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 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:
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 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.

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