Friday, August 29, 2008

Using a compact camera creatively...A free online photography course - Part 3: Light

A free online photography course for people wanting to improve their photos
(or "how to keep you friends and family from falling asleep when showing them your holiday photos!")

In the first part of this free online photography course geared towards compact camera users, we covered selective focusing, filling the frame with the subject and getting in closer to isolate or emphasize the main subject. The second part of the course covered the various techniques that you can use to create lively, dynamic and most importantly interesting compositions.

Just a quick recap:

  • the main aim of this course is to highlight that you don't need a 'BIG' camera to take good photos

  • the main reason I'm doing this is due to the frequency I hear people blame their equipment for the bad photos they took - from experience, though, bad photos are due to being taken quickly with very little thought and almost no adherence to any accepted standard guidelines for taking good photos.

  • lastly my goal for everyone who participates in this course is that their families and friends which start to accept their invitations again to look at their holiday photos :-)

One thing about the compact camera is that I find it is too easy to take shots without thinking about the image. This is good in certain circumstances, but I think that the ease of use for these kinds of cameras is a main, if not the root cause, of bad or average images (snap shots).

It seems that the name “Point and Shoot” reveals the problem behind the mentality of using this kind of camera. The name really should be “Look, Point, Think & Shoot”. This online course aims to help become people who look for and see images and then, before actually taking the picture, think about a few guidelines that they could apply to increase the quality of the image.

I have found that if we take a bit of time and put some thought into taking a shot, it is possible to get some really good shots from these “cheaper” cameras. This is what this free online photography course is all about - learning a few basic guidelines and hints and tips for people who want to take better pictures with their existing camera.

My aim for everyone is to take the tips and learnings over this series of articles and go out and shoot better images which people will proudly hang on their walls - physical or virtual :-)

At the end of each section there is a "go out and get your hands dirty" assignment. As part of this assignment you can email me your images and I'll give you feedback to help you improve. All of this is FREE, no strings attached and I won't sell your email address to anyone - that's a promise.

The topics covered in this free online photography course are:

Guidelines for taking better shots

Ideas for creating better memories

This lesson will focus on the use of Ambient Light:
  • Available Day Lights
  • Available Indoor Light
  • Enhancing sunsets
Guidelines for taking better shots

Light

Light is of course vital to photography, without light there would be no photographs – pure and simple. Many books and courses put light as one of the very first things to learn about, and probably rightly so.

So why is light covered in Part 1 of this course? Because, generally speaking, the majority of bad photos I see suffer from bad focusing and composition rather than bad light.

This section will not cover the technical aspects of light and how it affects your photos, you can find some links to these areas at the end. Instead this section will give you some guidelines / hints to enable to you take a variety of interesting photos in situations which you may not have considered.

To start with here are a few generally accepted guidelines about the quality of light:
  • Sunrise and Sunset will give you warm light for your photos
  • Noon time with blue skies will give you harsh lighting causing harsh shadows
  • Noon time with clouds will give you soft lighting giving you saturated colours and nice soft shadows
  • Indoor lighting is generally too dark to take photos holding the camera with your hands without blurring (NOTE: DSLR users please do not send me hate mail!)
  • Tungsten light (your normal light bulbs) give off an orange glow – but you can now get light bulbs that give you more neutral light called “daylight”

  • Ambient (Available) Light - Daylight
Ambient or available light is simply “the light that is around you”. It is the light that is available to use when taking your photo without adding any additional light, i.e. flash.

When you go out with a camera you should think about the available light that surrounds you. However the available light should never deter you from taking photos, but it should make you think how you can get the most of the picture with the light you have been given to play with.

Once you’ve been through the thought process, then you can decide if it’s worth taking a photo or not. If you’re at a special location where you know that you’ll never go to again, you may decide to take photos for memories, even though you know that the light will not make the pictures look brilliant.

But the point it you made a choice and you know the consequences of your actions, and your family and friends won’t have to listen say something like “hmmmm…not sure why that’s so dark/bright/orange/red/green/yellow!”.

One last thing about your camera and light – it tries to think for you, hence the “Point and Shoot” mentality that compact cameras create. This is especially true for anyone using the “Auto” or “P” mode most cameras come with.

Cameras which are set to “Auto” will look at the picture that you are taking and try to change or correct the light (you will find the relevant information in your manuals under the heading “White Balance”). That is, if you are taking a photo indoors with a light bulb of someone, the camera will automatically recognize this and then try and compensate for the abnormal levels of orange by changing the white balance (in this case boosting the levels of blue) to make the photograph more neutral.

Now I am the first to admit that many cameras are pretty clever when it comes to thinking about and interpreting light (white balance) to give a more pleasant picture and I don’t discourage you from using it in most circumstances. However, understanding what you’re camera is doing will help you make the decision to either let the camera look after the light or for you to set the necessary White Balance settings yourself.

White balance links

Now I am the first to admit that many cameras are pretty clever when it comes to thinking about and interpreting light (white balance) to give a more pleasant picture and I don’t discourage you from using it in most circumstances. However, understanding what you’re camera is doing will help you make the decision to either let the camera look after the light or for you to set the necessary White Balance settings yourself.

The following two photographs were taken in Holland about 7:30 in the morning. The first photograph was taken with the Windmill and my family on the first morning we were in Holland. It was the first time they saw a canal and a windmill. The early morning light warmed up the windmill and created form in the clouds.

Image 1: Windmill memories taken in the early morning
One Thing: If I had thought about this photo for a few more seconds I would have zoomed in closer on the family and the windmill.
This next image was taken of the Saturday market in Leiden at around eight in the morning. The light is already less warm but still pleasant and the light on the building creates a beautiful reflection in the still canal water.

Image 2: Reflections in the water from the warm light on the buildings make a very pleasant photo.
One Thing: I tried to wait for the water to become still before taking the shot, but it just wouldn’t.
The next two photos were taken of my brother on the beach in Katwijk aan Zee in Holland. They were taken at two different times during our day out and show the difference in the quality of light. The first photo was taken in the early afternoon and shows a cooler light.

Image 3: Early afternoon light gives a cooler feeling

One Thing: I wish I would have got down lower to get rid of the trash bins, umbrellas etc. out of the shot.
The second photograph was taken just before we went for dinner and has a much warmer feel to it.

Image 4: late afternoon light gives a warmer feeling.
One Thing: The shot of my brother looking left doesn’t have enough room on the left for him to look into and feels claustrophobic. I should have left more space on the left.
I chose the last photograph below, taken with daylight, not because I think it is a great photo, but rather it was taken in a hurry yet had quite a bit of thought put into it.

We were out shopping in Milton Keynes, UK, when we were caught by a heavy rain storm in the car park of the local super market store. When the rain stopped the sun broke through the rain clouds and a beautiful rainbow appeared.

Had I taken the photograph in automatic mode the dark clouds would have fooled my camera and into over exposing the photo and ruin it. Instead I decided to under expose the image by putting the camera on manual mode and reducing the exposure by 1 Stop. This allowed the clouds to keep their form, reveal the beautiful rainbow and also expose the building correctly.

Image 5: Think about the shot before pressing the button.

One Thing: I probably wouldn’t have taken this shot had I thought about it :-)

  • Ambient Indoor light
One of the most common sources of disappointing photos taken on holidays are those taken indoors with compact cameras. Ruined photos are generally due to three areas
  1. by the camera automatically firing its flash trying to try and light the camera
  2. blurred focus due to shooting at a slow speed
  3. missing interesting subjects
This next photo was taken in an interactive exhibition centre for children in Rotterdam Zoo. When I walked into the room these bottles were the first thing that caught my eye. I’m not actually sure if they were actually doing anything or were just there for the “science” look, but I thought they would look really good as a photo.

Had I taken this photo on automatic mode the flash would have fired and all the colours from the bottles would have been lost. To solve this problem all I did was switch the flash off so it wouldn’t fire. The second problem was ensuring that the photo wouldn’t be blurred. To solve this problem I rested my elbows on a bench to give me the stability I needed. Both of these solutions got me the shot that I wanted.

Image 6: switching the flash off and securing my hands helped get this shot.

One Thing: This shot got me thinking about getting a small portable tripod which could fit into my small bag – I have since purchased a gorillapod :-)
The photo of the Jelly Fish below was in the same area as the bottles above. This display, however, was located in a really dark area of the exhibition and although there were loads of people looking at these beautiful creatures, I didn’t see anyone taking photos of them, which I thought was probably due to the lack of light.

The same solutions applied here as above; switch off the flash and steady the camera. The difference here was the way I steadied the camera. Instead of resting my arms against something I carefully placed the lens of the camera up against the flat glass of the aquarium glass. Then I waited patiently for a Jelly fish to come into view.

Fortunately jelly fish move fairly slowly and I was able to take the low light shot keeping the camera steady and captured the great light on this majestic animal.

Image 7: holding the camera against the glass allowed me to capture the wonderful blue light on the Jelly Fish.
One Thing: I would try to zoom in next time, or wait for the other Jelly Fish to move out of the frame – but I didn’t have all day to wait.
The last two shots taken indoors were taken at the Cultural Museum in Leiden Holland. I really like Chinese tea pots and wanted to capture the detail on the pots which were in a glass case. My initial reaction was to turn off the flash as I had done with the other photos and hold the camera lens against the glass. However the image came out too dark.

Image 8: switching off the flash didn’t work this time

To bring out some of the detail whilst allowing me to hold the camera against the glass, I decided to use the flash but control its output. I switched over to manual mode and reduced the flash by 2 stops, giving just enough light to fill in the darker shadows, keeping the ambient light feel and not ruining the shot.

Image 9: reducing the flash by 2 stops helped lift the light in this image just enough without it looking like it is using flash.
One Thing: given more time with this shot, I would recompose it to have a more balanced feel.
NOTE: Using a flash when taking a photo with windows and mirrors in the background is normally a recipe for a ruined shot as the reflection of the flash creates a nasty glare on the image. However moving the camera lens right up to touching the glass eliminates this problem as the flash will not reflect into the lens.

The photo below was taken whilst walking back home one night in Leiden. My daughters spotted some lights in the ground shining upwards to light up trees in the street. As it was evening and we were all tired, it was tempting to just keep on walking and get home. However the girls were having a bit of fun, and the great thing about the compact camera being readily available meant that I could easily get it out and get it ready to use.

The main aim for this photo was to capture the horror movie effect created by the light shining upwards. Had I taken this picture with a flash it would have ruined the whole effect. One problem I encountered was that it took a bit more time for the camera to focus properly in the dark.


Image 10: creating a horror movie effect using ground street lights
One Thing: Given more time and not being tired I would have asked my daughter to do several different poses.

  • Sunset (Faking it)
The reason I included ‘faking it’ in the title is because most really nice sunset photos you see are taken with some kind of adjustment to them. You can do this in the camera or, to some extent, in photo editing software, but it’s best to take the best photo possible and then make minor adjustments in your software later. The better the starting image is the better the final results will be.

The reason why you need to make adjustments is due to the way cameras measure the light and make adjustments accordingly. You can read more about exposure at:
TUTORIALS: CAMERA METERING & EXPOSURE
PHOTOGRAPHY: UNDERSTANDING EXPOSURE (PDF File)
Understanding Exposure - A Complex Subject Made Simple for Beginners

Without going too much into the technical reasons about what is going on, this is what the camera will normally try to do:
  1. on photos which are predominantly dark – the camera will try to increase the amount of light getting into the photograph to make picture brighter
  2. on photos which are predominantly very light or white – the camera will try to decrease the amount of light getting into the photograph to make the picture darker
Why is this an issue? Because when you take a photograph which is predominantly dark and you want them to be dark, you don’t want the camera to make them lighter. Conversely, when you take a photo which is predominantly light or white and you want to keep the lightness or white, then you don’t want the camera to make them darker.

Sounds strange? It took me quite a while to get my head around this concept so don’t worry, just make sure you do the “get your hands dirty” exercises at the end of this section. With some practice and experiments you’ll get to understand it.

The problem with sunset shots is that the camera will always try and make the picture lighter which washes the colours out and makes the image look relatively boring.

The photo below was taken on automatic mode and as predicted the camera compensated accordingly by making the picture lighter.

Image 11: automatic mode has made this picture too light and washed out the colour of the sunset.

For sunsets, I normally turn the camera to manual mode and force the camera to take darker pictures by adjusting the exposure by minus one stop (You may need to read your manual for that. Look under ‘exposure’ or ‘adjusting exposure’).

For the image below I decided to make it more dramatic by adjusting the exposure by minus two stops and then filling in with flash. This image was taken a few minutes after the the above image, but the effect is very different.

Image 12: manual adjusting the exposure to take a darker image is an easy way to create a fake sunset

The last photograph is a typical result of reducing the exposure by one or two stops. This photograph was taken before the one in image 11, yet by reducing the exposure it looks like it was taken just before sun down.

Image 13: manual adjusting the exposure to create a wonderful sunset feel
One Thing: This was taken quite quickly. Had I taken more time I would have zoomed in to make the silhouette of the person more prominent and also strightend the horizon.
Light is the single most important component for making photographs and by taking control of the light you can produce richer and more exciting photographs.

Get your hands dirty
  1. To understand the different types of light during the day take five photos one a sunrise (if you can), one at about 1 hour after sunrise, one a lunch time, one at 1 hour before sunset and one just about sunset time.
  2. Shoot three different images indoors without a flash or a tripod – try to find other ways of securing the camera and let me know what you did
  3. To understand white balance find out how to change the white balance on your camera and take two sets of photos – one set taken outdoors with different white balances and one set indoors using your existing lights with difference white balances.
  4. Learn how to adjust the exposure and take two sets of photos – one set of three photos at 1-2 hours before sunset at normal exposure, minus one stop and minus two stops and one set of three photos at around sunset at normal exposure, minus one stop and minus two stops
Send the images to emmett.photography@gmail.com with a subject title "Ambient Light" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

In Part 4 of this free online photography course we will be looking at techniques for using the flash with your camera

I hope that you have enjoyed the first two parts of the course. Please feel free to leave comments or questions you have about this course below or email them to me.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Using a compact camera creatively...A free online photography course - Part 2: Composition

A free online photography course for people wanting to improve their photos
(or "how to keep you friends and family from falling asleep when showing them your holiday photos!")

In the first part of this free online photography course geared towards compact camera users, we covered selective focusing, filling the frame with the subject and getting in closer to isolate or emphasize the main subject.

Just a quick recap:
  • The main aim of this course is to highlight that you don't need a 'BIG' camera to take good photos
  • The main reason I'm doing this is due to the frequency I hear people blame their equipment for the bad photos they took - from experience, though, bad photos are due to being taken quickly with very little thought and almost no adherence to any accepted standard guidelines for taking good photos.
  • Lastly my goal for everyone who participates in this course is that their families and friends will start to accept their invitations again to look at their holiday photos :-)
Of course we have all heard of the saying that "guidelines are made to be broke", which of course is true. But before you break them, you should know two things (1) what the guidelines are, and (2) why you are breaking them and "just because I want to" doesn't count!

This free online photography course is about helping you understand and practice the guidelines in this course while giving you one-on-one feedback about your photos.

One thing I’ve noticed about the compact camera is that it’s just too easy to take shots without thinking actually about it. This is good under certain circumstances, think stag night, but I think that the ease of use for these cameras is one of the main, if not the root cause, of bad or average images aka snap shots.

I’ve found that if you take a moment and put some thought into taking a shot, it’s possible to get really good shots. This is what this free online photography course is all about – enabling people to take better pictures with their existing camera by learning a few basic guidelines which you will proudly hang on your walls - physical or virtual :-)

At the end of each section there is a "go out and get your hands dirty" assignment. As part of this assignment you email me your images and I'll review them and give you feedback to help you improve. You can then either re-shoot the assignment if you feel it’s necessary or move on to the next section.

All of this is FREE, no strings attached. I won't sell your email address or photos to anyone - that's a promise.

The topics covered in this free online photography course are:

Guidelines for taking better shots

Ideas for creating better memories

Guidelines for taking better shots

This lesson will focus on other areas of Composition not covered in Part 1:
  • The rule of thirds
  • Looking into open space
  • Angle - Get down low
  • Angle - Go up high
  • Angling the image
  • Leading lines

Composition - Part 2

In Part 1 of composition, you learned some basic guidelines that helped move you away from the dreaded disease I’ve termed 'centeritis'. I covered the topics of filling the frame with the subject and also getting in close to the subject. If fact I can't emphasize enough the importance of these two areas.

Part 2 of Composition explains some basic guidelines that are frequently used to achieve dynamic, balanced and pleasing pictures.

Composition is the basic ingredient to making successful and effective images. Poorly composed photographs are the main cause of putting your family and friends to sleep during post dinner holiday snap reviews. They may not know why the photo looks bad or boring and probably won’t be able to pin point any particular area, but people are intrinsically drawn to well composed images and conversely turn away from badly composed images.

  • Rule of thirds
The ‘rule of thirds’ guideline is probably the most talked about composition guideline. In my book, it is also the easiest to remember and implement and would instantly improve 90% of photos taken today.

Artists have been using this guideline for a long time before cameras were around, and as photography means ‘painting with light’ it’s an obvious pick for applying it here. The rule of thirds guidelines produces a ratio of 2:1 which gives the composition of the image both order and stability. Although it may sound counter-intuitive the center of the picture is not a satisfying place of the eye to rest.

To understand this guideline all you have to do is take an image and divide both sides up into three equal parts, like this picture of my family standing on the Van Gogh Bridge in Leiden, Holland:


Image 1: Rule of thirds - simply put means placing an important part of the image on one of the four points where the lines intersect

The aim of for the photographer is to position the main subject or focal point on one of the four points where the lines intersect. Your subject doesn’t have to be exactly right on the exact intersection, but as close to the vicinity as possible should be your aim.
One Thing: Given a few more seconds to think about the composition I would have closed in slightly which would have filled the frame and brought the composition of the photo closer to the rule of thirds guideline.
It really is that simple. Using this guideline, along with filling the image and getting in close, will instantly improve the majority of your shots.

For shots of landscapes frequently break the rule of thirds by placing the horizon in the middle of the picture. As a very general (and very good) guideline to follow the horizon should be placed on with the top or bottom grid line.

The most frequently asked question is “how do I know which grid line should I use?” and of course the answer is “it depends”!

To decide which grid line to place the horizon you need to look at the image and decide which part holds the most interest to the viewer. Is it the cloud formations in the sky or the babbling brook or patterned landscape? Whichever you decide is the most interesting part of the photo should get the bigger share of the photograph.

Further reading:

Rule of Thirds – Digital Photography School
Break the Rule of Thirds – Digital Photography School
Rule of Thirds - Photo96.com


  • Rule of thirds - looking into open space
The ‘rule of thirds’ guideline often means that people sit or stand on either side of the image. Although they may stand facing the camera, which can produce flat and boring images, people can also sit or stand in a specific direction.

The guideline ‘looking into open space’ positions the subject so that they are facing the far side of the photograph. This creates open space for the person in the image to look into creating a pleasing composition. Conversely by having the person looking to the near side can create a feeling of isolation and close space.

The picture below shows my youngest daughter on the train looking out of the window. By placing her on the left and looking towards the right the image creates an aesthetically pleasing image.

Image 2: Having someone look, walk or ride into open space on the photo makes a more pleasing image

One Thing: I should have taken a few more seconds and wait for my daughter to stop scratching her face. I would have also zoomed out slightly to include the whole arm and hand in the photo. This would have brought the composition of the photo closer to the rule of thirds guideline.
You should apply this guideline to other kinds of shots that contain people, animals or objects which are moving. Place the moving subject on the photo using the rule of thirds and make sure that they are moving into the open space across the photo, rather than moving out of the photo.

The rule of thirds guideline is one of the quickest to way to improve your photographs giving them order and stability whilst making them pleasant to look at.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Shoot a half body portrait of a friend - make sure they face to the opposite side of the image.
  2. Shoot a full length portrait of a friend looking into the distance - make sure their eyes are in focus
  3. Shoot someone walking or riding a bicycle using the rule of thirds guideline – make sure they are walking or riding across the image and not off the end of the image
  4. Shoot a landscape picture with the horizon on one of the grid lines – make sure that the more interesting part of the picture has the 2/3 space in the photograph and the least interesting the other 1/3
Send the images to emmett.photography@gmail.com with a subject title "Rule of Thirds" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

  • Shooting from a different Angle
Most of the pictures you see at family get-togethers are taken from one vantage point – the eye level of the person taking the picture. One of the problems with pictures taken from eye level is that this is the same view point that everyone else sees which leads to boring or uninteresting images.

Even if you take height difference into account, from say 1.2 meters (4 feet) to 2.2 meters (7.2 feet), you would not see a lot of difference in the photos taken from the same location (except if the shorter person were in a crowd of taller people!).

The reason why composing an image at a radical vertical angle makes for an interesting image is because it uses angles which people do not normally see things and adds a dynamic element to the photograph which will hold the viewers attention for much longer.

Although I may be stating the obvious, there are two ways to shoot vertical angles (1) from a low angle, and (2) from a high angle.

It should be noted that these techniques work best, and create the most dramatic effect, when used with a wide angled lens and close up to the subject.

  • Get down low
When I say “get down low to take a shot” I do not mean bending the body at the hips to lower the upper body slightly. Getting down low to me means at a very minimum kneeling down and bending somewhat and all the way to lying on the floor with the camera just high enough to see the preview. Just make sure you look before you lie, especially out in the street or if you have a pet animal at home ;-)

As mentioned above this technique will help create a much more visually stimulating image but it will also help to remove clutter from the background.

The image below was taken in a shopping mall in The Hague, Holland. No points for guessing what angle it was taken at! By taking it at eye level the background is very busy with people walking about and my wife’s head is starting to get lost in the background.

Image 3: typical photo taken at eye level – flat, boring and cluttered

After taking the above shot I took a minute to get down low and recompose the shot below. This low angled composition has created a cleaner background, making it more dynamic and getting a more grandiose perspective of the shopping mall building.

Image 4: Taken at a lower angle – cleaner and more dynamic

Although it may not be an award winning image – it definitely makes the picture more interesting to look at than the top one.
One Thing: I should have waited a few more seconds to allow the person on the left to walk out of the frame.
The next image below was taken by me lying down on the floor. We were in a windmill museum in Leiden, Holland, and I wanted to capture my family next to the windmill. As there was limited space around the windmill to maneuver, getting down low was the only way to get the windmill and my family into the same picture. Without getting down low I would have been left with a picture of my family against a brick wall, which could have been taken anywhere.

Image 5: Getting down low allowed me to include both a tall windmill and my family in one shot

One Thing: I would have recomposed the shot to include more of my family and not cut-off my wife’s legs at the knee caps.
When shooting from a low angle remember to shoot with in a mode that will keep most of the image in focus – usually landscape mode will accomplish this. Remember to have fun when shooting low, try experimenting at different angles and different focal length (zooming in and out) and just when you think you can’t go any lower, bend down a bit more – you’ll be surprised how low you can go.

  • Go up high
Similar guidelines apply to taking shots from above and they do from below. The main reason for this is because you are creating viewpoints which people are not used to. I feel that going down is easier to create a bigger impact on an image compared to going up high – probably because we look down more than we look up at things.

Shooting from high has its limitations - how tall you are or what the tallest object you can climb compared to the subject you are shooting will affect the overall impact the image has.

The two images below of my girls were taken on the train platform in Leiden Station in Holland. Because they were sitting down, they were relatively low compared to me which allowed me to set my lens to a wide angle (zooming out) and bring the camera to almost directly above them.

The images are fun and different as they completely change the perspective and size ratios of body parts that we are accustomed to seeing. If these were taken from a normal angle looking on they would be very boring indeed.

Image 6: This high angled shot makes my daughters head and eyes look very big giving an almost cartoon feel about her.

One Thing: I really like this fun image, but if I could retake it I would try and get both hands and maybe also the feet in the image. The problem was that I wasn’t quite tall enough and my wide angle lens not quite wide enough.

Image 7: a fun pose by daughter is made better by the high angle

One Thing: Another fun shot, unfortunately her fingers were cut off. It would have been hard to ask for more time from my daughter to hold this pose while I recomposed, but maybe I could have asked her to do it again after I had tried to recompose the shot.

  • Angled Subjects
This technique of angling the subject in the frame is done simply by rotating the camera clockwise or anti-clockwise so that the object is no longer vertical in the frame. It a simple technique to use and the only danger is that you end up with too many of your photos with people at an angle. Therefore my suggestion is to use this technique sparingly.

This techniques works for similar reasons going high or low work, you are creating viewpoints which people do not normally see – the only exception being seamen working on boats in the North Sea during winter!

The shot below of me was actually taken by my youngest daughter. I don’t know if she meant to take it at an angle or moved the camera when pressing the button, but the end result is a more interesting image of me on the beach

Image 8: angled shots create a more dynamic feel

One Thing: I know that I didn’t take this shot, but if I did I would try feel the frame with the subject more or try the picture in landscape layout to get more of the background in.

  • Leading lines
Leading lines are simply using lines and curves in a picture to lead the viewer into the image, and forcing their eyes to go where you want them to.

Personally, I think that this is one of my weakest techniques, as I never seem to find good leading lines, but when done properly is a very effective technique.

The image below is an example of leading lines, in that when the viewer looks at the image their eyes naturally travel down the street to the end. Unfortunately, when the user gets to the end there is nothing for them to look at - which is what is wrong with the image!

Image 9: The leading lines in the street and buildings lead the viewer eyes to the end of the street - unfortunately in this image there is nothing at the end for the viewer to see!

One Thing: If I would have thought about this image a bit more I would not have the leading lines point to the centre of the image (I did say I was affected by centeritis). Rather I would have put end of the street at either the top or bottom third of the image (see rules of thirds).
The next image was taken in the play park in Rotterdam Zoo, Holland. My daughter kept playing on this slide and kept asking for me to wait for her at the bottom. One problem was that it seemed that 100 other kids also wanted to go on the slide and I had to wait for a long time between her turn.

I wanted to create a fun image which captured the fun she was having as well as the size of the slide. Instead of trying to get the whole slide, which would have looked very boring, I decided to make the slide look big in the photograph as a reminder to us how big it actually was. I used the leading lines of the slide to bring the viewers eye to my daughter as she came out of the slide.

Image 10: The slide creates leading lines which lead the eye to where my daughter is

The main problem I found was that I had to wait for a long time for my daughter to come out of the slide so it was hard to concentrate on waiting for the right moment. My legs also grew tired from kneeling and squatting to get this view point!
One Thing: The result image works well in creating a memory about the slide, but my daughter is too small in the image. If I had a few more tries at this I would wait for her to come slightly closer to the camera so the joy on her face was more obvious.
The composition techniques covered above and in Part 1 of this free online photography course are not a complete extensive list, but rather ones that I have found are very effective in quickly and easily improving the quality of my photographs.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Shoot a normal everyday subject from both eye level and a very low angle and compare the results – the more normal and everyday the object is the more interesting the differences will be.
  2. If possible try photographing a large object or person from a high angle – if you have a ladder, balcony or even second floor window, you can take them from there.
  3. Have fun taking shots of objects in the kitchen using the angled subject technique – you’ll be amazed how interesting a bottle of wine looks at an angle!
  4. Try and take an image with leading lines in it – the aim is to direct the viewer's eyes to the subject that you want them to see.
Send the images to emmett.photography@gmail.com with a subject title "Angles and Lines" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

In Part 3 of this free online photography course we will be looking at the rest of the techniques covered in “Guidelines for taking better shots”, which include:
  • Ambient Day Light
  • Ambient Indoor Light
  • Faking sunsets
I hope that you have enjoyed the first two parts of the course. Please feel free to leave comments or questions you have about this course below or email them to me

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Using a compact camera creatively...A free online photography course - Part 1: Focus & Composition

A free online photography course for people wanting to improve their photos
(or "how to keep you friends and family from falling asleep when showing them your holiday photos!")

How many of you have thought "if only I had a better camera my pictures would be so much better"? I know I have - frequently . This summer however, I discovered that the the smaller compact or "point and shoot" cameras when used together with some "big" camera thinking and guidelines can produce some excellent, "hang on your wall", shots.

Let me say up front that I am a self confessed Canon 30D DSLR "big" camera user, some people even call me an addict. I had spent a lot of time this year with my camera and so this summer I promised my family that I would not bring my camera with me - for three whole weeks - and would spend my time focusing on the family.

My wife and I agreed that we would buy a compact camera to replace the one that recently broke and in the end we brought a Sony DSC-W170 compact camera in Hong Kong. I was not looking forward to having to use this camera - cause it wasn't big enough!

With the recent studies I have been doing from strobist.com for off-camera flash I was curious to see what I could do with the small on-camera flash, which is typical of the majority of modern compact cameras. This idea then led me to challenge myself to see if i could get some good quality photos with a very limited set of tools - one compact camera - by getting back to some of the basics of photography.

I was amazed with the results of some of the images. Just by putting some of the basic skills and concepts into action when shooting, it was possible to get some great shots.

Don't get me wrong, I took many mediocre and less than average shots. One thing about the compact camera is that I found it was too easy to take shots without thinking about the image. This is good in certain circumstances, but I think that the ease of use for these kind of cameras is a main, if not the root cause, of bad or average images (snap shots).

In the end I found that if I took a bit time and put some thought into taking a shot, I could get some really good shots. With this in mind I decided to put together a few guidelines and hints and tips for people who want to take better pictures with their existing camera. My aim for everyone is to take the tips and learnings over this series of articles and go out and shoot better images which people will proudly hang on their walls - physical or virtual :-)

Of course we have all heard of the saying that "guidelines are made to be broke", which of course is true. But before you break them, you should know two things (1) what the guidelines are, and (2) why you are breaking them - "just because I want to" doesn't count!

This free online photography course is about helping you understand and practice the guidelines and giving you one-on-one feedback about your photos.

At the end of each section there is a "go out and get your hands dirty" assignment. As part of this assignment you can email me your images and I'll give you feedback to help you improve. All of this is FREE, no strings attached and I won't sell your email address to anyone - that's a promise.

The topics covered in this free online photography course are:

Guidelines for taking better shots
Ideas for creating better memories

This lesson covers focusing and part of composition.

Guidelines for taking better shots

Focus

If I had to decide which part of photography was the most important (and I'm glad I don't) it would be focusing on the image. More precisely it would be correctly focusing on the correct part of the image. If a photo is incorrectly focused everything else becomes irrelevant and 99% of the time will end up discarded.

There are things in pictures which are considered 'the correct thing to focus on'. For instance , when taking portraits, it is people's eyes that are most important to focus on. And for portraits of people who are looking to the side, it is focusing on the eye nearest to the camera.

In the photo below I have focused on a bee, but unfortunately the wrong bee is in focus. If the bee in the front of the image was in focus the image would have been much better, as it is though, the out of focus bee is just annoying to the eye.

Image 1: The front bee should be in focus not the back one


One of the 'bad' things about the compact camera is that using the screen on the back of the camera to check for the focus is a bit of a hit and miss affair. The screen on the back is difficult to use in the sun and is too small to see really what is in focus. I used the macro mode on the camera for the above shot and realized that the depth of focus was much shallower than I expected.

One Thing: To be honest I thought that the bee in the front was in focus, because the screen on the camera was so small I didn't notice it. Lesson learned if in doubt take a few images refocusing each time.

The statement I made above about 'correctly focusing on the correct part of the image' can be seen below. The plaque below was dedicated by the local community to my Grandfather - standing on the left in the background. I wanted to capture the plaque but also have my grandfather and wife in the image but not in focus - Why?

People's eyes will always lock onto the part of the photo which is in focus - apparently we can't help it. Therefore in the image below, people will be drawn to the plaque first and then to the people in the background.

Image 2: Correctly focusing on the correct part of the image

This technique if used properly gives you a lot of power about where you want the user to look at in your image. Used properly can make an average image into a great one. To make the shot I used the macro mode to get as close as I could to the image which throws the background out of focus. Using the "speed" mode on cameras would probably achieve a similar effect. I focused on the writing on the plaque first by pressing the shutter button lightly, then, without taking my finger off the button, tilted the camera up to get my Grandad and wife in the shot. Had I taken three more seconds to think about the image I would have asked my daughter to move her arm out of the picture :-)

One Thing: If I had taken a few more moments to think about this image I would have asked my daughter to move from the right (the pink elbow) and asked my grandad and wife to smile :-)

I am the first to admit that the image below may not be the best image in the world, but it tells a story that I wanted to tell. It's not a great story, but a simple one that meant a lot to my family and I. What do you think the story is that I'm trying to tell?

Image 3: Focusing to tell a story

The story is simply that we had a great cup of coffee on a really nice sunny day while sitting on a bridge over a canal. This image is meant as a personal reminder of a great time we had relaxing on that bridge. It's not meant for anyone else - unless the makers of Illy want to pay me for the photo :-)

To make the above shot I did three things (1) focused on the cup, then tilted the camera, (2) stepped down the exposure by one stop and (3) used fill in flash - you can read about these techniques later in the series.

One Thing: I would have cleaned the saucer, put the cup in the middle of the saucer and centered the cup in the image.

Overall focusing with a compact camera can be tricky depending on the available light, for both the camera to focus on and the viewer to see what's in focus. Pressing the button softly to allow the camera to focus before hand as well as keeping the camera steady, either with a tripod or proper holding technique, will help you to get shots which are well focused.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Shoot a portrait of someone - make sure their eyes are in focus
  2. Shoot an image with two images, one in the foreground and one in the background. Ensure that the image in the foreground in is focus.
  3. Shoot a close up of something - get as close as you can whilst ensuring the image is in focus

Send the images to emmett.photography@gmail.com with a subject title "Focus" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.


Composition - Part 1

Whilst focusing rates the most important part of photography in my books, composition is by far the most common reason why images fail to 'wow' people and friends. The biggest culprit of bad composition is what I call 'centeritis'. How this disease infects people is still a mystery, but the affects can be seen everywhere.

Don't get me wrong, I am not perfect either and often have bouts of centeritis and find that the compact camera mentality of taking snap shots makes it too easy to take a shot without thinking about composition. This next section covers some of the common composition guidelines that will help you create more exciting and dynamic photos. After some practice, you should start to hear less excuses from you family and friends why they can't come round to see you holiday photos :-)

Further Reading: One of the greatest online courses, which is free, which covers the subject of composition is Jodies Coston's Free Online Photography Course

Fill the image
One of the easiest way to spot 'centeritis' is that there is a lot of space at the top of the photo. Very often a side affect of this is that people start losing parts of limbs at the bottom of the image, which can look very painful!

The image below was taken of my grandfather, my daughters and me at a plaque that had been dedicated to my grandfather as an appreciation to all the hard work he puts into the community. He's 90 years old and still keeps himself busy 6 days a week doing community work. He also cycles and swims everyday and still plays badminton weekly - not someone to mess with :-)

Although the image below may not be a write-off, it does show early warning signs of not thinking about composition:(1) the sky the top and (2) missing limbs at the bottom.

Image 4: not filling the frame with the subject

The solution for this problem is quite simple, most of the time. By simply moving in closer and filling the frame with as much of the subject as possible, you easily create a more pleasant image and ensure that everyone's limbs are showing, as shown below.

Image 5: filling frame with the subject

One tip about if you have to cut off limbs in a shot - don't cut them off at the joint, but rather above or below the joint. Cutting people's limbs off at the joint looks like a mistake, cutting them above or below the joints look like it was done on purpose. (This last paragraph sounds like something straight out of a horror movie).

One Thing: Things I could have tried to improve the images given some more time are (1) move everything round so that people are not squinting in the image (2) waited till a bit later when he sun was lower in the sky to give it a softer light.

Filling the image with the subject is not that hard to do, but does take some practice, which is what i would like you to do to get your hands dirty.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Shoot a full length portrait of someone or a group of people - make sure they are in focus and they all fit in.
  2. Shoot a close up of something making sure that the whole object is in the image

Send the images to emmett.photography@gmail.com with a subject title "Fill the image" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

Get in close

The next guideline is one of my favourite. Getting in close does two important things:
(1) Gets rid of busy/messy backgrounds
(2) Focuses on the main subject in the image.

This one guideline would help save many a family member falling asleep during the typical photo show and tell from a recent holiday. My rule of thumb here is "if in doubt get closer". If you struggle doing this, afraid of missing something, get a wide shot after the close up shot, then watch which photo your friends and family spend time looking at.

The image below was taken on a recent trip to visit my brother in the Netherlands. We found this great fancy dress shop in a small side street in the Hague and my eldest daughter instantly headed for these feather boas and got into the middle of them. My instant reaction was to switch on the camera and take a quick shot. Of course the default lens setting when you switch on a compact camera is wide angle and so I ended up with the following shot:

Image 6: Not moving in close on an image can end up with a noisy background

It's a fun image, but the background is very noisy (messy), with the chairs, the red clogs, the shirts, the signposts and the menu board on the left. All the these things are immaterial to the image and stop the viewer from focusing on what I am trying to capture, i.e. my daughter having fun being surrounded in these feather boas.

Fortunately I did take another minute to think about the image and I zoomed in close to capture my daughters face surrounded by the feathers. there is nothing distracting from this image as there is only her face and the feathers - both of which are important to the image.

Image 7: Zooming in close to the main subject helps the viewer to focus on what is important.

One Thing: Things I could have tried to improve the images given some more time are (1) move everything round so that people are not squinting in the image (2) waited till a bit later when he sun was lower in the sky to give it a softer light.

The next three images are more examples of getting in close to the subject - which also helps to fill the frame :-)

This was a photo of my daughter looking out of the window on the train in Holland. She was looking at lots of these that we don't usually see her in Asia, e.g. windmills, canals, cows, flowers, etc. The instinct is to take a wide angled picture to get more of my daughter in the image and with the train. However the bright outside and dark inside would have messed with the exposure of the image. Getting in close to the picture helps focus on the image as well as making the exposure accurate for her face.

Image 8: getting in close helps to get the correct exposure and focus on what is important.

One Thing: After looking at this image I realized that I didn't see the reflection of my daughter in the window, which is another reason to take a few extra seconds to look at the image before pressing the button. Next time I'll look for reflections in windows and move more of the reflection into the image, which would help with the rule of thirds guideline which I will talk about next time.

The next image would taken on the beach and I wanted to get a picture showing my daughter having fun on the beach, but wanted to get something different. I saw my daughter's crocs on the sand I thought that they would add an extra dimension to the image. Most people take their shoes off when walking on the sand in the beach and each time I see people doing this they can't help but smile - probably because it brings back good memories. The image was trying to capture that memory of taking our shoes off to have fun on the beach.

If I had tried to do this image any other way it would not have worked. Getting down low and close helps to add in a fun and dynamic dimension to this image.

Image 9: getting in close can help to trigger good memories :-)

One Thing: In this image I did move the shoes together and purposely left the sand on the shoes, however if I had thought a bit more about the image I would have put the shoes more towards the centre and also possibly moved around to take the pier out of the image in the background.

This last image here is one of my favourite which I'm proud to say was taken by one of my daughters. Coming in this close for flowers is one of the most rewarding techniques to improve photos of these beautiful things. Too often we try and get the whole plant in the photo, which is a guarantee to put your viewers to sleep. Coming in close to flowers allows you to seethe soft texture of the petals and the amazing details of the stamen and center area.

Image 10: coming in close to flowers allows the viewer a glance at something that they don't normally see.

One note of warning. Coming in close to flowers makes imperfections 100 times worse. imperfections come from damaged flowers, dirt, dust, cobwebs and small bugs, which you easily glance over when looking at the flower. However when these are captured on a photo they stand out something terrible.

You can do three things to help improve this (1) choose a flower which is perfect, (2) bring a brush with you and try and clean the flower before taking the picture, (3) spend a lot of time in Photoshop cleaning up the photo afterwards. This last option can take up a lot of time!

One Thing: One little trick you can do with flowers is to spray them with water so that water drops form on the petal. This adds a very pleasant dimension to the image.

Getting in close is not always a very natural thing to do, but just like filling the frame, it creates a really exciting image. This is not obviously something you would do for shots of landscapes, sun sets or group shots, but getting in close should be one of the first thoughts you have when taking an image.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Take an abstract image. this could be of anything in your house (to keep it simple), but you should get close enough so that the object is not easily recognizable but yet in focus.
  2. Take a few shots of an object. Take some shots from a far and some from up close to see which images you prefer.
  3. Shoot a close up of a flower. get in as close as you can to reveal as much of the detail as possible.
Send the images to emmett.photography@gmail.com with a subject title "get in close" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

In Part 2 of this free online photography course will focus on other areas of Composition:
  • The rule of thirds
  • Looking into open space
  • Angling the image
  • Angle - Get down low
  • Angle - Go up high
  • Leading lines
  • Using Frames
I hope that you have enjoyed this first part of the course. Please feel free to leave comments or questions you have about this course below or email them to me