Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography

15Jul/09Off

Photography Tips for Compact Cameras and Point-and-Shoots

Positano, Italy -- taken with a 3 megapixel compact point-and-shoot camera

Positano, Italy -- taken with a 3 megapixel compact point-and-shoot camera

Just because you may not have an expensive D-SLR camera, doesn’t mean you can’t take incredible photos.  Compact point-and-shoot cameras are capable of capturing extraordinary images, and their quality gets better and better with each new camera.  I’m taking a different approach for this latest article, and writing a tutorial aimed at those who shoot primarily with a compact camera. Using some of the tips I present below, you’ll be able to take photos with much more impact.

Compact cameras have some distinct advantages over D-SLRs in a few respects.  Firstly and most obvious, is their size.  Because of their size, it’s easy to take one wherever you go, and you’ll always have the opportunity to take a great photo should something amazing unfold in front of you. Their zoom lenses generally cover a wide range so you can take wide-angle shots of landscapes and buildings, and telephoto shots of distant subjects, sports, etc.  Because the sensor and lenses are physically smaller than D-SLRs, you’ll often be able to get everything in sharp focus, from objects right in front of you to distant mountains (this is not always easy to do with a D-SLR).  Compact cameras almost always have a built-in flash for when you need it.  Most compacts are also great for close-up macro work of flowers and other small subjects.  All of these factors combine to make a compact a great camera to have, even for those who already own D-SLRs.

So what can you do to take your photos from simple “snapshots” to amazing photos worthy of framing on your wall?  Below are a series of tips and techniques to help you get the most from your compact camera.  Some are “technical” ways to operate the camera, while others are tips related to composition and how to “frame up” your subject.  If you combine them all, you’ll be on your way to capturing incredible images.

First, let’s talk a little about focal length.  Focal length just refers to how much or how little you’ve zoomed in or zoomed out.  If you’ve zoomed your camera all the way out, you’re taking wide-angle shots and capturing a wide area of space around you.  This is a short focal length.  You’re probably used to doing this if when you’ve taken a picture of a large group of people, or you’re taking a wide-angle photo of the Grand Canyon or a big expanse of beach.  On the other hand, if you’ve zoomed all the way in, you’re bringing far away objects closer to you, and you’re using a long focal length, a.k.a. telephoto.  You probably use this at a sports event or ballgame to bring players closer to you and make them bigger in the picture.  Many people think of zooming in and out in terms of those two types of situations:  “I need to take a picture of a wide area of space so I’ll zoom out” or “That person is really far away so I’ll zoom in to make them bigger.”  While that does work, there are far more powerful ways to use focal length to your advantage.

Rather than thinking of zooming in and zooming out in just the two types of scenarios described above, it’s useful to understand some additional, more creative concepts related to focal length.


Let’s start off with a straightforward one.  While you may be used to the idea that zooming out wide captures a wider expanse of the scene, you may not always be thinking in terms of the opposite:  when zooming in, you’re taking in a lot *smaller* portion of the scene.  Most of us are used to thinking in terms of zooming in to bring far away objects closer, but just as important, if not more important, is the fact that zooming in reduces the area of the scene that is being captured (in addition of course to making the object seem closer).  You may be asking, so what?  What does this have to do with my photography?  The answer is this: armed with this knowledge, you now have the choice of what background you want for a picture of any given subject.  It can be incredibly helpful for clearing up clutter, simplifying your pictures, and making them better.  Let’s use an example to illustrate.  Let’s say you’re taking a picture of your friend in front of a beautiful mountain, from a scenic overlook on the road.  You stand a few feet from your friend, zoom out nice and wide to make sure you get all of the mountain in the shot, and you take the picture.  You know what else you probably got in the shot besides your friend and the mountain?  …the trash can 15-feet to the left, the telephone pole behind your friend about 20-feet to the right, and who knows what else.  Because you’re using the wide-angle setting, you’re capturing a very wide expanse of the scene… this expanse may include objects that you don’t want in the picture.  Here’s where zooming in and its ability to *reduce* the scene can be helpful.  Instead of taking the shot from a few feet away and zooming out wide, step really far back from your friend and zoom all the way in.  You need to take the picture from farther away, because as you know, zooming in will make your friend bigger in the picture.  You want to counteract that and keep them the same size in the picture by taking a few steps back.  But in the process of zooming in, you are reducing the area to the left and right that is in the picture.  If you’ve zoomed in enough, you will completely eliminate the trash can and the telephone pole from the shot, leaving just your friend and the mountain.  This is one of the most fundamental techniques in photography and one you should master through practice.

In addition to its effect on how much or how little of the scene gets captured, focal length has another important effect, and that is its effect on “perspective”.  Perspective refers to how far away from each other any two objects look in a photograph.  You may be surprised to learn that zooming in and out has a HUGE impact on how far apart objects “appear” in a photograph.  Keep in mind that how they appear in the photo has nothing to do with how far they appear in “real life”!  Let’s use the example we used before with your friend and the mountain.  Let’s say that the mountain is about two miles behind your friend.  Just looking with your eyes (no camera), the mountain will appear, as it should, to be two miles away.  If you zoom your lens to somewhere in the middle of its range and take a picture, when you look at that picture, the mountain will appear to be two miles from your friend.  That’s a “normal” focal length.  However, if you zoom out wide and take the same picture, the optical qualities of the lens will in fact exaggerate that distance greatly.  If you take a picture and look at it, you may be shocked to see that the mountain now “appears” to be five, ten, or even twenty miles away!  Wide angle lenses exaggerate distance.  On the other hand, if you zoom all the way in and take the picture, you will see that the mountain may appear to be directly behind your friend, maybe a few hundred meters or less!  It may appear that your friend is literally standing at the base of the mountain.  You can use focal length to adjust the closeness of the background to exactly how you want it.  Just remember that if you want your friend to be the same size in the picture, you may have to step closer or farther away from them, depending on how far you’ve zoomed in or out.  This perspective effect is why you sometimes see pictures of people with a sunset, and sometimes the sun is a tiny yellow dot in one picture and in another it’s a huge orange ball.  In the picture with the huge sun, the photographer has stepped all the way back and zoomed in as much as they can, making the sun appear much closer.

Sunset, NYC

Sunset, NYC

One of the most important tips I can give for shooting people is also related to perspective... and that is: take photos of people's faces from far away and zoom in!  Pictures of people taken from farther away with the lens zoomed in are much more flattering than pictures taken up close.  Have you ever seen a picture of a person taken up close with a wide angle lens, or been out with friends and tried to hold the camera in your hand with an outstretched arm, pointed at yourselves?  You'll notice that your noses look bigger than they really are and your facial features are exaggerated.  This is because the camera is close to you and the wide-angle lens is exaggerating distance... in this case it's exaggerating the distance from the tip of your nose to the rest of your face!  It will look larger than it really is.  If you stand back and zoom in, you reduce this effect and the face will have normal proportions.  Did you ever wonder why Sport Illustrated photographers are standing half-way across the beach shooting the models with a huge telephoto lens?  Perspective is part of the reason...

The next tip is a brief one, but it can be invaluable for architecture photography and photos of buildings or other tall objects.  (You may want to use software to crop the picture after using this technique, but most people are familiar with basic cropping.)  The tip is this:  whenever possible, when taking photos of tall subjects like buildings, do not tilt the camera upward to make sure you get the “top” – instead, keep the camera level (not pointed upward) and zoom out as wide as you can (in order to get the top of the building) and take the picture.  The reason for this is because tilting the camera upwards causes the walls of buildings and vertical objects to point inward like a pyramid.  The building may appear to be leaning back or falling over. 

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

If you keep the camera level, this won’t happen. 

Straighter version of the photo above

Straighter version of the photo above (this was fixed in software to illustrate, but the effect is the same)

You may however, have a large expanse of ground in front of you, which you can then simply crop out later.  With high-mexapixel cameras these days, cropping should not affect picture quality unless you’re making massive prints.

Now let’s talk about flash.  Built-in flash can come in very handy when you need a little bit of extra light, but flash is often not used to its full potential, and sometimes it’s used when it shouldn’t be.

First I’ll make one important comment.  The light from the flash on your camera probably only “realistically” reaches about ten feet or so in front of you.  After that, the flash has no effect.  If you’re taking pictures of something that is more than ten feet in front of you, turn the flash off (you may need to refer to your camera’s instruction manual to determine how to turn it off, as many times it comes on automatically).  Sometimes I go to a baseball game and a famous pitcher will be put into the game and everyone in the stadium is taking pictures of the pitcher from hundreds of feet away, but all I see are flashes going off.  Every one of those flashes is illuminating the back of the head of the person in front of the photographer, and not much else.  I can assure you that flash is not reaching the pitcher’s mound.  Worse yet, with the flash on, the camera is making decisions as to how to expose the photo.  It “assumes” that the light from the flash is reaching the subject, and thus it darkens the photo in anticipation of it being lit by the flash – however the flash never reaches the subject, and now you’re left with a dark photo (or a perfectly exposed picture of the back of someone’s head).  In these situations, it’s best to turn the flash off.

On the other hand, one of the best places to use flash is actually in bright sunlight.  When the bright sun is overhead, it can cast shadows under the eyes and generally result in an unflattering picture.  Turn your flash on and the flash will brighten up the shadows resulting in a much better picture in broad daylight (refer to the manual to learn how to turn on what is often called “Fill Flash”).  Similarly, if you’re taking a picture of a person in front of a bright background, like a sunset, turn on the flash.  Without the flash, it is likely you’ll just get a silhouette.  That may be the effect you're going for, and if so, leave the flash off.  If you want to see the person’s face, turn the flash on. 

Flash is also useful for close-up shots of flowers.  Not only will it brighten them up and help with shadows, but the flash will help “freeze” any movement of the flower caused by wind.

Whenever possible, I’d recommend taking two shots – one with the flash on and one with the flash off – in any situation where the flash might be helpful.  You never know which one you’ll like best, so it’s best to have both.

Now let’s cover some technical tips about night photography.  In this case, I’m referring to nighttime shots of city skylines, buildings, landscapes, etc. (and not necessarily pictures of people).  Night photography can produce some truly spectacular images.  It is however one of the most “technically” challenging types of photography.  It’s all too easy to wind up with a blurry shot or poorly lit shot.  Here are some tips:

Most importantly, it’s virtually impossible to take a sharp night shot while holding the camera in your hand.  You’ll need to find a place to put the camera down.  If you don’t have a tripod, just look for a bench, a railing, a tree branch, a soda bottle, anything to prop the camera up on.  Even if the camera isn’t pointing “exactly” where you want it, you can always crop out parts of the picture later… resting it on something will always result in a better shot than you trying to hold the camera.  The second piece to this tip is that you *must* use the camera’s self-timer to take the picture.  All too I often I see people going out of their way to prop the camera up on something to hold it steady, only to use their finger to press the shutter button.  Using your finger to press the shutter button will completely blur the shot and negate and beneficial effect of propping the camera up.  So just prop the camera up pointed in the right direction, set the 10-second self-timer, and let the camera do its thing.  Also ensure that the flash is off.  Going back to our previous discussion about flash – we know it only reaches about 10 feet, and having it on negatively affects the brightness of the picture, so turn it off.  If your camera has any kind of “Night Scene” mode (and most do), then definitely feel free to use it.  Most “Night Scenes” modes instruct the camera to leave the shutter open for a longer period of time than it normally would – the longer the shutter is open, the more light gets in, so you get a better, brighter picture.  Just make sure the night mode doesn’t automatically turn on your flash – if it does, make sure you can turn it off.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

For situations where you're handholding the camera in dim lighting, for example when taking a picture of someone blowing out candles at a birthday party, you may wish to take the picture without flash to preserve the "ambience" of the scene.  You may also be too far away for the flash to reach, for example taking a picture at a concert or school play.  Any time you're handholding the camera in dim lighting without flash, it's possible you may get a blurry shot due to camera shake.  The camera needs to keep the shutter open longer to let more light in so the picture is bright enough, but the longer the shutter is open, the more chance there is of the camera recording any slight movement (of either the camera OR the person you're taking a picture of).  You can help fix this by manually adjusting the ISO if your camera allows you to (many do).  ISO is used to magnify the amount of light entering the camera -- the more light the camera gets, the less time the shutter needs to be open, resulting in less blur and sharper pictures.  ISO is rated in numbers, usually around 100 at the lowest, and going up to around ISO 800 or so on compact cameras.  The higher the ISO number, the more light gets in the camera and the faster the shutter speed.  The tradeoff with ISO is that picture quality is best at low ISOs, and deteriorates at higher ISOs, so you only want to use the highest ISO that eliminates the blur, but no higher.  Personally I recommend not going above ISO 400 on compact cameras.  So how do you use it?  If you find yourself in a situation like the ones mentioned above, where you want to take a picture in dim lighting without flash, but the picture comes out blurry, then simply raise the ISO number in your camera.  You may need to consult your camera's manual on how to do it.  Many cameras just have a button or menu item that says ISO.  Start at ISO 100 to see how sharp the shot is, and if there is any blur.  If it's a little blurry, then raise to 200 and take a test shot.  If it's sharp now, then leave it at 200 and you're ready to go.  If the shot is still blurry, then raise to 400 and try again, and so on.  You'll see that raising the ISO can really help in getting sharp shots in dim lighting.  Keep in mind that the picture quality will not be as good as if you took the shot at ISO 100, but in many cases, a little less picture quality is worth it to get a sharp shot, because a blurry shot may be unusable entirely!

The final “technical” tip is about “Exposure Compensation”.  If your camera has exposure compensation, and many do, it’s worthwhile to learn how to use it.  Exposure compensation simply lets you adjust the brightness of the picture to your liking.  Under normal circumstances, when you press the shutter, your camera looks at the scene, performs some calculations, and determines how bright the shot should be.  In many cases, the brightness level it chooses is pretty good.  Sometimes however, the camera can be thrown off in certain situations.  For instance, if you’re taking a picture on a ski mountain, the camera can be “fooled” by all the bright snow.  The camera says “wow this is really bright out here” and so it darkens the picture thinking that’s what you want.  You may wind up with snow that is more of a “light gray” than white.  In this case, you may want to use exposure compensation.  You might see it as a +/- where you move the arrow toward the “+” to make the picture brighter and the “–“ to make it darker.  Take a look in your camera’s manual to learn how to set it for your particular camera.

OK, let’s move on from the technical details and cover some pointers related to composition.  Composing the picture just refers to deciding what to include or exclude in the photo and where to position the subjects in the frame, the angle of the shot, how much you’re zoomed in, etc.

The most useful compositional tip is probably “The Rule of Thirds”.  It’s not really a “rule”, but rather a guideline to keep in mind when you’re taking pictures.  The Rule of Thirds is designed to help you determine where to place your subjects in the frame.  It’s easy.  When framing your picture, mentally draw a tic-tac-toe board over the scene – so there will be two vertical lines and two horizontal lines dividing the picture into thirds.  When taking a picture, try to place your subject along one of those lines.   (Some cameras even have a feature where you can turn on a Rule of Thirds grid that appears right on the LCD -- you can check your manual to see if yours has it).   Notice how the horizon is on the lower horizontal line and the bird is on the left vertical line:

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

What you’ll see is this helps you avoid putting your subject dead center of the picture, which is often the worst place to put the subject.  The subject can be a person, or a sunset, or anything else.  If the subject is small in the frame, like the moon, you can place it where two of the lines intersect, which is even better than just putting it on one of the lines.  The next time you’re taking a picture of a sunset, instead of putting the horizon straight through the middle of the picture, cutting it in half, try putting the horizon one-third from the top or one-third from the bottom and you’ll see how much better it looks.

The next compositional tip is called “Leading Lines”.  Leading Lines refers to using objects in your photo to lead the viewer “into the picture.”  It can be a pathway, railroad tracks, a pattern in waves, etc.  You place the leading line so that it starts in the foreground (the bottom of the picture) and your eye follows it further into the picture.  It’s often best to put leading lines a little bit off to one side and to lead your eye diagonally into the frame, but experiment to see what you like best.

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

 

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

Another simple tip is related to moving objects such as people running or cars moving.  Always allow space for the moving object to “move into”.  For instance, if you’re taking a picture of a car moving from right-to-left, make sure there is room on the left side of the picture for the car to “drive into” (otherwise the photo will look cramped).

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Patterns are all around us and can be used to create amazing photos.  No matter where you are or what you're doing, have a look around and you'll see patterns, many of which can be great photo opportunities.  The pattern can be anything from a repeating line of sun umbrellas on a beach, to an interesting row of trees, a fascinating pattern that all the windows of a skyscraper make, or something as simple as some cherries in the market.  The key when looking around for patterns is to avoid getting caught up in the "wide expanse" of the scene where it may be harder to recognize patterns, but rather focus in on small areas of what's around you.  In the photo of the cherries below, it could have been easy to miss it in the hustle and bustle of the market, with the flowers right next to them to the left and the pile of onions to the right, but if you take the time to look, you'll see patterns everywhere.  When you do, you can either take the photo of the pattern in the larger context of the whole scene, or focus in and create a more "abstract" photo.  Each can produce interesting images.

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

The final compositional tip is to make use of “Natural Frames”.  A natural frame is something in the scene that you can use to literally “frame” your subject.  It helps draw attention to the subject and adds a lot of impact.  You can use archways, tree branches, anything at all really.  Step forward or back as you need, to place your subject in the natural frame, and take the shot.

Pool, Dominican Republic

Pool, Dominican Republic

With a little practice of the technical and compositional techniques you’ve read here, you’ll find that you can take amazing shots with a compact point and shoot.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to let me know.

Best,
Paul

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Paul offers one-on-one photography workshops in New York City, including an "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information or to see my main photography website, please use the link below.

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


5May/09Off

A "General Approach" to Photography and Working a Scene

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

I thought it might be interesting to write an article that discusses a “general approach” to photography, and is less technical than some of my previous articles.  I’ll still discuss camera settings to a certain extent, but will focus more on how to approach a scene and some high-level steps to capturing images you can be proud of.  This note mostly covers travel / landscape-type photography (vs. portraits).  It’s also primarily meant for those photographers who are getting started in taking their photography to the next level, or who may have just purchased their first DSLR, but even some of the more experienced photographers may get something out of it…

I’ll start out with one of my favorite photography quotes, by Charles Harbutt: 

“…I don’t take pictures, pictures take me. I can do nothing except have film in the camera and be alert. My adversary, a photograph, stalks the world like a roaring lion. Pictures happen. One can only trust one’s sensitivity, the bounty of the world, and the chemistry of Kodak. This is THE photographic method." 

My personal philosophy on photography is similar to my interpretation of this quote, and that is:  Let the pictures happen.  Walk around with your camera at your side… forget about the fact that you’re taking pictures and just look around at your surroundings.  Eventually something will jump out at you that just “looks” interesting.  It could be a particular reflection that catches your eye, or an interesting pattern that a series of fence posts running down the beach may make.  Don’t concentrate too hard on “finding that perfect ‘picture’”.  That’s going to close down your senses and potentially make you miss something.  Even worse… your concentration on “getting the shot” will prevent you from simply enjoying everything around you.  Way back in the past, I’d found myself getting home with a lot of pictures, but not actually “remembering” being there, because my full concentration was on the photography.  Luckily I came to my senses and I ensure that doesn’t happen anymore.  I always make sure to take the time to enjoy the surroundings and really take it all in.  There’s something to be said for putting the camera down and actually “watching” the sunset!  So what do you do if nothing in the scene jumps out at you to be photographed?  Don’t worry about it!  There’s no crime in not taking a picture.  There’s nothing worse than wasting your time uploading, tweaking and editing a photo that just doesn’t have enough substance to ever have any real impact.  I’ve been out with my camera before and happily returned with an entirely empty memory card.  Rather than use time unnecessarily reviewing fifty pictures that I would never do anything with, I’d rather take the time to write an article like this, or edit other pictures I’ve taken previously that have been waiting for a little attention.  This also helps in how others “perceive” your photography.  I think a famous photographer once said “It’s not that all the pictures I take are good, it’s that I just don’t show you the bad ones.”  If you set out on a hiking expedition with the goal of coming back with waterfall photos or wildlife, but the only thing you wind up finding is underbrush and nothing is too exciting, no worries… there will always be another hike.

So what do you do when the magic happens and something does jump out at you?  Unless whatever you’re seeing is a fleeting moment that will be gone shortly, don’t immediately start snapping pictures.  (Of course if something is temporary, like a rainbow, feel free to shoot as quickly as you can).  Otherwise, take your time.  Think about what it is you’re trying to say with the picture.  It could be something as simple as “this place is beautiful”, for example a gorgeous sprawling landscape, or you might be trying to say “this place is really busy with an incredible amount of people”, for example NYC’s Grand Central Station:

Moorea, French Polynesia

Moorea, French Polynesia

 

Grand Central Station, NYC

Grand Central Station, NYC

Think about what you want to include or exclude in the picture.  Is it the entire wide expanse of the landscape with a waterfall, mountains, and flowers, or do you want to concentrate on just the waterfall and focus attention on that?  For a Grand Central photo, do you want the whole station or just the busy entrance to the escalator?  Before taking any pictures, walk around the scene a little to see how it looks from various angles.  Kneel down low to see how it looks from a lower point of view, or climb a nearby stairwell to see how it looks from above.  Really “work the scene” before you get the camera out.

Once you’ve decided on what you might like to include and from what angle, it’s time to look through the viewfinder and choose a focal length that accomplishes your goal.  If you want to pick out a single feature of the landscape to concentrate on, use a telephoto lens (80mm+).  If you want the wide expanse, go with a wide angle (around 10-28mm).  For something in the middle, choose a “normal” focal length (30-75mm).  Don’t forget about some of the other important effects of focal length, such as exaggerating perspective or compressing distance – See my other note on “Choosing the Best Focal Length for a Photo” for more information.

Now that you’ve selected a focal length and found a composition that you like, it’s time to set the exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO).  I always suggest using the full manual “M” mode on your camera whenever possible.  The following several paragraphs are the opening text of my “Intro to Digital Photography” workshop – I think it’s worthwhile to read here to learn more about the Manual mode:

“DSLRs are capable of taking incredibly creative shots, far more creative than can be taken with a compact point-and-shoot camera.  As a photographer using a DSLR, you have complete creative control over how much of your subject is in-focus – you can choose to completely blur the background or keep it pin sharp.  You can also control the shutter speed to totally “freeze action” and make time stand still, or you can choose to keep the shutter open longer to achieve creative “motion blur” effects which emphasize movement.  These are all artistic decisions that you, the photographer make when taking the picture.  However, they can only be achieved if you take control of the camera and learn to use its “Manual” or “M” mode – otherwise the computer in the camera is making all these artistic decisions for you!

Today’s DSLRs come with several different modes to take photos – there are “automatic” modes from “fully automatic” and “scene” modes where the camera makes the decisions for you, and there are the manual and semi-automatic modes where you take more control over the photographic process.

The automatic modes are just that – the camera automatically calculates all of the settings necessary to take the photo, and you just have to press the shutter button.  The decision as to what will be in focus and what will be blurred, as well as the decision of how much “movement” and “motion” to show are all made by the camera.  The “scene” modes such as “Landscape”, “Sports”, and “Portrait” are just variations on the same automatic mode, except they try to take a better guess as to what type of photo you like.  Either way, the camera is making the decisions based on a guess as to what it thinks will look good.

The Manual or “M” mode on the other hand gives complete creative control to the photographer.  You decide exactly how you want the picture to look based on your own artistic vision.  Yes, it requires a little more effort, but that’s because you are telling the camera exactly what to do so the photo looks precisely how you envisioned it.”

Now that I’ve (hopefully) successfully convinced you to try out your camera’s Manual mode, let’s continue:

With the camera set to manual, you now need to determine the aperture and shutter speed.  I usually ask myself a couple of very simple questions that guide me to right settings: 

Firstly, is there anything moving in the scene?  If anything is moving in the scene, whether it’s people, birds, rushing water in a stream, swaying trees, etc., then you’ll need to keep the shutter speed in mind.  Ask yourself, am I trying to say anything with the movement?  Do I want to freeze the moment to show an instant-in-time, or do I want to purposely blur the moving objects into streaks, emphasizing movement?  Here is an example of using a long shutter speed to intentionally blur the flowing water:

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Set the shutter speed according to the artistic effect you’re trying to achieve.  Then set the corresponding aperture and ISO to get the right exposure.

If there is nothing moving in the scene, then you don’t even need to concern yourself with setting a “specific” shutter speed (except if you don’t have a tripod and you just want to double check the shutter is fast enough to hand-hold the camera – see my note on Taking Sharp Photos for more information).  With nothing moving in the scene, you can just concentrate on the aperture.  Looking at the scene, decide if you want to concentrate the viewer’s attention on one specific item or area (in which case you’d use a very wide aperture to create a narrow depth-of-field and blur the background), or if you want every detail to be in focus from right in front of you to the very far distance (in which case you’d select a small aperture).   Here is an example of using a wide aperture to blur the background:

Pina Colada, Mexico

Pina Colada, Mexico

Set the appropriate aperture, and then select the shutter speed and ISO to get the right exposure.

Once you’ve got the main shot you’re after, don’t be afraid to experiment.  Turn the camera to vertical mode and take a few vertical shots if the first set were all horizontal.  Zoom in a little tighter, or go a little wider and take a few shots.  Walk a little to the left, or right, or set the camera up higher or lower to the ground.  This is one of the great advantages of digital.  You can capture a variety of alternate angles and compositions without worrying about burning through rolls of film. 

Below are two shots taken in Newport, Rhode Island.  The only difference is horizontal vs. vertical, a slight change in focal length, and I moved a little to the right on the vertical shot.  You can see how they are still two completely different photos: 

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

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Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

Of course be careful to put thought into each photo, though.  The intent is to capture meaningful variations to the shot, not to fill up your memory card with randomly chosen angles.  When you get home, you can look at the variations on the computer to see what worked and what didn’t.   You’ll start to get a feel for the types of shots you prefer.  You’ll also begin to remember what’s “visually appealing” as you compare the finished images, and the next time you go out, you can go right to the shot that you instinctively “know” will work.

Always remember that it's a constant learning process, even for pros with many years of experience.  The more you get out there and shoot, the better you'll become.  Subscribe to a few magazines, read articles on the web, and most of all, have fun with your photography.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.

Best,
Paul

Paul offers one-on-one photography workshops in New York City, including an "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information, please use the link below.

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

To keep up-to-date with the latest photo additions and other topics, you can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page at:

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

21Feb/09Off

Choosing the best Focal Length for a photo


Tropical and Coastal Stock Photography - Images by Paul Timpa

Today's discussion revolves around focal length. While most of us are familiar with "zooming in" or selecting a longer lens to make our subject larger, or zooming out to "go wide" there is actually a more subtle, but in my opinion far more important effect of focal length, that should be thought about every time you take a photo and select a focal length or lens:

From a "photographic" perspective, it is focal length that determines how much distance appears between two objects that are at different distances from you (such as a flower in front of you and a mountain behind the flower). The actual distance between the two objects in "real life" is irrelevant and has no bearing on the photo. Through the "laws of optics" it is entirely up to you to set the distance between two objects, and you can set it however you like. That's why it's so important to recognize this every time you take a shot. Let's use a real life example to make it clearer:

Say you're in a field and there's a beautiful sunflower about 10 feet in front of you. Behind the sunflower, about a mile back, is a mountain. It is only to your eyes that the distance between the flower and the mountain appears to be a mile -- the camera can see that distance however it wants, longer or shorter, depending on how you set it. (FYI, if you put a 50mm lens on your camera (that's 50mm in 35mm format...it's about 30mm in a non-full-frame D-SLR), that 50mm lens will cause the distance in the photo to appear about the same as your eyes (about a mile). That's why the 50mm lens is often called the "normal" lens -- because it sees distance the same as you would "normally" with your eyes. Now here's where things get creative -- any other lens besides 50mm will actually completely change the appearance of that distance between the flower and the mountain. The wider you "zoom out", the more the distance between the flower and the mountain is visibly "stretched". The more you "zoom in" the closer the distance between the two. The key here is that you must move your body by walking closer or farther to keep the flower the same size in the frame. For instance, if your starting position is 10 feet away from the flower and you zoom out, the flower will get very small, so you'll have to walk closer to the flower to keep it the same size in the picture. However, because you've zoomed out, the optical properties of the lens will cause the distance between the mountain and the flower in the photo to have greatly increased. While the photo taken at 50mm will have it appear that the mountain is a mile away, the exact same photo taken at 10mm will have the mountain look many many miles away -- but the flower will be in the exact same spot. In fact, the mountain might be tiny, perhaps smaller than the flower now. Similarly, if you zoom in, there is the opposite effect. Let's say you decide to shoot at 200mm. Of course, you will need to step pretty far back from the flower to keep it the same size in the frame. Maybe many yards/meters away. When you look at the final photo, the mountain that previously appeared to be a mile away when you shot at 50mm, may now appear to be right on top of the flower, perhaps just behind it by a few feet. This is the magic of focal length. This may come into play in almost any photo you take. If you're taking a picture of a friend or spouse, it is entirely up to you to decide what you want behind your subject. If you're in a city, you can make it appear that an entire cityscape is behind them by zooming out and stepping closer, or you can zoom in, step far away, and put them practically inside one building! It's really up to you. My advice is to think about this every time you click the shutter. Think about the subject and the background, and how you want each to appear, and make a conscious choice. That's what photography is all about!

FYI, you can try this right from your living room. Place a glass of water on a coffee table and stand so that whatever is behind the glass is at least a few feet away. Zoom to your widest lens setting and frame the shot so that the bottom of the glass is as the bottom of the picture, and the top of the glass is about halfway up the frame. Make sure you can see what's behind the glass and re-adjust your position in the room as necessary. Take the shot. Now we'll take a 2nd shot. Zoom in to your longest focal length and frame the picture the same way by putting the bottom of the glass at the bottom of the picture, and the top of the glass about half-way. When you're zoomed in, you may have to step quite a ways back, probably up against a wall. If you can't get back far enough, just zoom out a little until the glass is halfway up the frame. Take the shot. Now compare the two shots on your LCD. The glass of water should look exactly the same, but the background in the second one will be much much closer.

Fun Fact: Did you ever wonder why professional photographers who shoot models (say for Sports Illustrated calendars or advertisements) shoot with these incredibly long lenses from half way across the beach? It's because "zooming in" and shooting with a long focal length as described above compresses distance...and they're actually compressing the model's face. By shooting at a long focal length like 200mm, you are making the tip of the nose appear closer to the rest of the face (than it is in real life), making the nose smaller, which is usually considered flattering. That's why the "portrait lens" is generally 85mm to 135mm (way more than 50mm!). To use this to your advantage, always try to take photos of people from a reasonably far distance at one of those longer focal lengths (zoomed in). It makes a big difference!

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

If you have any questions, please feel free to let me know...

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

To keep up-to-date with the latest photo additions and other topics, you can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page at:

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Best,
Paul

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa