Photography Week: Improving Your Photos

Welcome to Photography Week where we’re covering all things photography! So far we’ve discussed the basics to capturing a good photo and then manual settings for a DSLR camera. Today we’re going to discuss some more advanced ways to improve your photos other than what we already mentioned in the basics post. Thanks for stopping by (or bearing with me if you’re not into photography!).

Once you’ve gotten a feel for how your camera works – perhaps you’ve started to understand your manual settings or you’ve just gotten more comfortable with the way it operates – you can start adjusting other aspects of your photograph. While exposure can make a huge difference in the quality of your photo, there are also other areas to pay attention to if you want to enhance your pictures.

Composition.  I discussed this a bit when I wrote about Instagram last month, which shows how you can use composition to your advantage no matter what gear you’re photographing with (phone, point and shoot camera, DSLR).  There are no fixed rules for composition of a photo, and a lot of it is personal preference, so I’ll just share some of the tips that I keep in mind. The more you research on your own and practice, the more you’ll discover what your individual composition preferences are.

Rule of Thirds is a way to make your photograph more interesting.  Basically you divide your photo into nine equal parts using two horizontal and two vertical lines and then position your main subject along one of the lines or points of intersections.  I don’t always do this exactly – I usually just crop my photos so the subject is on the side instead of the middle, but the end result is pretty much the same.

This photo of Charlie is cute, but imagine if the frame was wider and he was in the left third of the photo – it would be more balanced and interesting than here where he is awkwardly in the middle.

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The composition of the below photo is better (in my opinion) and creates a more interesting and visually appealing photo. Ideally he would be even a bit more to the left, but I didn’t want to crop out his tail – which brings me to my next aspect of composition.

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Cropping can make all the difference in your photos! You can crop out all sorts of distractions, you can crop to the rule of thirds, and you can crop to create a close up of your subject. It’s likely there is always something in the background you can crop out to put more emphasis on your subject.  This is where another preference of mine comes up: I will always crop using the same aspect ratio (which is 4×6) of the original photo. I don’t like to crop into squares or odd rectangles, but that’s just me.

Here is a photo of Seamus in the snow that I cropped to make it into the photo I wanted. Not only did I get rid of that big structure in the back right, I was able to put him on the right side of the frame to keep the photo interesting. (You’ll notice how dark the first one is versus the second. I was shooting with a different camera than my own and had to stick to auto, so I couldn’t control any lighting settings. The snow made the camera think it was WAY brighter than it actually was outside, so the photos came out dark. I adjusted that in post-processing, which we’ll discuss tomorrow.)

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Miscellaneous composition tip: Try not to cut off limbs. This tip was told to me early in my photography life, and ever since then I’ve noticed if a picture has chopped off someone’s hand or a dog’s paws. Obviously sometimes this is intentional for a closer crop, but the trimming of limbs can be done tactfully. If you end the frame awkwardly right below the elbow, consider moving the crop higher up the arm or giving them their hands back.

I absolutely love this photo of Joanie, but I wish she had front paws! It was impossible to avoid because I was shooting on stairs with a fixed lens length and that was as far away as I could get, but it still bugs me.  As often as possible I try to include the full limb or body of my subject, or I crop it in a way that doesn’t look so awkward.

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There are many other aspects of composition like framing, leading lines, symmetry etc. and I highly recommend you read up on it if you’re interested. Like I said, so much of it is personal preference, and even within one aspect of composition there can be many ways to do it well.

Point of Focus. Every photographer’s worst nightmare: you take what you think is the best photo of all time only to realize at your computer that your camera focused on the wrong thing. Many of you know the comforting beep that occurs when you press down half-way on the shutter button, meaning your camera has auto-focused. You line your subject’s face up right behind that clump of red dots you see through the view finder and click, yet the trees in the background end up sharper than the subject – UGH.

What changed my entire world as a photographer was discovering that I have control over that little red dot I see through the view finder that decides what the camera focuses on. I had no idea that the multiple red dots I saw meant my camera was picking what to focus on because I had multiple auto-focus points engaged. All I needed to do was turn off each auto-focus point (I think there are eight total) except for the one in the middle. Fixing this will be different for each individual camera so you’ll have to refer to your owner’s manual for how to do this on your own model.

By having only one auto-focus point activated, YOU can decide where your camera focuses. With that being said, shooting at a low f-stop with a shallow depth of field will mean you’ll still need to be very precise to get exactly what you want in focus.  If you’re photographing a dog, there’s still not very much space between their nose and their eyes, and it’s easy to get that awful say-it-ain’t-so nose in focus, eyes blurry shot – even with the single auto-focus point. Perfecting this takes a lot of practice so you get good at quickly focusing on the eyes before snapping the picture.

My neighbor Rojo shows us the difference between one photo where the focus has gone wrong and one where the focus has gone right.  These photos were literally taken seconds way from each other.  Every time I click the shutter button I try to refocus on the eyes – sometimes my camera listens, sometimes it doesn’t.

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I know I only covered two main areas of improvement in this post, but as you can see there is a lot of versatility and room for growth within both. Example: think a dog’s eyes will be the only thing you will ever want to accentuate in a photo by manipulating your focus point and depth of field? Think again.

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As usual, the more you practice with these creative pointers, the more comfortable you will get with them. You will also quickly learn which ones are important to you and which aren’t.  It’s really a lot of fun, and can give you an individual style to your photos.  Enjoy!


Photography Week: Your DSLR Settings in Manual Mode

Welcome to Photography Week where we’re covering all things photography! Yesterday we started with the basics for anyone with a camera, including you iPhoners out there. Today, we’re getting more specific with DSLR cameras, but later this week we’ll be back to camera-generic tips when we talk about things like post-processing. Thanks for stopping by (or bearing with me if you’re not into photography!).

When I first started using my Canon EOS 40D about a year and a half ago, the buttons and different options looked like they were codes from Mars. I shot in automatic for a good eight months because I had no clue how to work any other setting. Every time I tried to look it up online I got even more confused, until I found a website that broke it down for me in the most simple terms I’d found since beginning my search. I can’t remember which website it was, but they actually explained things to me, in what seemed like for the first time, English. It was a game changer for me, so I’m hoping to maybe help a few of you like that today!  Please forgive me, those of you who know what you’re talking about, if I get something wrong. I think I’ve figured most of it out, but I could be wrong on a thing or two (or three), so hopefully you will be able to excuse any mistakes!

With a DSLR camera, you have three different settings to mess with: shutter speed, aperture/f-stop and ISO. These three settings work together to determine how much light shows up in your photo, known as the exposure level.  An over exposed photo has too much light and often has a washed out look, shown in the photo below. An underexposed photo is too dark because either there was not enough light in the room or because your camera’s settings were set to not let enough light in (or both).

An over exposed photo.

An over exposed photo.

These three settings all control different things which is what makes them tricky to keep track of.  When you first learn them you’ll always have to remind yourself, “Okay, if I put this number higher, am I letting light in or keeping it out?” But before you know it, adjusting your settings will become second nature and as soon as you see the area you’re taking pictures in you will have a guess as to what setting to put each option on.

Shutter speed:  This is the amount of time your shutter is open when you take a photo, meaning how long the light has an opportunity to get into your camera.  If you’re in a dark area, you need more light to be able to get in so you want your shutter open for longer. If you’re in a bright area, like outdoors, you don’t want excess light going in so you’re only going to have your shutter open very briefly.

Shutter speed (SS) is measured (for the most part, unless you’re taking pictures of stars) in fractions of a second. Most cameras have a number, maybe 15 – 4,000 (or something, beats me what the actual range is), when referring to the shutter speed, but what that actually means is 1/15 seconds or 1/4,000 seconds (unless you see ” by the number, which means actual seconds – but you probably won’t have to use those levels unless, like I mentioned, you’re shooting star photos). So when you increase your shutter speed number – like going from 15 to 200 – you’re increasing the speed at which it moves, and therefore decreasing the amount of time it’s open for light to get through. Make sense?

The lower the shutter speed, the more sensitive to movement your camera becomes, which can cause blurry photos. I’ve heard a few rules about what shutter speed should be the minimum for your photos before it starts causing problems. The best advice I heard is that you shouldn’t go below the equivalent to the lens distance you’re shooting with. So, when I’m shooting with my 30 mm lens (that’s the length of the lens), I shouldn’t go slower than the shutter speed 1/30 or else my photo becomes blurry. To combat this, many people use tripods when shooting at extremely low shutter speeds. If you’re down around 15 or 30, simply leaning on a wall or holding your breath can sometimes help.

Quick review.  A shutter speed of 50 (so, 1/50 seconds) is going to allow more time to let light in than 200 (1/200 seconds).  You’ll want to use a SS of 60 or so in an area of low light, and maybe 200 when perhaps you’re in a room with lots of natural light. If you’re outside in bright sunlight – which, by the way, I would try to avoid for photos – you might have your SS all the way up at 2,000 or 4,000.

Aperture/F-stop: The aperture is the hole that lets light into the camera, sort of like your pupil.  Aperture is also what controls depth of field and what can help you capture that fabulous fuzzy background look.  The size of the aperture is marked by what is called an f-stop (or f-number, I’ll use them interchangeably here).  The lower the f-number, the larger the size of the aperture hole (I know, they just had to, right?). A camera set at f/2.8 will be able to let in more light than a camera set at f/8. Different lenses have different capabilities when it comes to aperture – most can only go down to a certain f-stop. Darker shooting locations need a lower f-number, but. . .

. . . the lower the f-stop number, the more shallow the depth of field becomes. F/1.4 is only going to be able to have a small area in focus, where as f/22 can probably capture a whole group of people in focus at varying distances.  This means you have to be aware of your subject if you’re using aperture to adjust exposure – a lower f-number might let more light in, but it will limit your depth of field significantly.

Quick review. The lower the f-number, the larger the aperture hole and the more light can get in, but the depth of field is shallower. The higher the f-number, the deeper the depth of field, but the darker the image. 

The aperture is set at a low f-number, seen by the shallow depth of field (very blurry background).

The aperture is set at a low f-stop, seen by the shallow depth of field (very blurry background, pretty much only Otie’s eyes are in focus).

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A photo taken at a higher f-stop, as seen by the fact that the ground behind them is also basically in focus. It would have been tricky to set the f-stop too much lower because Baxter and Bella’s faces were likely at different distances from the camera, and one of them would have probably ended up out of focus. Plus, I was using my standard issue lens, which does not have the ability to go lower than I believe f/5.6 anyway.

ISO: The ability for your camera to bring in light (in technical terms, the sensitivity of your image sensor). The way I that I finally understood it was the following analogy: ISO is like an army of little light-men who retrieve light and bring it into your camera. The higher your ISO, the more little light-men you have available to retrieve light. ISO ranges most commonly from 100 – 1,600, though many cameras are different. A smaller ISO (so, a smaller number of light-men retrieving light for you) is ideal for well lit shooting conditions. A higher ISO is needed for – you guessed it – situations with low light (you need a lot of light-men out retrieving light for you!).

But, just like with aperture, ISO comes with a catch. The higher the ISO, the more “noise” or grain shows up in your photo. It’s like you had so many light-men out there collecting light for you that they couldn’t all fit back in your photo and now they’re crammed in there as a big cranky, bustling crowd.  If possible, you want to adjust your shutter speed and aperture for low light before increasing your ISO too much, or else you’ll end up with grainy photos. Sometimes it’s a last resort though, and you just can’t help it.

Quick review. ISO means how much light your camera will bring in when taking a photo.  A lower ISO will bring in less light, but will create a sharper, richer image. A higher ISO will allow you to shoot in low-light settings, but your image will come out “noisy.”

This photo was taken inside a pet supplies store where the lighting wasn't all that great. I was forced to set my ISO all the way up to 1600, which is why Rosalie looks sort of grainy if you look closely. The untrained eye might not notice it, but it drives me as a photographer crazy!

This photo was taken inside a pet supplies store where the lighting wasn’t all that great. I was forced to set my ISO all the way up to 1600, which is why Rosalie is sort of grainy if you look closely (the floor on the right side shows it best I think). The untrained eye might not notice it, but it drives me as a photographer crazy!

WHEW. Information overload yet? I know it’s a lot, but once you get the basics learned and you practice (and practice and practice and practice) it will make a lot more sense to you. I recommend just sitting around your house and messing with each setting to see how it affects your photos. Then slowly you will realize how they work together to create the best exposure setting for your photos.

If you’ve just started, don’t be intimidated. Even the best photographers began knowing nothing about cameras, and learned the basics first thing. I’ve only been in my manual setting for about nine months now, and I already feel very comfortable with it to the point that I can predict settings when I go to take a photo – so it’s not hard. Practice makes perfect (along with maybe a class or two because even though I covered the basics today, there are still a lot more basics out there you could learn).

If you’ve got questions about any of this, leave them in the comments! I’ll try my best to answer, or at least point you to somewhere that might have the answer.

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Maine Dogs

Today is Labor Day: the unofficial ending of summer. It’s a day to celebrate with a big party to say goodbye to summer and hello to fall – a time to look back on all your happy summer memories.

For me, one of my best summer memories is always our trip to Maine. When I was in Maine this August, we stopped by the SPCA of Hancock County‘s Pet Show & Fair. I love going to other organization’s events to see their best practices, and of course hang out with a whole different group of dogs!  This event was smaller scale than ones in the DC area, but their sense of community made it different than many of the events I’ve attended. I loved it!

No matter where you go around the country, there’s always going to be something in common: awesome dogs. Here are some shots of pups I met on that drizzly afternoon.

THREE LEGGED PITTIE!!?!? Not sure her story – but this gal was a total lovebug!

Hope you all have a great Labor Day!


Photographing Otis

… is not always easy!

All he ever wants is kisses! Want to know a little secret? If I post four photos in an entry, they probably came from a group of 200 outtakes… because of how many times he interrupts my clicking with his big slobbery tongue! Can’t say I mind it though :-)

Happy Friday!

For more information on adopting Honey Bunches of Otis, go to his Adopt Me page to learn more about him and how to get in touch.