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

29Mar/10Off

Tutorials List

I've compiled a list of all the photography tutorials I've written.

To view a tutorial, please click the link below for the topic that interests you.

My iPhone and Android app which teaches photography is here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android


Taking Sharp Photos


Night Photography


Sports, Children, Wildlife, and Action


HDR Photography Tutorial


Photographing Lightning Storms


Camera Lens Filters for Photography


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


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


A "General Approach" to Photography and Working a Scene


Manual Mode on Your D-SLR — When and Why to Use It


Color Management Made Simple – How to Calibrate your Monitor


Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography


Photography Tips for Compact Cameras and Point-and-Shoots


"What Camera to Buy?" — A guide on choosing a D-SLR


Shooting in RAW vs. JPEG


Choosing the best Focal Length for a photo


How to Photograph Fireworks


Camera Settings for Helicopter Photography and Aerial Photography


Your First D-SLR: Best Ways to Use It


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


iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch app which teaches photography:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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:
Share

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

 

 

 

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:

Share

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

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

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

16Jul/09Off

How to take photos of Sports, Children, Wildlife, and other fast-moving subjects

Sunrise Flight

Sunrise Flight

Taking photos of fast-moving subjects can make for some amazing photography, but it also presents a unique set of challenges.  In this tutorial, I’ll cover some of the basics of how to set your camera to capture fast moving subjects that you might see in sports, or wildlife, or when trying to capture children.

First, let’s discuss shutter speed.  It is shutter speed that allows you to freeze motion and capture sharp photos of moving subjects.  For most of this tutorial, we’ll assume you’re aiming to capture sharp frozen-in-time photos of your subjects.  I’ll discuss creative motion blur later.

For fast-moving subjects, you need a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement.  There’s no exact shutter speed to memorize because it varies by situation.  The shutter speed to use depends on how fast the subject is moving, how far away the subject is from you, and whether it’s moving across the frame or coming toward / away from you.

Derek Jeter sliding into 2nd base

Derek Jeter sliding into 2nd base

For most “general” types of moving subjects, I find that 1/500th second works in a lot of cases, and is a good starting point.  1/500th should be able to freeze most moving subjects.  Of course, some things can be frozen with a much slower shutter speed, and some require much faster.  The farther the subject is from you, the slower you can go with the shutter.  Similarly, if the subject is coming toward / away from you, you can use a slower shutter speed.  The opposite is true if something is close to you or moving across the frame.  Think of it this way, if there are horses a mile away running toward you, you won’t need that fast of a shutter speed.  They’ll look pretty much the same even after a second has gone by.  On the other hand, if you’re standing on the track at a NASCAR race and a racecar speeds past you when you’re twenty feet away, you’re going to need a mighty fast shutter speed to capture that car.

If you have the time to experiment and try a few settings, then go ahead and see what shutter speed works for the subject you’re shooting.

Bellagio, Las Vegas

Bellagio, Las Vegas

So how do we get those fast shutter speeds and how do we set the camera?  You have two options as far as setting the camera.  You can either set the camera to Shutter Priority or Manual Mode. Then select the shutter speed that works for you.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  If you use Shutter Priority, the camera will use the shutter speed you select and will set the aperture automatically for you, but with a potentially different aperture from shot-to-shot, depending on the lighting in each shot.  This can be useful if you’re pointing the camera in all different directions from shot to shot and the lighting is different in each shot.  The camera will help ensure the exposure is correct for each shot, by adjusting the aperture.  The disadvantage is that there will be no consistency from shot-to-shot, which is actually the advantage of using Manual Mode. 

In Manual Mode, you set both the shutter speed and the aperture to capture the subject with the correct exposure.  Regardless of whether the subject is in front of a light background or a dark background, the subject will always be captured correctly, but the brightness of the background will vary because the aperture will remain the same.  If you use Shutter Priority, it’s “possible” that the camera may choose an aperture you don’t want.  Here’s an example to make it clearer… let’s say you’re taking pictures at an NFL football game.  You have the camera set to Shutter Priority mode at 1/500th second.  You’re taking several photographs in a row using your camera’s rapid-fire continuous shooting mode as a player is running across the field.  In one shot, the player is in front of a background that consists of the crowd, and the crowd is fairly dark.  The camera chooses an aperture of F4.  Two seconds later the player has run down the field some more, you take another picture, but this time the background is a bright white billboard for a car company.  Because the scene is brighter, the camera chooses an aperture of F8.  Well now you have two pictures at two different settings, and the player is going to be darker in the second one.  Had you shot in manual mode, the player would have looked identical in both shots, but the background would have been bright in the shot with the billboard.  This is an example of some of the types of things you’ll want to think about.  Do you want the player to look identical from shot-to-shot, or are you more concerned about the overall exposure of any given one image?  It’s up to you.  I personally shoot in manual mode so I know what I’m going to get, but it’s a matter of personal preference. 

Skiing -- Taking Photos of Fast Moving Subjects

Skiing -- Taking Photos of Fast Moving Subjects

Let’s talk a little bit about how to ensure you’re getting the correct exposure.  We know that fast shutter speeds let in very little light.  All other things being equal, fast shutter speed = dark pictures.  So we have to compensate for that to make the photo brighter.  The best way to compensate for fast shutter speeds is to open up the aperture (set it to a low F-number like F4 or F2.8).  Apertures that wide let in a lot of light, allowing the fast shutter speeds while still keeping the image bright.  Of course opening up the aperture that wide also limits depth-of-field (the amount of the picture that is in focus front-to-back).  A wide aperture causes a nice blurred background, which in many cases is exactly what we want (for the football example above, it’s best to have the crowd render as a soft out-of-focus dark area so the player really pops out in the image). 

If you want more of the photo to be in focus, you’ll have to close down the aperture. You may also have to use a narrower aperture simply because your lenses don't have particularly wide apertures at all.  Lenses with wide apertures are expensive to make.  What you’re paying for is all that glass and technology that allows the lens to let in that much light.  If you’ve ever heard the term “fast lens”, that’s what this is referring to.  A fast lens is a wide-aperture lens that allows for fast shutter speeds.  Most people consider a fast lens to be at least F2.8.  Zoom lenses rarely go below F2.8.  Prime lenses (non-zooming) can go down to as low as F1.2!  They can take pictures in incredibly dim lighting and still allow a fast shutter speed. If you’re at the widest aperture your lens allows (or that you want to use), you’ve determined the appropriate shutter speed, and the photo is still too dark, then you have to resort to raising the ISO.  ISO essentially brightens the image, but it also decreases image quality.  I use ISO as a last resort in the chain.  I start at ISO 100 (which will ensure the best image quality), then I adjust my shutter speed and aperture to see how much light I can get.  If the image is still too dark, I increase the ISO to 200 and check the brightness again.  I keep increasing the ISO one step at a time until I reach the correct brightness level, all the while trying to keep the ISO as low as possible.

Besides exposure, the other challenge when shooting moving subjects is focus.  There are a couple of options that will help you get the results you want.

Moving subjects can be difficult to focus on.  Many people (including myself) generally rely on only the center focus point and opt to turn off all other focus points for everyday shooting.  This means that if the moving object moves anywhere in the frame that is off of the center focus point, the picture will be out of focus.  In these cases, I may sometimes turn on all of the focus points to have a better chance of catching the subject.  Even so, it can be tricky, and it may require you to move the camera quickly to ensure the subject is always on one of the focus points.

Cat jumping for her toy

Cat jumping for her toy

When shooting in continuous shooting mode, a.k.a. sports mode, rapid-fire mode, etc., meaning that the camera will continue to take pictures in rapid succession for as long as you hold down the shutter button, there are a couple of focusing options. 

(1) Single-shot AF (autofocus) means that the camera will focus on the object when you first press the shutter button, and will remain focused on that one spot for as long as you hold the shutter button down, even if the subject moves off of the focus point or changes distance from you.  This ensures that all the shots in a series maintain the exact same focus.  It’s useful when the subject is moving side-to-side.  

(2) Continuous AF, Servo Focus, etc. means the camera will continually re-focus on the subject automatically from shot-to-shot while all the shots are taken in rapid succession.  This is useful if the subject is coming toward you or moving away from you.  For example, if you’re standing at the finish line of a running race with the runners coming toward you, you’ll want to use Continuous AF so that each picture re-focuses on the runners as they get closer. 

(3) Manual Focus:  Manual focus is one of the most important focus modes.  In this day and age with everything being automatic, you may wonder why you would ever want to use Manual focus.  The answer is because it’s quick and you’ll definitely get the shot off.  When you use autofocus, one of three things is going to happen: (1) the camera will take a certain amount of time to focus (albeit sometimes briefly) and will achieve proper focus or (2) the camera will take some time to focus but will focus incorrectly resulting in a blurry throwaway shot or (3) worst case, the camera will not focus at all and it won’t take a picture (this happens a lot at night or in dim lighting).  Using manual focus, you get around the problem of waiting for the lens to focus.  You don’t have to worry about the camera being incorrect in its focus choice, or not taking the picture at all.  I often use manual focus when it’s appropriate.  For example, going back to our car racetrack example, if you were in the stands and trying to take a picture of cars coming across the finish line, this is a perfect time to use Manual Focus.  Focus manually by eye on the finish line, or use autofocus to focus on the finish line and then switch the lens to manual focus.  Now, no matter when you press the shutter, the photo will be in perfect focus, it will take the picture immediately upon pressing the shutter, and should a bird fly into the top of the frame as you’re taking the picture, there’s no chance the camera will decide to focus on the bird!  For night and low-light photography, manual focus is often the only option that provides results quick enough for moving subjects.

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

The previous tips will help you get tack-sharp photos of moving subjects.  But what if you want to show some motion in your images?  Then you’ll need to do the exact opposite with the shutter speed and set it for extra long.  You have two options regarding the style of the shot when doing this:  you can mount the camera on a tripod so that all stationary objects are pin sharp while the moving objects are motion-blurred, or you can handhold the camera while panning along with the subject.  I wouldn’t recommend just setting a long shutter speed and handholding without panning, because that will just look like an unintentionally blurred shot. 

For the tripod shot, that’s pretty straightforward.  Mount the camera on a tripod and set the exposure so that there is a long shutter speed (experiment to determine the appropriate speed for your subject).  This will result in a bright photo, so you’ll usually need a small aperture (high F-number) for this, to ensure a properly exposed photo.  Shots like this will show a pin-sharp background with moving subjects.

Rockefeller Center at Christmas, NYC

Rockefeller Center at Christmas, NYC

For panning, experiment with a few different shutter speeds (start at 1/10th a second), and as the subject begins to pass in front of you, click the shutter, and while holding the camera to your eye, pivot your waist at the same speed as the subject is passing by you.  Continue to follow through with your pivot even after the shutter is closed, to ensure a smooth pan.  To get an appropriately long shutter speed, you may have to close down the aperture (small F-number like F16 or F22) because the long shutter speed will let a lot of light in.  You'll be counteracting that brightness by closing the aperture.  You can also add a burst of flash during the exposure which will help make the subject pop.  When using flash, I recommend using 2nd-Curtain flash sync (it’s a setting in your camera that you’ll see in the menus).  This means that the camera will flash at the end of long exposure (vs. the beginning).  It’s important because in most cases the photo will not look correct if you’re panning and the flash goes off at the beginning of the exposure – you want it to flash at the end.

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Here are a few more tips before we wrap up.  As a compositional tip, always allow space for the moving object to “move into” the frame.  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). 

Any time you’re trying to achieve a fast shutter speed to freeze action, be sure to remove any filters from your lenses.  For example, polarizers can reduce the light entering the camera by up to 2 or more stops.  That means without a polarizer, you might be able to get the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second, but if you don’t remove the polarizer, the best you can get is 1/125th of a second, or 1/60th.  That’s too slow to freeze action.

If you’re shooting sports from a long distance and are using a telephoto lens (for example, something in the 150mm+ range), you may want to consider using a monopod.  A monopod is basically a one-legged tripod with an attachment at the top to mount your camera.  You have to hold it up yourself, but if you’re using shutter speeds in the 1/250th range with a long lens, you may have some camera shake that will result in a blurry photo.  Monopods help stabilize the camera, are very inexpensive and can make a huge difference in the sharpness of your shots.  It’s easy to sit in the stands watching a game with the monopod adjusted to the correct height, and a side benefit is that you don’t have to hold up the weight of the camera the entire time.

Carousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris

Carousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris

Taking action-stopping photos or photos with creative motion blur can really help make your pictures stand out.  Experiment with the techniques above and you’ll see the difference right away.


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

Photography Trainer for iOS and Android

 
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Thanks for reading, and best regards,
Paul

 
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Copyright 2014, Paul Timpa

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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

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

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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


27Mar/09Off

How To Take Sharp Pictures / Avoid Blurry Photos

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Taking sharp photos is one of the most important “technical” aspects of photography, as sharpness plays an important role in the quality of your image. Having your photo tack-sharp can often be the difference between a simple snapshot and a professional-looking image. This guide will provide pointers for ensuring your photos are pin-sharp.

(As a side-note, there will be many times when you’ll intentionally want to blur the background or have areas of your photo out-of-focus. That’s an artistic decision. This guide’s goal is to discuss sharpness in the areas where you want it.)

Probably the single most common cause of blurry pictures is camera movement during the exposure. Even the slightest movement of the camera during an exposure will result in some blur and loss of sharpness. So how can we fix this?

One of the most important ways to ensure sharp photos is to use a fast shutter speed (short duration). The longer the shutter is open, the more chance for the camera to move and the more any movement will be picked up. Once you start to get above 1/1000th of a second, blurry shots due to camera movement becomes almost a non-issue. So how short is short enough for the shutter speed? There used to be a “guideline” that said when handholding a camera, the shutter speed should be at least 1 over the focal length – meaning, if you’re shooting with a 100mm lens, the shutter speed should be at least 1/100th of a second. Shooting at 200mm, the shutter speed should be 1/200th of a second, and so on. (This of course refers to shots that are handheld – shots from a tripod do not need to follow this rule). This guideline needs to be updated though, as it is no longer accurate. I recommend doubling the focal length and using that as your guideline. For a 100mm lens, I’d shoot at a minimum of 1/200th second. For 200mm, I’d shoot at least 1/400th a second, and so on. (For a technical explanation of why we need to double the old rule, you can reference my other post “ The Camera Crop Factor”.) Just following this simple guideline will greatly increase your number of “keepers”. So how do you get the shutter speed that fast? There are a few ways.

The most common (and arguably best) way to ensure your shutter speeds are fast enough is to use a wide aperture for the shot. The wider the aperture (smaller the number), the more light gets into the camera. The more light, the faster the shutter speed. That’s why lenses with wide apertures such as F2.8 or F1.4 are known as “fast lenses”. It’s because they allow a fast shutter speed. That’s also why fast lenses are generally needed for low-light and night photography – their wide apertures allow enough light to get in, even in the dark, for you to keep shutter speeds at reasonable levels. Provided that having an out-of-focus background is acceptable (wide apertures create a blurred out-of-focus background when shooting up-close), shooting at F5.6 and wider will help ensure fast shutter speeds.

The second way to increase shutter speed is to adjust the ISO. If you’ve already reached the widest acceptable setting for your aperture and there is still not enough light to achieve the shutter speed you need, you’ll have to increase the ISO. Increasing the ISO by one level (one “stop”) doubles the shutter speed. For example, if your ISO is set to 100, and the meter shows the shutter speed for the scene at 1/30th of a second (too slow to handhold), increasing the ISO to 200 (which is one stop) will double the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. Increasing the ISO one level again, will double the shutter speed to 1/120th of a second. You may ask, “well why wouldn’t you just always shoot at high ISOs to ensure sharp photos?” The answer is because high ISOs degrade picture quality. The lower the ISO, the better the picture quality. High ISOs lead to noisy photos (little speckles of colored or white dots) and a loss of sharpness. I personally try to shoot on ISO 100 as much as I can. I will occasionally use ISO 200. ISO 400 and above I use only for shots that simply can’t be taken any other way. You may often see in magazines and advertisements references to great “high ISO performance” – they’re referring to the ability of the camera to keep noise levels down, even at high ISOs. The better the picture quality at high ISOs, the more versatile the camera. The Canon 5D Mark II for instance, goes up to ISO 6400 allowing fast shutter speeds in very dark conditions.

Another option which enables fast shutter speeds, and one we’re all familiar with, is adding light. For most of us, this basically just means using the flash! By using the flash, you are adding enough to light to use fast shutter speeds, which is why you almost always use flash in dark conditions like indoors or at night. Keep in mind this only works on subjects within the range of the flash. I generally find that anything farther than twenty feet away is too far. Flash will not help with city skylines, sports, night landscapes, etc. It will however, help with night shots of people, food, close objects, and photos taken indoors. Set your camera to 1/200th of a second using shutter-priority mode, turn on the flash, and you will almost always get sharp photos of close objects at night. A shutter speed of 1/200th may result in a dark background. If you want the background to be brighter, you can try lowering the shutter speed, but then you have to be careful about your subject moving, and ensuring that any ambient light from the room, street lights, etc. doesn’t light up your subject (in addition to your flash), or you will see two versions of the person you are photographing – one from the flash, and one from the room lights (this is commonly known as ghosting).

After shutter speed, focus is probably the next most common source of unsharp photos. Most cameras have excellent autofocus systems, but it’s important to know how to use them. Here are a few tips:

If your subject is not moving, I recommend using a single focus point in the center, and using that to focus. Multiple focus points are especially useful for moving objects, but I find it much better and easier to use just the center point, especially on stationary objects – otherwise, you can’t be sure what the camera is going to focus on. For instance, if you are taking a photo of a person in front of a mountain, and you have multiple focus points, it’s certainly possible the camera may choose the focus point that is on the mountain, resulting in a pin-sharp mountain but a very blurry photo of the person. If the subject is not in the center of the frame, simply move the camera so the focus point is on the subject, press the shutter half-way, and recompose the shot and take the picture.

In addition to using auto-focus, you should also get familiar with using manual focus. Manual focus is necessary in a variety of situations. In low-light, indoor, and night photography, auto-focus systems often have trouble finding focus, because it’s too dark. This is often a good time to focus manually. Alternatively (and this is the technique I use most often at night), move the camera so that you can use the camera’s center focus point to auto-focus on your subject. Press the shutter half-way to try to focus -- it may take a couple of tries to lock focus. Once you’ve successfully locked focus, then switch the lens to manual focus and recompose the shot. This way, when you click the shutter to actually take the picture, the camera is not searching in the dark for the focus point. You’ll have successfully used auto-focus to determine the focus, but then by turning it off, you’re preventing the camera from getting confused when you go to take the shot.

After shutter speed and focus, the next most common reason for unsharp photos is related to the aperture you select, and how it affects picture quality. There are two main ways aperture directly affects picture quality. Firstly, due to the way lenses are designed, they are often not their sharpest at their widest aperture (smallest number). Provided there is enough light to reach the shutter speed you need, it is generally worthwhile to stop down a few stops from maximum. I generally try to use at least F5.6 whenever I can. Many people feel that the sharpest aperture is generally around F8, and up to F11. It’s also important to note that small apertures (high numbers) also degrade quality (I’ll discuss that more below). The “sweet spot” is usually known to be between F8 and F11, but for me, I’m comfortable with F5.6 to F13. The second point related to aperture is depth of field. At wide apertures, depth of field (meaning the area that is intentionally kept in focus vs. the area that is intentionally blurry) is very small. At wide apertures, the area that is in focus could be just a few millimeters, with everything behind or in front of the focus point being blurry. For example, let’s say you have a 200m lens and you take an up-close photo of a friend at F2.8. If you focus on the person’s nose, only the nose will be in focus. The eyes and the rest of the face will be blurry, as well as anything in front of the face. In this case, you’ll want to stop down to F8 or above to keep everything in focus. It’s a common belief that since small apertures increase depth of field, it’s always best to use a small aperture to keep everything sharp. The problem with this is that small apertures decrease the overall sharpness of the whole picture due to something called “diffraction”. Even though the entire scene will “technically” be “in-focus”, you will actually have lost sharpness throughout the entire picture by using a tiny aperture. Unless you need the shutter speed to be very slow (to blur water in a waterfall for example) avoid using the smallest apertures like F22 or F32.

Of course, using a tripod or otherwise stabilizing the camera is always a great option. I won’t get into too much detail as I’m sure many of you are familiar with tripods or just resting the camera on a bench, railing, or anything handy. I’ll make two points though. Firstly, when using a tripod or other support, always use the camera’s self-timer or a remote control to fire the shutter. Your finger pressing the shutter button will cause enough shake to make the photo blurry. If your camera has a “mirror lockup” feature, you can also use this. You may know that when you click the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way so that the light can hit the sensor. The flipping of this mirror can cause the camera to shake, which is especially visible when using long lenses. By setting the mirror lockup, you are flipping up the mirror before the actual picture is taken, preventing camera shake and the resulting blur.

By using these tips, you should be able to get sharp photos in a variety of situations. Keep the shutter speeds fast, the aperture in the sweet spot, and the focus in the right area, and you’ll be shooting pin-sharp photos every time.

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

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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

Best,
Paul

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

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa