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

17Feb/16Off

What To Do With That Great Photo That’s Not Quite Technically Perfect

"What a great photo! Oh wait... it's blurry."

It's happened to the best of us. Even professionals. Sometimes in photography we take pictures that we would've really liked but they've come out slightly blurry, or they have too much digital noise from a high ISO, or maybe they were taken with an older camera that had a low megapixel count or quality not up to today's standards. It might be an awesome wildlife image of a rare animal, the sunrise over the Caribbean, a spontaneous photo from a family outing, or an architectural photo from some far away place. Often these otherwise great photos get deleted or just sit unused in a folder on your computer. The good news is there are many ways these photos can still be useful, even for producing art to hang on the wall.

Of course you can always try to sharpen up a blurry photo or reduce digital noise, and there are some great products that can do this for you. The purpose of this post though is to provide some ideas as to what to do with those photos when even the best software can't quite fix your photos 100%.

Wall Art on Alternative Media

One of my favorite ways to save photos that might otherwise be too blurry or too noisy for "traditional" prints is to print them on alternative media, such as canvas or wood. Not only do these surfaces create amazing pieces of art, but they help mask minor imperfections in the original photo. I recently wanted to make a print of an American Bison for a Western-themed wall, and all of the photos I'd taken with a 21mp Canon 5D Mark II were sharp and clear, but the subject matter didn't fit the wall. I found a much older photo of a bison on my hard drive taken with a 10mp Canon Rebel XTi, that I liked better. I decided to print the Rebel XTi photo on wood and it looks absolutely spectacular (Photo printed on wood by woodsnap.com).

Bison Printed on Wood

Bison Printed on Wood

Similarly, I have several very large canvas prints (36" x 24") that look great, even with photos of relatively lower resolution.

Gifts and Other Items

In addition to wall art, there are plenty of other items that you can print on these days. Everything from custom pillows and blankets, cellphone cases, shower curtains, candles, kitchen aprons, puzzles, playing cards, there are so many possibilities. The quality of the photo doesn't have to be the same as if you were printing a poster-sized wall hanging. Photos that are of "decent" quality will do just fine for many of the items mentioned above.

Social Media

If you're not printing the photos to a physical product but still want to make use of them digitally for sharing on social media, there are still many of ways to make them usable. If your photo has noise from a high ISO, one of the easiest ways to mask this is to simply convert to black & white. The most problematic noise is generally "chroma noise" which you see as all the tiny multi-colored dots. When you convert to black & white, this noise looks more like grain in old b&w film and is much less noticeable.

Statue of Atlas, Rockefeller Center, NYC

Statue of Atlas, Rockefeller Center, NYC

Both noise and blurriness are less visible when the size of the photo is smaller on-screen. Rather than post the photo to social media on its own in full resolution, you can reduce its size and include it as part of a collage or other multi-photo image. This allows you to include the image in context with other images taken at a similar time, and it's also easier for friends and family to share a single post (that contains multiple pictures) than to share many individual posts. Below is a photo grid of three city scenes from Rome, Paris, and NYC:

Photo Grid -- Timpa Photography

Photo Grid -- Timpa Photography

Even if a photo is not blurry and looks fine, I often include it as part of a collage for these same reasons. Mobile apps like "Photo Grid" for Android are great at creating collages, and also include some editing tools (brightness, contrast, saturation, tint, crop, etc.) as well as filters.

Filters

There are countless ways to apply filters that will not only enhance your photos, but also help hide imperfections. If your photo is slightly blurry, perhaps you can go for a tilt-shift Lensbaby type look to give it a dreamy feel. If the colors are muted, or the noise is high, you can try an oversaturated, high-contrast "edgy" look. Explore all of the filters or features of your editing software to see what works for your particular image.

Roman Forum, Italy

Roman Forum, Italy

Conclusion

Just because a photo hasn't come out technically "perfect", doesn't mean you have to deal with no photo of the occasion. With a little creativity you can bring new life to those old photos and they can take their rightful place on your wall, either in the real world or on social media!


For those looking to improve your photography, I've also created an app for Android which teaches photography and how to get photos like these while you're out taking pictures. It's perfect for when you're traveling. Click here:

Photography Trainer for Android

 
If you find this guide helpful, please share it:

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If you have any questions about the locations or photo techniques, please feel free to ask any time. You can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page, add me to Google+ circles, or follow me on Twitter for more photography tutorials and tips:

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

Paul Timpa on Google+


Thanks for reading, and best regards,
Paul

 
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 2014, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

24Jan/14Off

Travel Photography: How to Prepare for Your Trip

Preparing for Travel Photography

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Going on a trip where you'll be taking photos can be one of the most exciting photography experiences you can have. Whether it's simply going on vacation, or a dedicated trip specifically for travel photography, you’ll want to be prepared. This guide will help you get there and highlight some of the things you need to think about.

So let’s get started!
 

Gear

You should always bring all the photography gear you’ll need with you. Assume that you won’t be able to acquire any photo equipment at your destination. While it may turn out that there is a photography shop nearby, it’s better to play it safe. I suggest making a list of all your gear on your computer. Then before every trip you can print it out and check that each item is packed. I go the extra step and actually set everything up, power on the camera, put it on the tripod, etc. This way nothing can be forgotten. (For example, one time I almost left without the quick-release plate for my tripod, something that would have been easy to miss had I not actually tried to mount the camera).

Here is a simple list to get you started:

* Camera
* Camera Battery in the camera + extra batteries
* Battery charger
* Memory Card in the camera + extra memory cards
* Tripod and tripod attachments (e.g. Quick release plates, heads, etc.)
* Remote control for shutter
* Filters + filter holders
* Flash + flash batteries
* Ziploc bag (quick rain protection)
* Cable to connect camera to computer
* Electric plug adapters (for international travel)
* Backup point-and-shoot camera with battery, charger, and memory cards

Take special note of that last item. Cameras can fail, break, or get lost. You don’t want to be on the trip of a lifetime and have your only camera fail, leaving you with no other option to take photos. Always bring a backup camera, even if it’s an inexpensive point-and-shoot. You may not get the highest-quality photos, but at least you’ll have something.

Positano, Italy

Positano, Italy

 

Photo locations

Now for the fun part -- figuring out what you want to photograph at your destination!

There are many ways to determine some of the key "must have" photos from any particular location. I usually use three ways:

First, I’ll simply do some Google searches about the destination to see what comes up. In addition to researching the destination in general, I’ll usually search for something like “Where to photograph in [insert destination]” as well.

Secondly, I’ll buy guide book or two. These are great not only to highlight the key places to see, but are also super helpful overall for things like hotels, restaurants, etc. The popular ones are usually very good, such as Fodor’s, Frommer's, and Lonely Planet.

Lastly, I’ll go to a photo sharing site like Flickr or Google+ and search on the destination to see what’s popular to photograph.

When I get to the destination, I’ll look at the postcard rack to see what else looks interesting, and of course I'll talk to locals to get their input as well.

If you use the methods above, you’ll have a good chance of getting to all the key photo opps.

Once you've identified where you want to photograph, it's time to create the “plan” to get all the photos.

The first thing to do is figure out how many sunrises and sunsets you’ll have, since many of your photographs will likely occur at that time. You’ll get a sunrise & sunset for each full day you’re there, and depending on what time of day you’re traveling, maybe a sunset on the day you arrive, and a sunrise on the day you leave. Subtract out any sunrises / sunsets where you’re doing something besides photography (you might want to have a nice meal along the beach at sunset, y’know!)

Costa Rica Sunset, Mal Pais

Costa Rica Sunset, Mal Pais

Once you know how many sunrises / sunsets you have, just look at your list of photo locations and assign them to the days of your trip. Do the important ones first -- this way if the weather is bad and you don’t get a shot the first day, you can go back the next day and try again. The photos you don’t get to will be the least priority ones.

Especially for the sunrise / sunset photos, I recommend scouting the location in advance during the day. The window for photography at sunrise / sunset is very small. You don’t want to find out on the morning of the shoot that you don’t know where to park, that there’s a huge construction site in front of the location, or any host of other things. Go to the site during the day, confirm you know how to get there, exactly where you’re going to shoot from, etc. Then you can just go to the spot the next day, worry-free, and take the shot.

Use a sunrise / sunset calculator to determine your shooting times. I like the one below -- it also shows “civil twilight” which loosely translates to blue hour.  Enter the location and dates you'll be traveling:

Sunrise / Sunset calculator

Determine if there is a particular direction you need to be facing. For example, the Grand Teton mountains are generally photographed when facing straight west, so they are usually photographed at sunrise when the sun is behind you and shining on the mountains. If you’re trying to get the NYC skyline with the sun rising behind it, you’ll want to be facing east and take the photo from the New Jersey side of the river. If you want the sun setting over the skyline, you need to face west and take the photo from Queens / Brooklyn. These are the types of things to think about.

NYC Skyline

NYC Skyline

Whether it’s a sunrise / sunset photo, day photo, or night photo, group the locations together so you can shoot the ones that are close together on the same day if possible.

Bring a paper map just in case GPS navigation doesn't work. Once I have my photo plan, I’ll use Google maps to get directions from one place to another, and I’ll print those directions to bring with me. Then I don’t have to worry if I don’t get a good GPS signal.

Also put some thought into what locations might be OK to shoot even if the weather is bad. You might not think of a gray rainy day as a worthwhile day for photography, but maybe the location lends itself to black & white photography, so getting warm light isn't necessary.

Don't forget there is more than one way to shoot a popular location, as illustrated below in two very different takes on the Eiffel Tower:

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

 

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

 

Traveling with your gear

Once you've identified everything you’re bringing and you've got your photography plan, it’s time to pack and travel. Traveling with your gear can present its own set of challenges. Firstly, if you’re flying, you must take your camera, memory cards, and accessories with you on the plane as a carry-on. It’s not wise to check your expensive and fragile equipment, that could get lost or damaged. Either put it in your luggage that can go in the overhead bin, or use a photo backpack that you can put under the seat. You can use a compact tripod with four-segment legs that will fit in many carry-on sized pieces of luggage. My four-segment compact tripod is my only tripod and it works great.

Be sure to use a foam-padded backpack or case, or at least wrap your camera in towels or clothes to protect it from the bumps of travels. Put in the center of your luggage, not near the edges where impacts can damage it.

If you’re traveling internationally, be aware of customs rules. There are some rules regarding purchasing equipment in other countries and returning with it, so if possible have a receipt or just some way of explaining that the gear is yours and was not purchased on the trip.

When you get to your destination, always be aware of your camera equipment. Never leave it unattended. If you’re going out on the town without your D-SLR and it fits in the hotel safe, then put it in the safe along with the memory cards.

 
Backup

OK, so you got to your destination, executed your plan, and you captured some amazing photos. Congratulations! Now it’s time to back everything up. It’s incredibly important to backup your images while you’re traveling, as soon as you possibly can after taking them.

The simplest and most familiar way is to bring a laptop and transfer the images to the hard drive. You can also buy a portable memory card backup device with a hard drive, but the laptop has a significant advantage: You can email the photos to yourself, upload to “the cloud”, or burn CDs from a laptop. This is important because if at all possible you should try to have backups that are not with you physically. If all of your backups are in your bag and it gets lost, you’ve lost everything. With a laptop, you can (and should) upload important photos to “the cloud” (a dropbox, your own server, etc.) or at the very least email a few photos to yourself. You can also burn a CD and mail it to yourself if necessary. This way, if something happens to your gear, you’ll still have the images in the cloud, your email, or waiting at home in your mailbox. I also connect an additional portable hard drive to the laptop via USB to create a second copy while I'm there.

Don't plan on using a "public" computer at your destination, such as in the hotel business center or Internet cafe. Often public computers have safeguards that will prevent you from plugging in your camera and/or hard drives.

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC


 

Closing

Travelphotography can be one of the most rewarding types of photography. Not only do you capture memories to last a lifetime, but you get to share those beautiful locations with everyone. Perhaps you might even inspire someone to travel there too.

My last point in this guide is probably the most important: Remember that you’re traveling and experiencing amazing things. Don’t get lost in the photography while forgetting to experience the moment. If there is a stunning sunrise, photograph it, but remember to put the camera down for a few minutes, forget about the photography, and enjoy life.

Enjoy!

Best,
Paul

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

 
To keep up-to-date with the latest photo additions and other topics, you can become a fan at my Photography Facebook page, add me to your Google+ circles, or follow me on Twitter:

Paul Timpa on Google+


Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook

 
Share this guide:

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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 2014, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

26Dec/11Off

Learn How to Use that New Camera you received this Holiday Season

Many people received the wonderful gift of photography this holiday season. If you're one of the lucky ones and are now the proud owner of a new D-SLR or lens, you're probably excited to start taking magical pictures!

Once you've played around with it for a bit and taken some photos on auto-mode, remember that it's the Manual mode on your new camera that really lets you take creative pictures. It's easy to learn, and if you have an iPhone or Android phone you can get download an app that will teach you how to use your camera.

The Photography Trainer app for iPhone and Android is a training tool that teaches you photography when you need it most -- when you're out with your D-SLR and taking pictures. Over 50,000 people have downloaded the app and learned how to use their D-SLRS!

The app doesn't require an internet connection, so it’s perfect for vacations and holidays too – learn photography no matter where you are in the world, whether it’s during a beautiful sunset on the beach or while you’re on a mountain top.

You’ll learn how to capture images with impact and creativity by understanding shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and how they all work together. Learn night and low-light photography, sports, wildlife, portraits, architecture, and landscape photography. You'll always have an expert with you in your pocket, there to help you take spectacular photos.

iPhone and iPod Touch users can download the app by searching on Photography Trainer in the App Store or clicking here to download from iTunes.

To download the app for Android, just search on "Photography Trainer" in the Android Market from your phone or click here: Download Photography Trainer for Android.

The app is also available on the Amazon.com Android App Store. To download with your Amazon account, click here: Download Photography Trainer from Amazon.com.

The app has three sections designed to help you:

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

The Interactive Photography Trainer asks you questions about the lighting you’re in, what types of subjects you’re photographing (waterfalls, sports, city skylines, etc.) and then it guides you on how to set the camera. Most importantly, not only does it instruct you on the best settings to use, it tells you *why* to use them so that you actually learn photography in the process of using the app.

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

The Photo Gallery with Camera Settings contains dozens of professional photographs, each with detailed camera settings for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, so you can see how the settings work together in real-life examples.

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

The In-Depth Techniques section has photography tutorials that go into further detail on topics such as:

* Getting razor-sharp photos
* HDR Photography
* Night photography
* Sports, Action, and Wildlife
* Composition
…and more…

Take your photography to the next level with the Photography Trainer and learn when you’re out with your camera – it’s the best time.

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/PhotographyTrainer

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


Best regards,
Paul

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

Tahiti

Tahiti

South Street Seaport, New York City

South Street Seaport, New York City




18Apr/11Off

Photography Myths

There are many "photography myths" out there. When you're just starting out in photography, it's fun to read and to learn and absorb as much information as you can. As you're learning, you may sometimes here things over and over again, that you take as fact. Some of this information may actually be long-standing myth. I've written this article to help provide some clarification on things you may have heard as you learn more about photography.

MYTH: Cloudy and rainy days are not great for photography

TRUTH: Cloudy days are some of the best days to get out with your camera. There are a variety of photographic subjects that are best taken on cloudy or overcast days, from portraits to macro and flowers, to landscapes.

For portraits, flowers, macro, insects, etc., cloudy and overcast days are often better than sunny days because of the significantly reduced contrast and shadows. When the sun is blazing, there are harsh shadows produced on the subject, whether it’s a person’s face or the delicate petals of a flower. These shadows can be a huge problem, requiring everything from flashes and external lights to diffusers and reflectors to overcome. When it’s cloudy, you get beautiful soft light on your subject. The clouds and overcast conditions act like a giant softbox, providing you with amazing soft light for portraits and flower photography. When it's cloudy out, I specifically head out to get the best flower shots!

For landscapes, thick cloud cover and even storms can create some of the most atmospheric and moody photography imaginable. This is especially true if you convert to black & white. Photos of landscapes with brooding skies, hinting at an impending storm, can have some incredible impact.

Tulip

Tulip

The photo above of a tulip was taken on an overcast day. Notice how there are no harsh shadows distracting from the natural beauty of the flower.

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

The image above was taken in Sedona, Arizona on a day with thick cloud cover.

The next time it’s cloudy, get out there and try one of these types of photography and you may be surprised how happy you are with the results.

MYTH: Flash is best for indoor photos or photos at night

TRUTH: Many photographers think of the flash mostly as a tool to use in darker conditions, either indoors or at night. However, one of the best uses of flash is outside during the day in bright daylight. As mentioned in the previous myth, bright sunlight causes dark shadows on the subject, whether it’s a portrait or a flower or the foreground of a landscape. One of the easiest and best ways to improve the photo is to reduce this shadow by using your flash. (This is often called “fill flash” because its primary purpose is to fill in the shadows rather than illuminate the subject). I almost always use the flash when taking outdoor portraits. The best part is that all newer cameras handle this “fill flash” automatically, without overpowering the subject with light. Just turn on the flash and the camera will calculate the correct brightness so that the flash fills in the shadow. If you prefer the flash a bit brighter or darker than the camera chooses, you can always use the “Flash Exposure Compensation” feature available in most D-SLRs to tweak it to your liking.

MYTH: Wide Angle lenses exaggerate perspective and Telephoto lenses compress perspective

TRUTH: Perspective is the distance that objects “appear” from each other in a photo, from front-to-back. (This distance in the photo may or may not reflect "reality".) While it’s true that wide angle lenses often have the effect of exaggerating perspective and telephoto lenses may have the effect of compressing perspective, it’s important to understand that the lenses themselves actually have nothing to do with perspective. It is only your physical distance from the subject and background that determines perspective. Why is this important? Because in order to change perspective and change the way the photo looks, you need to physically move your body to a new location farther or closer to the subject. Simply changing lenses from wide-angle to telephoto will not alter the perspective in any way. The myth exists simply because when photographers use wide-angle lenses, they often move physically close to the subject, which exaggerates perspective in the final photo. When using telephoto lenses, you’re often photographing objects that are far from you – which compresses the perspective in the photo. Note that in both examples it’s the distance that has caused the effect, not the lens. If you took a photo of distant mountains with a telephoto lens, then stood in the same spot and took a photo with a wide angle lens, the mountains would like identical in both photos -- they would be compressed together because you are far away, regardless of lens. The only difference in the photos is that the wide-angle lens would include a wider “view”, meaning you’d see more to the left and right and in the foreground. The mountains however, would look the same. Keep this in mind when you’re out taking pictures. Always remember to alter your distance from the subject so that you can try out different perspectives to see how they affect the photo.

MYTH: HDR produces unnatural photos

TRUTH: Many people see HDR photos on the internet and are immediately turned off by the unnatural appearance and overly saturated, often “cartoony” look. While it’s true that these photos have likely been produced with HDR software, it’s important to realize that those photos were produced by photographers who’ve intentionally created images with that look. HDR can look incredibly natural, and very often you may not even know that a photo is HDR. It’s just easier to “notice” the over-processed, over-saturated, cartoony ones. Many of my own photos are HDR and it’s difficult to tell at first glance. Sometimes, after a while, I occasionally forget which ones of my own are HDR! HDR is incredibly useful for architecture, interiors, landscapes, and a wide variety of subjects. Once you learn the software, you’ll be able to create natural looking images that have the extra dynamic range (bright and dark tones) but still look very “real”.

South Street Seaport

South Street Seaport

The photo of NYC's South Street Seaport above is an HDR photo and would not have been possible without using HDR techniques.

MYTH: When shooting landscapes, you should stop down your lens to the smallest aperture to ensure everything is in focus

TRUTH: Using the smallest aperture on your lens degrades image quality and is rarely necessary. Due to the way lenses are built, when you use a tiny aperture like F22 or F32, the photo can actually get less sharp because of something called "diffraction". Technically, the depth-of-field will be maximized and everything will be "in focus" -- however the overall image quality will suffer and be more blurry than if you had used a slightly wider aperture. You'll often find that apertures like F14 or F16 are sufficient for many landscapes, and will result in sharper photos that are still in focus. I rarely shoot at an aperture smaller than F16.

MYTH: It’s always a good idea to use a UV filter on your lens

TRUTH: Opinions vary on the use of UV filters. For me personally, I don’t recommend using UV filters for most photography. Of course this is just my personal opinion, and I respect those who wish to use them for an added layer of protection. However, it’s important to understand a few things about UV filters and lenses in general. Firstly, lenses today are pretty tough. They’re built to take the standard knocks and bangs you might encounter. If you’re especially accident-prone, then perhaps it may make sense to use one for protecting the front lens element, but otherwise, I suggest leaving it off. This is because from a “UV” and “haze” perspective, I’ve found they do very little to improve the photo. On the down side however, using a UV filter can definitely introduce unwanted flare in your photos. Flare is usually seen as several large, colored or white blobs in your photo. This is caused when bright light sources shine directly on the front lens element. Using a UV filter adds an additional layer of glass which increases the chance of light bouncing around and causing reflections and flare. Any type of photography where there are bright lights on the lens, such as sunsets or sunrises, or night photography where there are streetlights, etc., can be negatively affected by UV filters. For these types of photography especially, I recommend removing the UV filter. The only times I could see needing them is if for example you’re on a beach and there is a lot sand blowing around, or if you’re walking through a hiking trail and branches are frequently whipping at the front of the camera. Or perhaps you’re on a boat and there is salt-water splashing up. In those extreme examples, I could see if someone wanted to use a UV filter. Otherwise, I recommend leaving them off for the best possible image quality.

MYTH: Full-frame cameras are better than APS-C or Micro-Four-Thirds cameras

TRUTH: First let me say that just about any D-SLR on the market today is capable of taking incredible, professional-quality photos. I’m a firm believer in “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer.” Even so, many photographers see the full-frame camera as the ultimate format to own. While it’s true that full-frame cameras may often provide some of the best overall image quality of the various camera formats, it’s also true that full-frame cameras may not be the best cameras for all types of photography. For example, Canon’s two full-frame cameras the 1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark II, shoot at 5 frames-per-second and 3.9 frames-per-second. While this is just fine for landscape and studio photography, it may not be fast enough for fast-action sports or racing. By contrast, Canon’s 1D Mark IV (a non-full frame camera) shoots at 10fps, twice the speed of Canon’s fastest full-frame camera. The 7D shoots at 8fps. If you shoot a lot of wildlife or sports, you may also be interested in choosing a non-full-frame camera. Without getting into the technical details, just know that non-full-framers have the “effect” of adding extra telephoto reach to any lens. For example, if you buy a Canon 400mm lens, it basically acts as 640mm lens on a Canon 7D. By contrast, that same lens on a 5D is 400mm. The price of a 600mm lens (which is what you would need on a 5D to equal the reach of a 400mm lens on a 7D) is much higher than a 400mm lens by several thousand dollars. So you save a lot of money by using a 7D and getting 640mm out of a 400mm lens!

MYTH: It’s always best to photograph landscapes and architecture with a wide-angle lens, and to take sports and wildlife with a telephoto.

TRUTH: While it’s true that most often landscapes and architecture are photographed with wider angles and that sports and wildlife photographers lean toward telephotos, there are plenty of times when you’ll want to do the opposite. Using telephotos for landscapes can be perfect for picking out important details or isolating a subject. You can also photograph scenes that are far away, and because of the compressing of perspective that is caused by the distance, you can get fabulously layered photos that are really interesting. Similarly, you can use telephotos in architecture to highlight certain details that may otherwise be lost in a wide-angle shot. One of the most useful times to use a telephoto for architecture is when you’re trying to avoid “converging verticals”, that pyramid effect that happens when you’re close to a tall building and shoot with a wide-angle lens pointed upwards. To avoid the lines of the building slanting inwards, use a telephoto lens and stand further back from the building. This allows you to keep the camera pointed straight ahead, rather than pointed upwards. When the camera is pointed straight ahead, you don’t get the slanted lines.

Telephotos are often used for sports and wildlife to bring the athlete or animal closer, but sometimes it’s great to see the subject in its environment. Some of my most favorite wildlife photos are silhouettes of a deer on a mountaintop with a gorgeous sunset in the background, taken at a wide angle. It can really add to wildlife photos if you can show the beautiful surroundings where the animals live.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

The photo above of St. Peter's Basilica in Italy was taken with a 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens from very far away.

MYTH: Low ISOs produce the best picture quality

TRUTH: While technically this is true, it’s important to understand the larger context of how ISO works. From a pure “image quality” perspective, low ISOs produce images that are clean and noise-free. However, low ISOs require you to use longer shutter speeds, which is what causes blurry photos. In almost all cases, it is better to have a noisy photo that is pin-sharp, than a noiseless photo that is blurry! Because of this, it’s important to make sure that you use a shutter speed that is fast enough to prevent blur, even if that means raising the ISO to 800, 1600, or higher. High ISOs also allow you to use a narrower aperture when shooting handheld, which increases depth-of-field ensuring everything is in focus. Today’s cameras are getting better and better at handling noise at high ISOs, so don’t be afraid to use them as necessary. Of course, if you’re using a tripod and shutter speed is not relevant, go ahead and use the lowest ISO to ensure the cleanest photo.

MYTH: A D-SLR is always better than a compact

TRUTH: Sometimes it’s easy to think that a D-SLR is better than a compact camera in all situations. You’ll often find this is not the case. Here are a couple of scenarios where a compact camera may be a better choice.

* Compact cameras are great for macro photography. It is difficult and expensive to design true macro lenses for D-SLRs. In addition, the small depth-of-field of D-SLRs compared to compacts forces you to stop-down your lens to tiny apertures like F22 to get everything in focus. These small apertures require long shutter speeds, and that’s why you almost always need a tripod with D-SLRs for macro photography where focus is critical. Compact cameras on the other hand naturally have a lot of depth of field. You can take amazing macro photos, without a tripod, with most compacts, even the inexpensive ones. Compact cameras are a great way to experiment with macro photography.

* Compact cameras are great for street photography or any photography where you don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself and your gear. There are many occasions and places where you may want to blend into the crowd to get more “natural” shots of people and places, whether it’s a bustling city or simply a friend's party where you’re snapping some candids. Compact cameras are great for this purpose.

* Compact cameras are the best and often only choice when you need to travel light. We’ve all heard the phrase before: The best camera is the one you have with you. (They also say that about tripods.) It’s true -- If the option is no camera at all or bringing along a compact, the compact of course wins every time. Whether it’s going on a long hike somewhere, or diving into the ocean with a small waterproof compact, there are many places where a D-SLR can be just too large, heavy, and cumbersome to bring along. Compacts are great for filling in, and many of the new advanced models have full manual control and outstanding image quality. I went hiking across the summit of Mt. Kilauea, Hawaii, with just my Canon S90 compact, and I can’t tell you how happy I was to not have my D-SLR. The hike would have been incredibly difficult otherwise. With the manual controls and a lightweight tripod, I was still able to capture long-exposure shots of the glow from the lava pools.

MYTH: Lightning photography requires special gear or quick reflexes

TRUTH: As you may have seen in my more in-depth article on Lightning Photography, photographing a lightning storm has little to do with special gear and quick reflexes. It’s simply a matter of using long shutter speeds and a bit of patience to capture the lighting. Using manual mode, set the shutter speed to around 30 seconds, and an aperture and ISO that suits the scene. Then just click the shutter and wait for lightning to strike!

Lightning Strike over NYC

Lightning Strike over NYC

MYTH: Professional photography is a glamorous job of jet setting, models, and exotic locations

TRUTH: Many people dream of being a professional photographer and one day traveling the globe taking photos of exotic locales or photographing models on the beach. The job can certainly seem glamorous and extremely fun, and on rare occasions it can be just that, but more often than not, professional photography is just like any other job. You’ve probably heard this before, but pro photography is probably 20% photography and 80% running your own “business”. That business is just like any other business, and running it involves all the activities of accounting, billing and invoicing, marketing, advertising and sales, administrative work, managing client relationships, etc. You may be amazed to find out how little actual photography there is! Also, many pro photographers generate income not just from photoshoots, but a variety of other “photography-related” pursuits. For example, despite generating income by working for my architectural clients, I also hold photography workshops, I sell prints of existing work as art, I have my iPhone app, etc. You’ll need to be able to juggle a lot of different photography activities, all while running the business side of things and handling the sales, marketing, and accounting. It’s a tough career!

MYTH: You don’t need a tripod these days, because high ISOs allow low-light handheld shooting

TRUTH: High ISOs do allow you to handhold the camera in dim conditions that previously required a tripod. However, these high ISOs are purely used to obtain a fast shutter speed. For me, the beauty of the tripod is that it allows long-exposure photography, something that ISO cannot help with. Long exposure photography is one of my favorite techniques in photography, because it allows the camera to capture “motion”, which adds so much interest to the photo. That motion can be the rushing water of a waterfall or stream, the car light trails in a nighttime cityscape, or the hustle and bustle of people. None of these types of photos are possible without a tripod, so you’re missing out on a whole world of photography without one. Perhaps even more importantly, a tripod is required if you want to do any kind of exposure blending, whether manually or using HDR software. You may already know that cameras are not great at capturing a wide range of brights and darks in a single photo. Exposure blending is simply the process of taking two or more photos at varying brightness levels and combining them on the computer afterwards so that all the brightness levels of the scene are present in the photo. This cannot be done without a tripod because all the photos at different brightnesses must be taken with the camera in the exact same position, so that combining them on the computer is easy. Sure, you can attempt to hold the camera very steady to try this technique, but for serious photography, a tripod is necessary to do it right.

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

MYTH: Great wildlife shots require an expensive African safari

TRUTH: I’ve seen beautiful and incredibly natural wildlife photography that’s been captured in a zoo or local wildlife preserve. The key when capturing the picture is to take special care and attention to eliminate all of the “man-made” features surrounding the animal. For example, this can be done by using a telephoto lens so that just the animal is in the frame and you can’t see the man-made background elements. If the background is going to be visible in the frame, you can also use the widest possible aperture on your lens. This can blur the background to a wash of color where it’s impossible to tell what’s behind the wildlife. When photographing through glass enclosures, be sure to turn off the flash to eliminate reflections. Also get as close to the glass as possible, even pressing the front of the lens right onto the glass to ensure there are no reflections. When done properly, you may find you can take very natural wildlife photos very close to home.

MYTH: Setting your images to 72dpi is important for displaying them on a computer screen

TRUTH: To this day, I’m unable to determine the origin of this myth. The truth is that when it comes to displaying your images on a computer screen, the dpi (dots per inch) you see in your editing software is completely irrelevant. The size of your images displayed on a computer screen is only related to the dimensions of the image in pixels, for example 1200x800 pixels or 640x480 pixels. The larger the image in pixels, the larger it will appear on screen. Ignore any references to setting your images to 72dpi for on-screen viewing.

MYTH: Using image editing software is “cheating”

TRUTH: This is one of the most commonly discussed topics in all of photography. Everyone has their own opinion on it. The reality is this: No digital image produced today is completely unmanipulated. Even if you don’t personally Photoshop the image or fiddle with the adjustment controls on the camera, the digital photo itself is manipulated by the camera’s settings for saturation, contrast, etc. There’s no difference in choosing the black & white mode on your camera which desaturates the image, or the Landscape mode which intensifies blues and greens, than doing it afterwards on the computer. With film, images are adjusted in the darkroom in very much the same way, for brightness, saturation, contrast, etc, as well as dodging and burning to bring out specific details. Photographers throughout time have adjusted their images to make the best representation of what they saw. Many people like to do a little extra “adjusting” and that’s just fine – photography is art. Really the only area where minimal adjustment is required is in photojournalism. For my personal style, I prefer to keep it natural, especially with my travel and architecture photography where I know the images I capture need to represent reality. If you wish to enhance your images to make beautiful art for all to enjoy, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so! It’s all up to you.

If you have any questions about these or any other myths you may have heard, please let me know.

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

Best Regards,
Paul

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

Share this Tutorial with friends:
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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/




23Sep/10Off

Taking Photos in Busy Tourist Destinations with no People in the Shot

Hi everyone! I've created a new tutorial on taking photos in busy tourist destinations with no people in the shot. It's a technique I use all the time, and I hope you find it useful too! While this tutorial is slightly more advanced than some of my other ones (it requires a little bit of work in your editing software), anyone can do it.

I've guest-posted on the always-awesome website Digital-Photography-School.com, and the article is here:

http://www.digital-photography-school.com/taking-photos-in-busy-tourist-destinations-with-no-people-in-the-shot

Enjoy, and as always, please feel free to ask me any questions.

Thanks!
Paul

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

Share this Tutorial with friends:
Share

I've 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

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

8Jul/10Off

Your First D-SLR: Best Ways to Use It

Sunrise over Tahiti

Sunrise over Tahiti

Congratulations! You've purchased your first D-SLR and now it's time to start taking pictures. Many of my friends have also purchased their first D-SLRs too. For those without any background in photography (or who haven't yet read lots of books and magazines), you may not know where to start with your new camera. With all the buttons and new terminology, it can be easy to fall into the trap of just setting your D-SLR to “Auto” mode and letting the camera do all the work.

D-SLRs are capable of taking stunning photos. Before we begin, please allow me to let you know where it’s best not to start. Try to avoid using your new D-SLR like it’s just a larger version of a compact camera. A D-SLR offers much more important features than just great picture quality. D-SLRs enable you to create images that are not possible with point-and-shoots. That's what this article is about.

The easiest and best way to improve your photography is to embrace these features and use them to create photos that can't be taken with a compact camera. That will immediately set your photography apart from the crowd.

What are those features? There are quite a few of them and we'll go through them one-by-one so you understand what each feature is and how to take advantage of it for your own pictures:

First, D-SLRs enable you to take photos where the subject is in sharp focus but the background is intentionally blurred. This makes the subject "pop" out of the picture, and can be one of the best ways to make your images look professional.

Pina Colada, Mexico

Pina Colada, Mexico

These types of photos are not possible on a compact point-and-shoot. The physically small size of a point-and-shoot camera's sensor and lens prevents you from blurring the background on most shots. Because D-SLR sensors and lenses are bigger, you're able to blur the background. Blurring the background is important because it eliminates all the clutter behind your subject and draws attention right to what’s important. In order to achieve the blur, simply use a very wide aperture on your lens such as F4 or F2.8. You can set this by using either Aperture Priority (Av) or Manual (M) mode. The closer you are to the subject and the more you have your lens zoomed in, the greater the effect. So set a wide aperture, zoom in, and get close and you'll achieve that beautiful blur. Try this technique on portraits and sports. Portraits look amazing when the subject is in sharp focus and the background blends to a silky blur of color. Be sure to focus on the eyes of your subject when shooting with wide apertures. Sports are another great time to blur the background. The background at sporting events can often be cluttered with other players, the crowd, advertisements and signs, etc. By blurring the background, your bring the attention right on the athlete. Shooting food this way also produces great results.

Second, D-SLRs are much better at taking pictures in low light than point-and-shoots. D-SLR sensors are larger and are better at gathering light, so the picture quality is improved. You can often shoot with no flash. Use this to your advantage to get shots that would otherwise be impossible with a compact camera.

Statue of Atlas and St. Patrick's Cathedral

Statue of Atlas and St. Patrick's Cathedral

Set the camera to your widest aperture and the ISO to 800 (or even higher if the picture quality looks good) and get out there at night, or indoors in dark scenes and start taking pictures. With a wide aperture, a shutter speed around 1/40th, an ISO of 800 or 1600, and a steady hand, you'll be amazed at what you can capture in very dim lighting. Use it for everything from night photography on the streets to indoor photography at concerts, children’s recitals, birthday parties, weddings, etc. Remember, since there’s no need for flash, this is also great for taking pictures of people that are far away where the flash wouldn't reach, such as on a stage.

Third, D-SLRs allow manual control of the shutter speed, enabling long-exposure photography. Most point-and-shoots except for a few of the advanced models do not allow control of the shutter speed. Using long shutter speeds on your D-SLR can be one of the best ways to produce stunning images with loads of impact and movement.

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Mount your camera on a tripod or rest it on something steady, and set the shutter speed to anywhere from 1/4 second to 30+ seconds depending on what you're photographing. You can use either Shutter Priority (Tv) or Manual (M) mode. Try 1/4 second for moving people in a busy place to show the “hustle and bustle”, or 30 seconds for cars and traffic, to capture light trails at night.

Wall Street, NYC

Wall Street, NYC

A shutter speed of a few seconds is great for capturing the glistening lights of a city skyline.

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

Use your camera’s Bulb mode and a remote control and you can take photos that last several minutes and show the stars streaking across the sky! Using long exposures is also one of the ways that photographers can capture photos of lightning striking during a storm. For all shots, it's important to use the camera's 10-second self timer or a remote control to trigger the shutter, because touching the shutter button will blur the shot.

Fourth, capture high-speed action. D-SLRs are very fast in two ways: (1) There is very little lag between when you press the shutter and when the photo is taken and (2) The shutter speeds can be very fast, such as 1/4000th of a second, allowing you to freeze action and capture images that you can't even see with the human eye.

Sunrise, Mexico

Sunrise, Mexico

Use this for capturing an athlete mid-air diving for a ball, bicycle riders racing down a mountain, raindrops splashing in a puddle, or birds swooping down to land on a lake. Find anything that moves very fast and see if you can freeze its movement. Use either Shutter Priority (Tv) or Manual (M) mode to set the shutter speed.

Fifth, use wide-angle lenses. Most compact cameras have a widest angle of about 28mm, with the occasional compact going to 24mm. By contrast, D-SLRs can go as wide as 15 or 16mm with fairly common lenses, and even wider with specialty lenses. While this may not sound like a lot in terms of millimeters, it is actually much wider and produces photos that are very different and often extremely dramatic.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

If your D-SLR has an APS-C size sensor, a lens that goes to around 10mm will be ultra-wide. If you're using a full-frame camera, a lens around 16mm will be ultra-wide. Capture wide sweeping views of a landscape, or get every person at the family reunion in the photo, even in a small room.

By using wide apertures to blur the background, high ISOs for low-light photography, very long or very fast shutter speeds for motion, and wide-angle lenses, you will immediately start taking photos that set you apart from the crowd.

One last comment -- I love compact point-and-shoot cameras and I use them all the time. I even have a few of them for different types of photography. They're perfect for carrying with you wherever you go, and they enable you to capture images that you otherwise might have missed. Today's compacts also have fantastic picture quality. There is a time and a place for everything, and using your existing compact camera along with your D-SLR for more dramatic images will give you the greatest amount of photographic possibilities.

If you have any questions, please let me know. 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

Best,
Paul

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

Share this Tutorial with friends:
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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

12Nov/09Off

Using Live View on your D-SLR – Tips and Tricks

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

Live View can be found on just about all new D-SLRs introduced lately, and has become an incredible tool to improve your photography. When Live View originally started appearing on D-SLRs, many photographers dismissed it as a gimmick to appease those upgrading from point-and-shoots. As the technology has gotten better and new features have been introduced, more and more people are realizing what an invaluable tool it can be. This article will discuss some of the uses, tips, and tricks of Live View on your D-SLR.

First, let’s cover two of the more “obvious” uses of Live View. The first is when you’re taking pictures and the camera is in a location where it’s difficult to look through the viewfinder, such as very low to the ground. For dramatic low-angle shots, you used to have to literally lie on the ground to look through the viewfinder to frame your subject. Similarly, shots taken with the camera held high over your head for a bird’s-eye perspective were taken without looking through the viewfinder at all, and hoping to catch the shot you needed. Today, this is a thing of the past and lying in the sand on a beach is no longer a necessity to get low-angle shots. Simply switch to Live View and frame the subject using the LCD – today’s Live View screens can be viewed from almost any angle. Use this technique to get shots that otherwise might not be possible.

Live View is also great when you’re waiting for that “decisive moment”, for those times when you’re exercising your inner Henri Cartier-Bresson. If you’re taking a street scene and waiting for a random person to walk right into that “perfect spot” to make the shot, you can mount the camera on a tripod, have a shutter-release remote control in hand, and wait comfortably. When someone walks by, you can casually glance at the LCD and take the shot with the remote. In the past, you’d have to rush your eye back-and-forth to the viewfinder each time someone walked by, or worse, you’d have to keep your eye glued to the viewfinder for long periods of time. The same technique is useful for wildlife – frame the scene, and shoot when the wildlife is in the perfect position.

Now let’s talk about some of the less “obvious” uses for Live View – the uses that really make it an amazing tool.

Live View is great for focusing, and is one of the best things that’s happened to focusing in years. Whether you use autofocus or manual focus, you absolutely should be using Live View in tough-to-focus scenes. Even with the best, brightest viewfinders, it can still be difficult to focus on certain subjects, especially subjects that are far away or small. With autofocus, the best you can do is hope that the camera has focused correctly, and try to confirm its accuracy after-the-fact using the LCD to review the picture. This is still a hit or miss method. The better way is to use Live View. Using Live View, you have a much larger image to study for focus, making it much more accurate. Even better is that many Live View systems allow you to magnify the live image by up to 10x magnification! This is absolutely amazing. You can use Live View with 10x magnification to tweak the focus and ensure that a distant street sign is completely crisp and clearly in focus. This would have been virtually impossible before Live View.

Macro shooters have rejoiced as well. When you’re working with razor-thin depth of field in macro work, where even a millimeter’s mistake in focus can mean ruining the shot, Live View can be incredibly helpful. Mount your camera on a tripod, frame the shot, and activate the magnification. You can use your camera’s joystick or directional buttons to maneuver the magnified portion of the image over the area you want to check focus. Ultra-precise focusing is now possible like never before.

Another advantage is that Live View provides a 100% view of the scene, whereas many viewfinders provide slightly less coverage. If you’ve ever taken a photo and gotten home to find a tree branch, garbage can, or some other random object at the edge of the frame that you didn’t see when you took the picture, this is a result of a less-than-100% viewfinder. Those objects were there all along – you just couldn’t see them through the viewfinder. Live View provides 100% coverage of the scene, so what you see is what you get.

A great feature of many Live View screens is “exposure simulation”. This can be invaluable for quickly determining the correct exposure, especially in low light. Exposure simulation takes into account the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO you’ve selected and adjusts the image on the LCD accordingly. For the most part, the image on the LCD will match the exposure that will be captured in the final image. I find this incredibly useful in low light situations. I can choose an aperture, say F5.6, and a shutter speed of 5 seconds, and immediately see how bright the final image will appear before I even take the shot. Amazing. I can then adjust the shutter speed to get the exact exposure I’m looking for. I use this all the time.

Live View systems often provide the option of overlaying a grid on top of the image. This can be a fantastic tool for ensuring you have level horizons and straight lines. I have my grid turned on all the time and never turn it off. Many cameras allow you to fine tune the grid to have just a couple of lines, or a very fine grid – choose which works best for you. In architectural photography, this is a great tool to ensure that your verticals are vertical and that you don’t have the camera tilted up or down creating the “pyramid” effect with tall buildings. For me, the grid is one of the tools I use most often, as it’s very important to keep horizons straight and verticals parallel.

You can also use the Live View grid to assist with placing your subject using the Rule of Thirds. Many Live View systems provide a grid that looks just like a Rule of Thirds grid. You can use this to line up subjects on or near one of the grid lines, or at the intersection of two grid lines, assisting with composition.

One of the less obvious, but most useful benefits of Live View is that is removes the need to use mirror lock-up. In most cameras with Live View, when you activate it, the mirror is raised (and stays raised) so that the image coming through the lens is projected directly onto the sensor for viewing. This is great and results in sharp shots because it is not necessary to use mirror lock-up, which was the only method to reduce mirror vibrations before. (For those not familiar with mirror-lock up, it is a setting you activate in the camera that raises the mirror a few seconds before the shot is taken. This results in sharper shots because otherwise the movement of the mirror causes vibrations that can result in blur. If you raise the mirror a few seconds before taking the shot, the camera has a chance to stabilize and stop vibrating before the actual shot is taken.) With Live View this procedure is not necessary because the mirror is already raised the entire time. I find this especially useful for HDR images. I can take three bracketed images in very rapid succession using Live View, and the mirror is raised on all the shots. This is not possible using mirror lock-up.

Finally, Live View can be useful when used with your camera’s depth of field preview button. When depth of field is critical, many photographers use the depth of field preview to determine the effect of their selected aperture on depth of field. This can be difficult to see in the viewfinder depending on the subject and the lighting. Because Live View is “through the lens” technology, the effect of the depth of field button is visible on the large LCD and can be more easily seen.

I hope this article has shed some light on many of the benefits of using Live View in your photography. From assisting with focusing, to determining the proper exposure, to straightening horizons and increasing the sharpness of your shots, it’s an incredibly useful tool.

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

As always, if you have any questions, please let me know.

Best,
Paul

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

Share this Tutorial with friends:
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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

 

 

 

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5Nov/09Off

Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography

Tropical and Coastal Stock Photography - Images by Paul Timpa

I’ve written several detailed articles on specific photography topics, but I thought it might be helpful to compile a “Top 10” list of ways to help you take your photography to the next level. This will help tie many of the concepts together and serve as a sort of “quick reference guide”. Feel free to print this out, fold it up, and stuff it in your pocket or camera bag for next time you’re out shooting. If you incorporate even a few of these techniques, you’ll come back with some amazing travel or landscape photos. If you were able to take pin-sharp shots every time, that were perfectly exposed, full of drama, with vibrant colors, and engaging composition, that would be a good thing! These tips will help get you there.

Note: This article is mainly for those using D-SLRs, but some of the tips apply to compact cameras as well. D-SLRs are very powerful cameras. Because of the large physical size of their lenses and sensors (“digital film”), they’re capable of taking photographs that a compact camera cannot take. Add to that the full manual control over the exposure settings, and you can take extremely creative images.

So, let’s get right into it. Try to use some of the items below on your next shoot, and I think you’ll see a tremendous improvement in your pictures.

1) Learn to use “Manual” or “M” mode on your camera, instead of Program Mode (P), Aperture Priority (Av), or Shutter Priority (Tv). It may seem complicated, but it's really easy. In fact, I personally find manual mode to be EASIER to use than the automatic modes! This is because I'm not always wondering what the camera is up to and trying to override the decisions it makes in automatic. Here's an analogy I like to use: Which is easier? --> driving a car where you control both the steering and the speed, or driving a car where you control the steering but a friend controls the speed, and if your friend doesn't get the speed right, you have to start telling him how to correct it, hoping he gets it right. For me, it's much easier just to control both. Trust me, with just a tiny bit of practice, you'll be very comfortable using manual mode, and may even like it better than the automatic modes too.

There are two main reasons for using manual mode. Firstly, it forces you to choose a specific shutter speed and aperture. Both items will need to be manually chosen by you, which is a good thing, because you then have to think about what you’re trying to achieve creatively and stylistically with those choices. Using any of the other modes mentioned above causes the camera to choose at least one of those two items (shutter speed or aperture) if not both. Because background blur / depth of field and the representation of movement in a photo are directly controlled by the aperture and shutter speed chosen, it’s critical to select exactly what they are so you get the effect you’re looking for. The second reason to use manual mode is because on any other mode, the camera is choosing the exposure for you, meaning how dark or bright the photo is. The camera uses a technique where it tries to “guess” the correct exposure, but it’s just a guess. Sometimes it’s correct, and sometimes it’s not. The only way to ensure a correct exposure is to set it yourself. For more detail on how the camera makes its guess at the exposure and a great example of when / why to use manual mode, feel free to see this separate article I wrote on the topic:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/blog/2009/08/how-to-take-sunset-portraits-indoor-portraits-about-your-cameras-light-meter/

 
2) Incorporate “Long Exposures” into your photography. One of the greatest things about photography is its ability to convey motion in a still image, and one of the most creative ways to show this motion is through the use of long exposures (using a long shutter speed). From flowing water, to car trails and star trails, to just people walking, long exposures can create magic in your photography.


[The photo above of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange was taken with a long shutter speed on a tripod to blur the people walking]

You’ll need a tripod or something steady to rest the camera on for this technique, because it’s not possible to physically hold the camera still for the duration of the long exposures. Moving the camera would result in blurry photos. Important: You should also use the 10-second self timer to take the shot, as touching the camera to press the shutter button will shake it enough to cause a blurry shot. Better yet, you can buy an inexpensive remote control to trigger the shutter, which allows you more control over when the shutter is clicked. To use this long exposure technique, set the camera up on a tripod or steady object, and choose a long exposure like 2 seconds, 5 seconds, or even 30 seconds. This shutter speed will result in a very bright shot, so set the aperture to something small (a big number) like F16 or F18, which will darken the picture and bring it back to normal brightness. If the photo is still too bright even with the smallest aperture, you can use a Neutral Density filter, which acts like “sunglasses” for your lens, and darkens the picture. Try this technique on water, cars at night, busy streets, etc. and you’ll see some amazing images. A great time to experiment with long exposures is at night, where you don’t have to concern yourself with the pictures coming out too bright. Some of the most stunningly beautiful photography is taken at night, and almost all requires the use of long exposures. At night, set your camera on a tripod or something steady, set your aperture to F5.6 and your shutter speed to around 5 seconds, and make sure to use the self-timer so that you don’t physically have to touch the shutter button. Experiment with the shutter speed to get the correct brightness. You’ll be amazed at the images you can produce with this simple technique.


[The photo above of the Brooklyn Bridge at Night, NYC, was taken with a long exposure] 

 
3) Use wide apertures. A wide aperture is what creates that beautiful background blur and makes your subject “pop”. There is just something special about a photo taken with a really wide aperture that makes it stand out. Whenever you see a portrait and the person is pin sharp, but the background is just a creamy wash of color, it just looks “professional”. This is also one of the things that a compact camera simply cannot do, because it’s a physical limitation of the size of compact cameras. On a D-SLR it’s possible to get beautiful background blur when you use a wide aperture. To further increase the amount of blur, use a longer focal length (zoom in) because longer focal lengths provide more background blur than wide-angle focal lengths. Standing close to your subject also increases the effect. The next time you’re out, set your camera to an aperture of F4 or wider (smaller number like F2.8 for F1.8), zoom all the way in, and try taking some creative portraits or landscapes.


[The photo above of a Pina Colada on a Caribbean beach was taken with a wide aperture to blur the background]
 

4) Keep horizons level and verticals straight. This one is easy, but it can make such a huge difference in the perception of your pictures. You could take the most amazing landscape photo, perfectly in focus with a great exposure, but if the horizon is crooked and slanted, the photo will look amateur. Always do your best to make sure the horizon is level when you take a shot. If it’s not, it’s a relatively easy correction in most editing software, and it takes less than 10 seconds to fix. It may sound silly, but it makes a huge difference. (Of course if you’re intentionally slanting the horizon for some kind of creative effect, that’s something different). As for “verticals”, that’s something that’s a little more difficult to control. When I say verticals, I’m just referring to any perfectly vertical lines in a photo like the sides of buildings, or walls, or lampposts, or anything that runs straight up and down. You get slanted verticals when you point the camera up or down, versus keeping it pointed straight ahead. This is why it’s so common in photos of buildings and architecture… you tilt the camera upward to include the top of the building in the photo and this causes the sides of the building to tilt inward. So how do you fix it? There are a couple of ways. Firstly, try not to tilt the camera. If you don’t think you’ll be printing the picture at a large size, then you can keep the camera level and zoom out wide with your lens to include the top of the building. Then you can just crop out the foreground later which will have the “effect of zooming back in”, except the final picture will have nice straight verticals. If the widest focal length still doesn’t capture the top of the building, you can try to see if you can take the photo from a higher spot like a nearby stairway. This way you might be able to get the top without tilting the camera upward. If none of those works, you can correct it in your editing software using the perspective control features. (For some situations, this may be the easiest way). Lastly, if you take a lot of architecture photos, you can invest in a Tilt / Shift lens (a.k.a. perspective control or PC lens), which allows you take photos of tall buildings without tilting the camera (I have one and I use it all the time). Level horizons and straight verticals really add a level of professionalism to your photos.

 
5) Rule of Thirds. The “Rule of Thirds” is a guideline to help with the composition of your photos – that is, where you place objects within the picture. The basic principle of this guideline is that you should avoid putting the subject of your photo directly in the center of the picture. For example, if you’re taking a picture of an ocean scene, rather than putting the horizon directly in the middle of the picture with the top half of the photo consisting of sky and the bottom half consisting of the land/ocean, think about putting the horizon in a different spot. The Rule of Thirds suggests that it’s more visibly pleasing to have main objects in your picture 1/3rd of the way from the top or bottom, or 1/3rd from the left and right, rather than splitting the picture in half. For instance, for the ocean shot, if the waves of the ocean are especially captivating, you can fill the bottom 2/3rds of the frame with the ocean and the top 1/3rd of the frame with the sky. This tells the viewer that the main point of interest is the ocean and its waves. On the other hand, if the sky is very dramatic, you could do the opposite and fill the top 2/3rds of the photo with the sky and clouds, and the bottom 1/3rd with the ocean. For people shots, consider putting the person 1/3rd in from the left or right, rather than right in the middle. For a sunset, rather than placing the sun directly in the middle of the photo, try placing it 1/3rd from the top and 1/3rd from the left. You’ll see that your pictures actually feel more “balanced” that way because the subject is not cutting your photo in half, leaving your eye bouncing around both halves not knowing which is more important.

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

 
6) Take sharp shots. It’s so common to capture what could have been a great image, but it’s ruined because it’s blurry. I’ve written an article dedicated to the topic of taking sharp shots, and I’ll include the link below. To summarize, the most important thing to remember is to use a shutter speed that is fast enough to combat the camera shake that causes blurry photos. My rule, which is conservative, is to double the focal length to determine my minimum shutter speed. This is especially true at longer focal lengths. So for instance, for a shot with the lens zoomed to 100mm, the shutter speed has to be at least 1/200th second. For a focal length at 200mm, the shutter has to be at least 1/400th second, and so on. If you do this, you’ll get a lot more “keepers”. If you have a lens with Image Stabilization or Anti-Shake, you have a little more freedom. Even so, I then shoot at a shutter speed equal to the focal length, so for an image-stabilized lens at 150mm, I’d shoot at 1/150th a second or faster. If you’re in a situation where you need a longer shutter speed than the guideline above allows, because the photo is too dark at faster shutter speeds, it’s simple: use a tripod or rest the camera on something steady. Alternatively, for “snapshots” you can try raising the ISO, but for important pictures, I wouldn’t recommend going above ISO 400 or 800 if using a tripod is an option. The other way to help ensure sharp pictures is to make sure the camera is focused properly. I recommend using only the center focus point, because if you use all the focus points, it’s much easier for the camera to accidentally focus on something you didn’t intend. I’d say more otherwise good photos are ruined because of lack of sharpness than any other technical problem. If you concentrate on getting this right, you’ll be well on your way to taking many more great images. More detail on getting sharp photos can be found in my article on this topic:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/blog/2009/03/taking-sharp-photos-avoiding-blurring-pictures/

 
7) Get creative with Flash. It’s all too easy to just use the flash only at night, by setting the camera to program mode and popping the flash to illuminate your subject. This will get you decent-to-mediocre results, but with a just a small bit of effort, you can take your flash pictures to a whole new level of creativity. Here are a few tips.

Firstly, learn to use Flash Exposure Compensation. This simply controls how powerful the light from the flash is, making it brighter or darker as necessary. This is probably the easiest technique to use, and can greatly improve flash results. In your camera’s settings, there will be a setting for Flash Exposure Compensation. You can change the flash exposure, usually in a range from about -2 to +2 stops. When you do this, the camera adjusts the power of the flash accordingly. It can be very useful in many situations. You may have seen or taken photographs where the flash power is just way too bright. This sometimes happens with portraits when you take pictures from close up. Because you’re close to the subject, the flash power is too bright, making faces appear white or washed out. In this case, simply set FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation) to a negative number like -1 or -2, and take the shot again. You’ll see the lower flash output produces a much more natural result. Similarly, if your subject is very far away, you may want to increase the flash output so that it reaches your subject. You can do this by changing the FEC to +1 or +2 or any number that works for you.

Another important time to use flash is during the day when there is bright sunlight. The bright sun can produce harsh shadows on your subject. The shadows are even darker and more pronounced if the sun is behind your subject. In these cases, it can really help to use flash. Pop the flash and set the Flash Exposure Compensation to -1 (so that it provides just a hint of fill-light) and you’ll see how much better your outdoor photos will look. I often use flash outside during the day.

Finally, you can start to use flash along with your camera’s Manual exposure mode, to capture amazing night images and portraits. For example, for a photo of a person in front of a nighttime city skyline, you can follow these steps: turn off the flash and set the exposure manually for the background, in this case the nighttime city skyline. Once you have the city skyline correctly exposed in Manual Mode, pop the flash to illuminate your subject. You will get a perfectly exposed subject as well as a perfectly exposed background. Use Flash Exposure Compensation to tweak the brightness of the flash if necessary.

 
8) Shoot in RAW mode, instead of JPEGs. Shooting your pictures using your camera’s RAW mode, vs. shooting JPEGs, will greatly affect the final look of your pictures for the better. You may have already seen my detailed article on this topic (I’ll put the link below), but to summarize: Shooting in RAW gives you the flexibility to adjust the contrast, saturation, sharpness, and white balance “after” the photo is taken. These elements are absolutely critical to the final look of your photo. When you take a photo using your camera’s JPEG mode, the settings for saturation, sharpness, contrast, and white balance are “burned into” the picture permanently and cannot be changed. The only way to adjust these after the fact is if you tried to manipulate the image in Photoshop or some other editing program, which could severely degrade the quality of your photo. Further, shooting in RAW provides a higher-quality picture because the photo is not “compressed” to make the file size smaller, like it is with JPEGs. If you want to take your photography to the next level, you really should be shooting in RAW. I often get asked about the vibrant colors in my photos – it’s from shooting in RAW. More detail on shooting in RAW can be found in my article on RAW vs. JPEG:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/blog/2009/02/shooting-in-raw-vs-jpeg/

 
9) Use filters. There is still a place for filters in your camera bag, even in the digital age where images can be edited in Photoshop. Photoshop will never be able to blur a waterfall (not realistically, anyway) or remove glare from the ocean. This is where filters come in, and they can make a wonderful impact on your photos. The #1 filter that every photographer should have is the polarizer. It’s easy to use and can have a great impact on your photos. A polarizer reduces reflections, which has a couple of beneficial effects on your photos. For daytime shots, blue skies get deep blue and beautifully saturated, and clouds really pop. For distant objects, a polarizer cuts through the haze. On water, a polarizer reduces reflections on the surface of the water, allowing you to see what’s beneath the surface.


[The photo above of a woman snorkeling in Tahiti was taken with a polarizer to remove reflections from the surface of the ocean]

It also reduces reflections of water droplets on leaves and foliage, increasing saturation. For glass and other reflective objects, reflections are removed allowing you to see through the object. I use it especially in tropical locations with gorgeous turquoise water, to cut the glare, allowing you to see the coral and ocean life below.

Another type of filter is the Neutral Density filter. “ND” filters reduce the amount of light that goes through the lens (much like a pair of sunglasses reduces light getting to your eye), effectively darkening the photo. This allows you to use long shutter speeds during the day or at night, without the picture getting too bright. The long shutter speeds will allow for fantastic motion blur effects, and are necessary to blur moving water and waterfall photos that are taken during the day.


[The photo above of a waterfall in Costa Rica was taken with a Neutral Density filter to allow for a long exposure during bright daylight conditions]

A twist on the ND filter is the Graduated ND filter, which reduces the amount of light going through the lens, but only for a portion of the picture (for example, just the top half). This is useful for sunrises / sunsets or any scene where half the picture is very bright and the other half is darker. You simply place the dark half of the filter over the bright part of the scene to even up the lighting for a perfect exposure. For more info on filters and how to use them, I wrote a more detailed article here:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/blog/2009/07/camera-filters-for-photography/

 
10) Shoot in the right light. This is one of the most important, though “abstract” tips. Truly understanding this principle is possibly the single most fundamental technique that will improve your photography. Shoot in the right light. Think about it – you’re not “really” photographing an object. You’re photographing light. Here’s a very oversimplified example that will illustrate what I’m talking about. Go on a beach and take a picture at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Return at midnight to the same spot and take the same picture at night. Do they look the same? Of course not. The beach itself is exactly the same, but the “light” is different. Yet you have two wildly, drastically different photographs, even though the location and the subject is identical. It is critical to think about that and understand that as a photographer. Whenever you’re shooting travel or landscape photography, think about the fact that you are shooting the light, and not “just” the object. Decide on the quality of light you want to shoot, that is, how bright, how dark, is it sunlit, moonlit, from what direction, etc. Then go take your photographs when the light is right. You may have heard the term “golden hour” used by photographers. This refers to the light you get outdoors just before/after sunrise and just before/after sunset. This is generally some of the best light to shoot in, because you get beautiful golden sunlight cast on your subject from an angle (which brings out texture), the scene is not too bright so you don’t have harsh shadows, and the sky is deep and saturated with a multitude of colors from golden yellows, reds, and oranges to deep blues and purples. Shooting in the right light can transform an ordinary photo into something special.

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Taking properly exposed, pin-sharp photos that are full of drama, with vibrant colors and engaging composition can be possible if you just keep in mind these few simple tips the next time you’re out shooting. Have fun, and as always, please feel free to let me know if you have any questions.

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

Best,
Paul

Please feel free to share this tutorial with your Facebook friends:

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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:

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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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

 

New York City Stock Photos - Images by Paul Timpa

Photos used in this posting:

Wall Street and New York Stock Exchange, New York Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000Kw_9_puecYo

Brooklyn Bridge at Night, New York Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000LjU_W9RRIvQ

Pina Colada on Caribbean Beach, Tropical Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000U3N.juBas0o

Tahiti, Snorkeling in Lagoon, Tropical Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000kd9OAeUvqKc

Costa Rica Waterfall, Tropical Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000iansaqXbPO8

18Aug/09Off

How to Take Sunset Portraits — Indoor Portraits — About Your Camera’s Light Meter

Sunrise over Tahiti

Sunrise over Tahiti

I’m writing this brief tutorial on how to take sunset portraits, since it was inspired by a “real life” situation that occurred on a fun trip this past weekend.  Hopefully it can help some other people too.  This article also goes into detail on how your light meter works, and a technique for using flash.

This past weekend we were on a small vacation, and decided to take a sunset cruise on a sailboat around the island we were on.  A nice young couple that was on the boat with us asked me if I could take a picture of them with the sun setting behind them.  They had a D-SLR, and I took the picture with the settings that were already set up on the camera, in this case “Auto Mode”, where the camera chooses the aperture and shutter speed based on the lighting.  I took the photo and the couple looked great, but the beautiful colors of the sunset were completely gone, and replaced with an almost white / gray background.  I asked the couple if they minded if I adjusted the settings on the camera a bit, and less than a few seconds later, I took another shot that looked completely different.  The colors of the sunset were back, beautifully saturated, and the photo looked great.  The couple was really pleased and of course I showed them how I did it, and they couldn’t believe how easy it was.

So what was the problem with the first shot that caused the sunset to disappear into a white patch?  It was the use of Auto Mode.  Many of you who have read my other articles already know how much I stress the importance of learning to use Manual mode, and using it as much as possible.  This is a perfect example.  Let’s discuss why Auto mode doesn’t work here…

When you take a picture on Auto mode, the computer chip inside a camera measures the light in order to determine how bright to make the photo, but it has no idea what it is looking at.  It takes a guess.  The computer is specifically set to take all pictures at a “medium brightness” level because “most” scenes we encounter are taken in medium lighting (not too dark, not too bright).  So it automatically selects a shutter speed and aperture that will result in a medium-brightness photo.  This works in many cases, but definitely not all.  If you always used Auto mode for every photo you took, there would be many photos incorrectly exposed, as was the case in the sunset picture.  The reason in this case is this: except for the sun itself (the bright ball that is actually the sun), a sunset is fairly dark.  Think about it… it’s almost night.  When you try to take a picture of a sunset on Auto Mode, the camera’s light meter measures the light and sees that it’s fairly “dark” outside.  As mentioned before, the computer chip in the camera is programmed to take all pictures at “medium” brightness… so what does it do?  It increases the brightness of the photo!  Your beautiful golden-red sunset has now been artificially brightened into a white/gray sky because the camera thinks that’s what you want.  But it isn’t what you want, and that’s why Auto Mode is not a good mode to rely on.

So how did I correct the photo?  It’s simple, I took the picture on manual mode with the sky correctly exposed.  There are two main steps: (1) Set the proper exposure for the sunset without the people in the picture and then (2) turn on the flash and add the people, then take the photo.  Here are the detailed steps:

* Switch the camera to “M” Mode (Manual)

* Turn off the flash – at this point, we are just setting the correct exposure for the sunset

* Set the ISO to 100 (you can raise this later if necessary)

* Set the Aperture to around F5.6 or F8

* Set the shutter speed to a starting test number, let’s say 1/250th second

* Without any people in the shot, take a test shot and look at the brightness of the sunset.  If it’s too bright, increase the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second and take another test shot.  Still too bright? Increase again until the sunset looks beautiful and fully saturated.  If the original test shot was too dark, then decrease the shutter speed to 1/125th second, and take a test shot.  Play with shutter speed until the sunset looks perfect.  Once you’ve got the sunset looking just right, proceed to the next step. Note: In many cameras the shutter speed may be limited to a certain speed when the flash is on. If you've raised the shutter speed to 1/250th or 1/500th and it cannot be raised further, you can close down the aperture to F11 or F16 to darken the photo if necessary.

* Turn on the flash and ask the people to step into the picture

* Take the shot… if it looks good, you’re done!  Depending on how close to the camera the people are standing, you may want to lower the flash power if their faces are very bright compared to the sunset.  This can easily be done by using the Flash Exposure Compensation feature of most cameras (see the manual for your specific camera on how to do it).

That’s all there is to it.  That simple adjustment completely changed the picture for the better, and it took me literally less than ten seconds: I switched the dial to manual mode, checked the ISO an aperture which were fine as-is, and I set a faster shutter speed that kept the sunset a beautiful golden red.

The reason why this works is because in Manual mode, the exposure of the background (the sky and sunset) and the exposure of the people (with the flash) are two completely separate things.  The exposure of the sunset itself is determined by you with the shutter speed.  The exposure of the people is determined by circuitry in the flash unit, which generally does a fairly good job of setting the flash at the proper brightness.  This “separation” allows you to control the relative brightness of the background vs. the people in the foreground independently. The reason I went into so much detail here is not so that you can take beautiful sunset pictures, but because it’s important to understand the underlying principles of how the camera works.  Understanding that the camera’s light meter is measuring with the intent to make all pictures “medium brightness” is fundamental to getting the correct exposure.  For this same reason, a picture of bright white snow will come out as a dull gray when a camera is on Auto mode.  The camera sees the bright white snow, says to itself “this is too bright” and then artificially darkens it to a medium brightness, which in this case would be a gray.  Also, the principle that in Manual mode, the background exposure is separate from the flash exposure is also important, not just for sunsets.  For example, in indoor shots, this is very useful.  We’ve all seen shots taken with the flash indoors, where the area behind the people is completely black – informally called the “cave effect” because it looks like the people are in a dark cave.  When you understand that the exposure for the room itself is controlled with shutter speed / aperture, you can follow the steps above and (1) turn off the flash, (2) adjust the shutter speed so the room is exposed properly and then (3) turn on the flash and have your friends enter the picture. This will allow you to take much more creative photos with incredible impact. For the photo below of the couple holding hands, I adjusted the exposure for the background, and then turned on the flash to ensure their hands were not in shadow.

Holding Hands in Bora Bora
Holding Hands in Bora Bora

[Click here to purchase this photo as a Print or Stock License]

Using these techniques, you can take much more powerful photos.

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

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

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


Best,
Paul

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

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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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa