Photography is a favorite activity for some, even a passion. For others, it's a way of keeping a record of a family's life, a travel experience, a news event or a local sporting event. People take pictures at dinner-dances, graduations, baptisms, weddings and cruise vacations. Here are some tips for taking better pictures. I hope you enjoy them. If you do, please leave a comment. You can always reach me at [email protected]
Photography 101 — Photojournalism
Three tips for reporting with your camera
By John O’Connell
Everyone has a camera these days, from expensive DSLRs to cell phones with pretty OK lenses. Some of the cameras and all of the smart phones can send pictures on the spot. News is all around us, happening all the time. At any moment, you, too, can be a news reporter, a photojournalist, bearing witness to what’s happening.
Here are some tips for making good images that communicate the truth of what is going on, whether you’re doing it to send to media or just to record the special moments in your life. Remember that birthdays, christenings, confirmations, weddings, anniversaries, retirement parties, trips to the circus and ballgames, Eagle Scout Courts of Honor, graduations, baby showers, camping in the National Parks or travels to Toledo or Timbuktu are all news events in your family’s life that are worth sharing as they’re happening or right after.
1. Tell a story
Instead of just one snapshot, think series. Several photos taken as the action is happening provides context and reveals the progression of an event. Whether that event is the gradual building of a bridge, the process of putting up the Scout tent or the climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro, take several photos to inform better. Besides, making a dozen images over time gives you a better chance of getting that special one that captures The Moment that tells the most provocative or insightful instant of greatest impact.
2. Communicate Clearly
Your images can reveal tragedies, witness celebrations, share joys and miseries or illustrate your travel blogs or posts on social media. Think of yourself as a visual communicator and shoot with the viewer in mind. Make sure your pictures are filled with information and that each image has a clear, main subject. Don’t cram lots of miscellaneous subjects into one image so that your viewer is confused as to what you’re trying to show. Isolate the subject: using the angle at which you shoot, a wide f-stop like 1.8 to 3.5 or so to limit depth of field, contrasting colors or brightness, moving to a less cluttered background… make sure people looking at your pictures understand what the “news” is.
3. Be Evocative
News is reporting the facts. But when people are involved — and people are almost always involved (or the photo story may not be worth telling) — it’s just as important that your images reveal people’s reactions, responses and emotions to what’s going on. Say you want to take pictures of a Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk. Of course you’ll make images of people walking, that’s what the event is about. Or is it? Isn’t it about the passion and feelings of the challenges and accomplishments of those who are walking? Isn’t this event about the struggling together to fight cancer that motivated the walkers to be there and arouses interest in the image? Well, you can take the picture of people walking, and should, but the images that communicate the “truth” of the experience could be two women hugging and crying, seeing each other after a year of continued remission; a smiling daughter walking arm-in-arm with her mother who’d beaten the illness, her eyes glistening with tears of determination. Seek those images, fill the frame with emotion, and tell the real story.
Photography 101 — Outdoor Portraits
Four tips for better people pictures
By John O’Connell
Monuments, scenics, landscapes and skylines are all famously photographed and can be beautiful images. But most of our favorite pictures have life in them: we like pictures of pets, wild animals, flowers, butterflies, birds…. But the subject we most like to photograph is people, our loved ones, family members, children or even strangers on the street.
1. The Eyes Have It
It’s possible to take a great portrait without the subject’s eyes in the photo, but it’s not easy. Yes, silhouettes, profiles, detail shots of weathered hands, beautiful red hair or a freckled cheek can work well, but they’re not the typical way we take pictures of our family and friends. Always focus on the person’s eyes. You can use a small f-stop, like f16 or f22 if you want the rest of the face, body or the far away mountains in the background to be in focus, but start by making sure the eyes are sharp. And if you shot wide open, with an f-stop of 1.4, 1.8 or 2.8 to narrow the depth of field and isolate the subject, that’s a great technique, but it makes it even more important to focus carefully on the eyes. Blurry eyes and a tack sharp ear isn’t a winning shot.
2. Picture someone
If you’re shooting someone other than a family member or someone you know and who knows you well, spend some time getting to know who you’re photographing. If you were writing a short biography, you couldn’t begin without interviewing the subject. So, too, with taking a candid or posed portrait, which is a brief bio written with light, you must get to know who this person is. Remember that your mission is not to take a picture of a face or body; it’s to create a representation of a person. If you don’t know who the person is, your picture will be flat, lacking those touching, subtle emotions that make a two-dimensional print come alive.
3. The Light Within
A corollary to the bio concept in Tip 2 is looking for the “real” person you’re making a portrait of. Engage the subject in conversation to put them at ease. If they’re stiff and camera-shy, your pictures won’t be flattering or interesting and they won’t show the nuances and vivacity of the subject. Have them talk about things they love to talk about: sports, a recent wedding they went to, something that makes them laugh, their pet, the prettiest place they’ve ever been… anything that gets them focused on their inner self and not on your camera. Their joy — or whatever emotion you’re looking to capture — will show up in the image.
Outdoor portraiture has lighting challenges and lighting gifts. Don’t shoot your subject in the harsh sun; you’ll see frowns and squints and wrinkled brows, not to mention shadows under the eyes and chin. Cloudy days or shady spots on sunny days are best for even, near shadowless faces and full-body portraits. There is no need to avoid all shadows; some contrast on a face provides definition and shape, and that’s good. But high contrast, blanched on one side and black on the other is too bi-polar to be effective. If you must shoot in sunlight, use fill-flash or a close reflector to light up the darkness. In fact, it’s good to use a flash outdoors to get a catch-light in the eyes. Lower the flash unit’s output because you don’t want to blow out details — you do want to preserve the natural light — but just give a little life-light to those all-important eyes.
Six tips for party pictures
By John O’Connell
Formal occasions like weddings, corporate galas and special family events are best assigned to professional photographers. They have the skills, experience, training, cameras, lenses and lighting equipment — and assistants — to reliably produce high quality images you’ll love for a lifetime.
But let’s say you’ve been asked to take pictures at your non-profit organization’s awards-night dinner or you plan to be the parent-photographer at your child’s birthday or graduation party. The stress may start weeks before. “What if I don’t do a good job?” you fret. “What if my camera stops working?” you worry.
Here are six tips to help you not only survive the responsibility of the party shoot, but produce an album you can be proud to share.
1. Make a list of the pictures you MUST get. Know who the organizers of the event are. You have to have pictures of them. Who are the honorees, the special guests, the visiting officials? All these people should be on your list of must-get shots. At the kids’ party, your son or daughter will want pictures of all their friends.
2. Look for the happy shots. Award presentations, blowing out the candles, the toast, people having a good time are all appropriate.
These pictures will be widely shared and long preserved, on social media and in keepsake albums, online and in book form. So you want to take flattering pictures. Don’t take pictures of people in embarrassing poses or doing things that they wouldn’t want memorialized.
3. If you want people to look friendly and glad to be at the event, look that way yourself. Ask nicely when you take “table shots,” be approachable when a VIP asks you to take a particular picture, show couples the image you just took of them to get their approval; take it again if they ask.
4. Try to be unobtrusive at children’s parties if you want to get candid pictures of kids having fun. Use a long focal-length lens (100, 200, more) so that you are not interfering with their excitement. Anticipate the moments you’ll want to preserve in your album and be ready, with focus, exposure and angle all set.
5. Prepare your equipment. Have extra batteries for your camera and flash. Take some test shots when you get in the room where the party is being held. While a professional most often shoots on manual exposure, don’t feel compelled to do that if you’re not ready. Don’t be ashamed to turn the exposure dial to P or even the green full-auto. But after you take all the MUST shots, why not experiment with some shutter priority, aperture priority or scene pre-sets. Just keep checking the back of the camera to see how they came out.
Is the white balance right? Most of us leave the white balance on Auto, but see what lights are in the room and consider adjusting your white balance setting to match the kind of lights used, e.g., fluorescent, spotlights. If you’re in doubt, leave on Auto and adjust in photo editing software (Lightroom, Photoshop or other) after the party.
A strobe or on-camera flash attachment provides better lighting than a pop-up flash. A flash that slides into the hotshoe of your DSLR has a longer and wider reach, i.e., your subjects can be further away from you and you can have bigger groups of people (think table shots) and your flash can still light them sufficiently. But read your flash’s manual so you know how to get the most and best light out of the device. One trick I’ve used is to get softer light on a small group or individual is to point the flash-head up at a 45- to 80-degree angle and stick a white card (like a business card) above the flash lens so that the light bounces off the card and shoots a softer illumination onto the subjects.
I’ve had a camera stop working at an important event. I was glad I had my trusty compact camera with me. It’s more than appoint-and-shoot with a fine sensor so the pictures came out fine. So it’s good to have a back up camera when you are responsible for taking the pictures.
6. After the shoot, be ruthless when you edit the pictures and make decisions on which images to include in the album. Crop away needless parts of the image, sharpen where necessary, brighten shadows and darken hot spots. If you take 200 pictures, use only the best for the album. People will love looking at 30 excellent, happy images; no one wants to look at an additional 150 so-so shots just because you took them.
And try to have fun at the party. You’re most likely a guest, too, so mingle and enjoy yourself!
Four tips for better Black & White pictures
By John O’Connell
For decades after the first photographs were taken, all images were in black and white. When color came along, photography changed. Almost all of our pictures now, from family holiday parties to pictures we mount on our home and office walls, from news photography to scenics, from kids’ portraits to wedding albums, we love color photos.
But black & white images have a value all their own. Good B&W photos have a power to evoke emotions, to capture meaning, to strain color away to leave only interesting angles, contrasting shades, pure movements and subtle still lifes for the eye to focus on.
1. Sight versus vision. B&W shooting requires you to see a scene or a person or group for what its essence is. Not to get all metaphysical about this, but our world, in reality, is full of colors. To edit those colors out is to reduce the world — or our subject — not to an unreal state but to a more essential state. So when you take a portrait in B&W you can concentrate on capturing who the person really is. It’s like a paragraph full of adorning adjectives and decorative adverbs that enhance the language; when an editor cuts all those embellishments out the reader is left with the nouns and verbs that tell the essential story.
2. While all images should be made with intentionality, i.e., you plan the subject, the composition and the technique, B&W shots require an extra dose of knowing what result you want to achieve. A skyline, a mountain range, a headshot, a couple in love, a mom and baby, a city street scene or zebras on the Serengeti: these all have what it takes to be imagined to reveal angle, shape, lines, softness, contrast, power, emotion, strength or gentleness. Stripped of colors, look instead for the leading lines in a scene, repetitive lines or shapes, the feelings expressed in a person’s eyes, the majesty of the mountains and the grit of city traffic.
3. Experiment changing the contrast settings in your DSLR. Some B&W scenes will be more powerful with higher contrast. Some close portraits would reveal a gentleness by softening up on the contrast setting.
4. Keep checking the images as you take them. Don’t disregard all the other settings, like aperture and shutter speed. Void of color, a speeding car or runner, a headshot with shallow depth of field are all enhanced. So play with f-stops and shutter speeds since their effect may be more noticeable in B&W.
Remember that subtracting colors can actually add meaning to your images. Try it. I bet you’ll like many of the images you make.
Photography 101 — Travel
Four tips for taking great travel pictures
By John O’Connell
Whether you’re traveling to Tanzania or Tel Aviv, Barbados or Beijing, Morocco or Manhattan, you’ll want to bring home images of your experiences, perhaps to print and frame for your walls or even just to post to your wall on Facebook.
Folks have been making images of what they’ve seen on trips since they were called pilgrimages or far-flung wars, at first by drawing and painting, then on large photo-sensitive plates, then film and now on SD cards.
Here are four tips on how to capture the essence and excitement of your travels.
1. The Tourist Sites, But Differently.
Of course you’ll want to take the post-card shots. You’re not going to Paris and not bring back the Eifel Tower, right? You aren’t going to return from Rome without a picture of your spouse with a gladiator outside the Coliseum.
Your trip won’t be complete without these pictures so, by all means, shoot away. But try to make good photographs while you’re capturing the must-haves. Try shooting up from a very low angle; taking pictures at sunrise or sunset so there’s a different “look” to the tourist attraction. Include tourists having fun in the pictures instead of just the structure. Use an extreme wide-angle lens for a different perspective. Use a foreground object to make the photo more interesting.
2. Try shooting in Black & White
There’s no rule of photography that demands all photos must be in color. When the essence of a scene or subject is more about shapes and angles than colors, switch to greyscale or B&W inside the camera, or in your processing software post capture.
While you’re on your trip or even before you leave, think a little about how you can use your photographs when you come home. Imagine what you’d like on that wall as you go up the stairs, or that blank space in your office. Then while you’re traveling, shoot to fill the need you’ve identified. An engineer may want five square, B&W images of various parts of the Eifel Tower; a trip to Ireland can be remembered via a group of pictures of the B&Bs you stayed in; a vacation in China may yield pictures of some of the plates of food you had.
4. Don’t shoot tiny people
Don’t pose your traveling companions in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and back up until you have the whole building in the picture. Your people will be unrecognizable. Stand them in front of the doorway or the Liberty Bell down the street and get close to them. Take the post-card shot of the building if you must, but make sure your folks are easily identified in the pictures.
4. Picture your own [New York]
Substitute New York for any famous place you’re traveling to. After you capture the expected, cliché images, make sure you bring home pictures of the parts of the location you’ll most want to remember. That romantic plaza in Barcelona, the exciting dance group in the square in Rio, the night you all had so much fun on the beach in Zanzibar, the big tree you set your tent next to in the Colorado Rockies — these special places and moments are the ones you will long want to recall; make sure you take pictures at those moments. And have strangers take your picture, too!
Some tips about shutter speeds
By John O’Connell
As most camera-clickers know, getting a properly exposed picture — not too dark, not too bright — depends on allowing just the right amount of light to fall on the sensor. And the light entering the camera is regulated by three functions: how wide the lens opening is (Aperture or F-Stop), ISO (light sensitivity or what used to be called film speed), and how fast the light door, or shutter, opens and closes.
While many DSLR owners set their ISO to Auto and turn their exposure control dial to the green Auto setting to let the manufacturer’s excellent algorithms determine the “correct” aperture and shutter speed, there are other setting on that exposure dial that enable you to take more than snapshots, but to create images with intentionality.
One of those settings is the S or Tv (Canon), or shutter speed, position on the dial. On this setting, you use your command dial to set the shutter speed you desire and the camera will set the right aperture or F-Stop appropriate for that shutter speed.
Why bother with setting the shutter speed when the manufacturer’s scientists have already provided you with the “correct” exposure settings on Auto?
Because the algorithm designers have no idea what’s in front of the lens when you take your picture. Are you shooting a close-up macro of a flower in a gentle breeze? Is your subject a child running through the meadow, a racehorse passing the finish line or the Milky Way in a star-filled sky?
If you want to “stop” the swaying flower from being blurry in your picture, get a sharp shot of the running child or the thoroughbred, or prevent the twinkling stars from becoming smudgy hyphens in the heavens, you need to use faster shutter speeds than what Auto will choose.
Shutter speeds — the amount of seconds or fractions of one second that light can pass through the lens and onto the sensor — can freeze motion or even creatively permit a little blur to emphasize motion.
Shutter speeds generally range from a really long 30 seconds (or much longer f you want) to 1 sec., ½ of one second, ¼, 1/8th, 1/15th, 1/30th, 1/60th, 1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th, 1/1000th, and much faster.
The shutter speed you choose to use should depend on the speed and angle of motion you’re recording. Subjects moving directly toward you reveal less motion than the same subject moving diagonally toward or away from you. And subjects, like the racehorse running perpendicular to the lens as it crossed the finish line needs the shortest shutter speed to “stop” the motion.
With moving subjects, you should start at 1/125th or 1/250th of a second if you want to freeze the motion. Shooting at right angles to the subject, you may need to bump that speed up to 1/500th or faster. It depends on how fast the subject is moving, how close you are to the subject and the focal length of the lens (telephotos bring you closer to the subject’s movement even though you may be actually further away).
Taking Milky Way or starry skies are tricky. You need to let a lot of light in, but if your shutter speed is too slow it will render the stars not as pinpoints of light but as short star trails. The best way for stars is to open the aperture wide, focus on infinity, hike up the ISO to the highest your camera will allow without too much noise, and set the shutter at 1 second to start. You will then bracket your exposures adding many seconds or perhaps faster speed until you get the right exposure for the stars. Trial and error.
Another factor in deciding what shutter speed to use is how heavy your camera and lens is. Why? Because it’s hard to hold a “long lens,” a telephoto lens, steady. There’s a rule of thumb: use a shutter speed that’s represents the longest focal length of the lens (100, 200, 300, 500) as the bottom number of a fraction. In other words, use at least 1/250th of a second for a 200-millimeter lens, at least 1/500th of a second for a 500 mm lens, etc. That goes regardless of the motion or the lack of motion of the subject. This is just to compensate for shaky hands holding heavy equipment.
So try this out. Head to the city at holiday time, and set your exposure dial to Shutter (S or Tv) Priority and shoot some pictures intentionally at slow speeds, medium speeds and fast speeds. When you look at the images on your computer, see what speeds had what effects on the scenes you shot. Then you’ll get to learn what shutter speeds to use on other photo-taking opportunities in the future.