouds then we may need to divert to Cedar Creek instead to capture the waterfalls. The day before, I already knew the tide pattern so Point Halloran was the perfect spot. The tide will be high enough to give us some reflections but low enough such that the small boats won’t move. Timing should be perfect. If the tide comes in too quick before sunrise then our plans are ruined.

My friend arrived around 4:20AM. That’s the advantage of shooting in winter. The sun rises at 6:30AM so we didn’t have to wake up that early. During summer we usually start driving at 3:00 AM for a 5:00AM sunrise. Anyway, we left for Point Halloran and arrived at around 5:45AM. Being on location 45 minutes before sunrise is just right. One hour would be ideal so that you can scout the area. Because we were “late”, we had to rush and start shooting whatever subject we could find.

Let’s talk about equipment. A tripod is essential. Don’t leave home without it. A torch is very handy so you can find your way in the dark. I also brought my gummy boots because I know that the location is quite muddy. My trusty Pentax K5 is fully charged with the initial ISO set to 200 and configured to capture RAW plus JPG. I only have one lens: a cheap Sigma 17-70 which you could buy brand new for a little over $300. I had a cheap 0.9 GND filter attached to a knock-off filter holder. Don’t bother using a UV filter; it’s the most useless accessory you could buy for your lens. Use a proper lens cover instead and a lens hood if you are concerned about scratching your lens. Now that I have enumerated my gear, the point is that ANY camera and kit lens will do. There is absolutely no need for expensive gear in landscape photography.

So what did actually happen when I captured this moment? I was taking photos of a boat that was docked along the muddy shore. I was shooting wide at 17mm, aperture set to f16 and manually focused to 7 feet with exposure compensation set to +1. I was about to change position when I saw my friend about 20 meters away taking photos along the edge of the water. I immediately recognized the photo opportunity. I quickly opened my aperture to f11 and zoomed in to 70mm which was the longest my lens could go. It was just long enough to get a nice compression. I also had to raise my tripod to avoid his silhouette from merging with the horizon. I immediately thought about my composition. I had him positioned on the left third of the frame with the silhouette of the shoreline going from the bottom of the frame towards the horizon. The horizon was placed high enough but also making sure that my friend’s reflection is positioned nicely along the lower third of the frame. I then set my camera to autofocus and shifted the focus sensor to point at my friend. This was the quickest way to focus at infinity. Unlike older lenses that lock into infinity, modern (crippled) lenses don’t do this. Instead they focus past infinity and completely ruin your shot. Knowing that it’s going to be a silhouette shot, I dialed exposure compensation down to -0.5 to make the colors pop and darken the darkest blacks. I did one last peek to check my shutter speed and noticed that it wasn’t fast enough. So I shouted at him “Wag kang gumalaw!”, which is Filipino for “Don’t move!”. I pressed the shutter and my timer automatically started the 2-second countdown. Just before the timer expired, the camera flipped the mirror into a lock up position before finally opening the shutter curtain to capture the image. All of these happened in about 15-20 seconds. I chimped to confirm that the camera did what it was supposed to do and told my friend that he can continue whatever he was doing…after thanking him of course for being a cooperative model 🙂

I would like to emphasize the importance of an inexpensive kit lens here. Had I used an ultrawide lens, I would not have been able to capture this shot. Those distant mountains would have disappeared in an ultrawide lens and the horizon would have merged with my subject unless I shot from a very high position. If I brought a prime lens, I may had to swap lenses thus totally missing the opportunity or walked very slowly in the mud towards or away from the subject just to frame him correctly. Your kit lens is good enough for just about anything.

We started packing up at around 7AM with several keepers safely stored in our cameras.

Post processing is easy when you have done the difficult part of capturing the moment. A simple curves adjustment to enhance the contrast was enough. I did not crop at all. This is how it showed up in the LCD. I softened the image a bit to avoid halos along the edges of high contrast portions of the image. This halo effect is an artifact of digital capture. All my digital cameras do this. If you want to avoid this artifact, shoot film.

What do I like about this shot? I like the silhouette figures. The silhouette of the shoreline added depth to an otherwise flattened image that was brought about by the mid telephoto zoom. The main subject of course is shown here in a position typical of landscape photographers; bent over holding a leash to make sure that their cameras don’t run away. The mix of warm colors and cool blue foreground was a welcome surprise. I liked it a lot so I put my stamp of approval on the lower right portion of the frame 🙂

Allow me to summarize this post:

1. Light is everything.
2. Shoot at dawn/sunrise or dusk/sunset. Anything in between is crap unless you have something very special in the frame.
3. Preparation will consume most of your time.
4. You have to think fast and react just as fast. Which means …
5. Know your camera. Pick one that does not get in the way. You should be able to operate it even in complete darkness.
6. You do not need expensive equipment for landscape photography.
7. Laziness will get you nowhere.

For lessons on lens compression and zoom factor please refer to my previous tutorials:

Understanding your lens

Zoom factor

Stop Shooting Flowers

Ok, this post would probably hit some sensitive nerves but whatever. Anyway, I’m just voicing out my opinion based on observation and experience so it’s up to you whether to take it seriously or not.

If you want to develop real photography skills, stop shooting flowers.

That’s not say that flower shots are bad. In fact some of them are really good. Actually, it is very easy to get good flower shots. Anyone can do it that is why they are usually the shots n00bs make during their formative years.

Set your camera to auto mode and get as close to the flower as what your lens allows and trip the shutter. That’s all it takes to photograph a flower. No need for composition really. A flower dead center in the frame will still look nice. All you need to worry about is getting the focus right. Easy.

So if you really want to learn photography, stop shooting flowers. Your shots will suck but that will force you to learn how to improve them.

Let me suggest a starting point:

Do still life photography in the comfort of your house. Use natural light. Positioning your subject next to a large window will give you that nice soft light. You can use white paper as reflectors. In short, you will learn how light interacts with your subject and proper exposure. Don’t just shoot a solitary object. Use multiple objects and arrange them so you will learn the basics of composition. Use different focal lengths. To get a noise-free shot, you probably would need to use a tripod so you can shoot at low ISO and avoid blur caused by camera shake. Later on you can incorporate the use of strobes or flash.

This still life study will prepare you for landscape photography. Why am I not suggesting landscape as a starting point? Because you do not have control of the light. To have a better chance of getting good light means being on location at least 30 minutes before and after sunrise or sunset. Any other time means ugly cold light. Being in the right location at the right time does not guarantee good light though so it is still a hit or miss situation. If you are persistent, mother nature might reward your efforts. Such is the joy of landscape photography.

You may want to do portraiture next. Portraiture has different challenges although it is very similar to still life photography. The biggest hurdle is that your subject can now complain. Everyone wants to look good on camera even if it they have a face that only their mother can love. It means you will need to master the art of photo retouching. You will have to pixel peep like never before. Your friends may ask you to shoot their special events once you start getting the hang of it. Now that is a challenge.

Another area of photography that you may want to try is wildlife. Here you have a subject interacting with its natural environment. Avoid cliche shots of birds because that will bring you back to the same level as flower shots…only difference is that you now require a lens that’s ten times more heavy and more expensive.

Do macro photography when you get bored. It’s no different to flower shots. Just more tedious. The results can be jaw-dropping amazing though. I enjoy looking at macro shots but I’m not really that interested in doing them.

Street photography and photojournalism can quickly become craptography if you do not have the compositional skills. It requires a lot of skill but more importantly, an even greater amount of luck. Things must happen in front of you and you have to be there to capture it. Depending on where you are, extraordinary events may not happen at all. You are better off taking photos of your drunk friends. Now that I have mentioned drunk, street photography is also dangerous in the wrong locations. Be ready to deal with people who are paranoid. Persistence will pay off. The world’s most memorable photos are, afterall, products of photojournalism.

Avoid sports photography when you are just starting. It encourages bad habits. It’s slightly more rewarding than street photography because you can almost guarantee that there is some action happening where you are. If there is a brawl then you get to do photojournalism as well. There is minimal thinking involved in sports photography. It’s more of a hand-eye coordination thing like playing video games. Reaction time is very important. It also relies on how long your lenses are and how fast your camera can flip the shutter curtain. Of course, you would need to anticipate the action but sports photographers just fire a salvo of shots hoping that something magical happens. Highway patrols do the same with their radar guns. I am not making fun of them. I’m just telling the truth. The fact that sports photographers can manage to capture incredible shots is a testament to their persistence. They know that their keeper rate is lower than Joe Blow’s grade in college calculus but they still do it anyway. And that’s dedication. Sports photography is not for everyone especially if you can’t afford the five-figure equipment.

Again, if you want to improve your photography, stop shooting flowers.