Habits are the foundation of our successes and our failures. That is why, as a photographer, it is important to develop good habits. When it comes to photography, there is such a thing as “a happy accident” but you cannot grow as a photographer if all your strongest images come as a result of things that are out of your control.
By looking at my mistakes, I’ve discovered five things I need to pay attention to that would have made the difference between a good photograph and an image that is not usable. The idea was to create a checklist of things I need to pay attention each time I am making pictures.
Shooting in Raw
I can count on one hand the number of times I have photographed only in JPG before I developed the habit of making sure my camera was set to shoot at a minimum in Raw or Raw and JPG. If you always shoot in Raw the chances of your camera being set to shoot in JPG are slim but it is better to be safe than sorry so I always check my settings. Raw files are the digital equivalent of a film negative. The files hold all the information you need to work with your images in post-production in order for you to get the final image you see in your head. JPG files do not keep all the information and while you can work with them to make changes, you simply will not have the creative flexibility you have working with Raw files.
One third of the exposure triangle, ISO can often be overlooked. It is easy to set it to Auto and to let the camera do the work for you. However the camera does not concern itself with the quality of your image and there may be instances where you need to control the ISO to control the noise in your pictures. If you are photographing at night and using a tripod, to improve image quality, you can adjust your ISO down instead of relying on Auto ISO. Whenever I head out, I check my ISO setting and usually reset it to the default ISO 200 or if photographing at night, the maximum ISO I would consider using e.g. 2400 or 3200 depending on the camera I’m using. On more sophisticated cameras, you can program your default settings and include ISO so that with the press of one button, you know what you have used for your ISO.
I often use spot metering. On my Nikon D700 I have a function button I can use as I am shooting to switch quickly between matrix metering and spot metering. Not all cameras have function buttons that can be programmed in this way and if you have set your metering to spot metering and forget to change it back, you might wonder why your photographs are not properly exposed. You might miss that decisive moment before you realize you are on the wrong metering mode so always check your metering mode before heading out or use the programmable default settings to bring you back to your normal settings.
Unless I am looking for a shutter speed for creative purposes such as panning where I set the shutter speed depending on what moving object I wish to photograph or painting with my camera where I want a longer exposure, I photograph in Aperture Priority mode. (For more tricky exposure situations I do shoot manual and set my own aperture and shutter speed.) When I use Aperture Priority, the camera will decide on the shutter speed. However it cannot decide if the shutter speed is fast enough to keep the image sharp. The general rule is if you are shooting at a focal length of say 50mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/50 seconds to ensure your image will be sharp. If your focal length is 300mm, your minimum shutter speed is 1/300 sec. I have lost too many potentially good photographs because the shutter speed has been just a few fractions of a second too slow. All it takes is a quick check of the focal length you are using and keeping an eye on your shutter speed.
Corners and Edges
I’m not a purist by any stretch of the imagination but I like to “get it right in-camera” as much as I can. I do crop in post-production but I am very happy when I look at an image and see that I have everything within the frame that should be there. Not all camera viewfinders cover 100% of what is recorded when you press the shutter. If you check your camera specifications, you can find your camera’s coverage. For example, my Nikon D700 has 95% coverage and that means I will sometimes include things in the corners and along the edges of my image that I had not intended to include. The Nikon D4S on the other hand has 100% coverage and what you see is what will be recorded on your sensor. Even if your camera viewfinder has 100% coverage it is a good idea to pay attention to the corners and edges as your frame your images.
Making good photographs and developing good habits go hand in hand. Incorporate them into the way you make pictures so you don’t give them a second thought and you will be one step closer to consistently making better photographs.
Do you have any good habits you can add to the list? We’d love to hear them!
The famous war photographer, Robert Capa, once said, “if your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” While this simple statement holds true for many subjects and images, sometimes the exact opposite approach is needed.
If your subject is moving then instead of a nice, tight crop, you are better off backing up a bit and giving your subject space to move into. When viewing an image of a moving object people will have a tendency to look at where that object is going next. A subject that is right up against the edge of the image and moving out of the frame can produce an uncomfortable feeling for the viewer. The space a subject is moving into is often called “active space” and gives the viewer a visual path through the image. Allowing the viewer to see where the subject is moving to helps put the viewer at ease and feels a bit more natural.
This idea can also be applied to photographing people. Tight crops in portraiture sometimes work well and produce great results, but at other times they can result in a claustrophobic feeling. Just as a viewer’s path through an image will follow a moving subject, a viewer’s gaze will typically follow where your subject is looking. Giving people in your images room to breathe will create images that can be a bit more pleasing for your viewers.
As with all of the ‘rules’ of photography, it’s important you learn the rules, and then decided when they should be broken.
I covered the first meeting of Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA) last week. It was a frustrating experience.
When I was working for newspapers, my bread and butter was covering politics. Photographing the first day of the NLA was a bit of a throwback to those days. Back then I would have been covering the first day of the state legislature and I had access to the newspaper’s inventory of long lenses. I would photograph the early stuff – the parliamentarians meeting with constituents, protests in front of the legislature and features with my short lenses, like my 24mm and 50mm (I don’t use zooms) but I would cover the stuff inside the legislative chambers with long lenses, either a 300mm f2.8 or 400mm f2.8, Canon’s ridiculously expensive (the 400mm f2.8 is about $12,000 US) L series telephotos. These weren’t the most interesting photos of the day, but they were important photos of record.
Since leaving the world of newspaper photojournalism, I don’t need those lenses. I don’t photograph sports much and the work I do is much closer and more intimate. Even when I use my longest day to day lens, a 200mm f2.8, I use it as more of a macro lens than a traditional telephoto. The opening of the NLA is the first time since I left the paper that I really needed something longer than my 200mm f2.8. But when you need a 400mm lens, you need a 400mm lens. I ended up using my 200 and 1.4X teleconverter (for an effective focal length of about 280mm at f4).
Using the teleconverter in the dimly lit Parliament was a challenge. With the 200mm lens I could get away with working at ISO3200. But with the teleconverter, which both takes one stop of light (my 200mm f2.8 becomes a 280mm f4) and requires a faster shutter speed (because the longer lens is more prone to camera shake) so I ended up working at ISO12,800.
I was checking my work on the camera’s back screen and I was not impressed with what I was getting. The pictures I made across the room required a lot of cropping and digital noise, from the high ISO, was apparent even on the camera back. When I thought it was over I hurriedly left. That was a big mistake and somewhat out of character for me. My normal routine is “be the first to arrive and the last to leave” because I always thought the best pictures came at the beginning or the end.
When it was over, the newly elected leadership stood in the middle of the chamber with their hands clenched over their heads in a victory pose. And I wasn’t even in the room. It wasn’t a very good picture (none of the photos from the day were really very good pictures) but it was THE photo. The one everyone used from the day.
The only good thing to come out of the experience was the knowledge that I can work at ISO12,800 and still get usable images. I still remember the old days of film, when ISO800 (for color) was a big deal. Those low ISO habits are hard to break.
One of the things I like to do when I’m photographing is layer my images, usually by framing them so you’re eye travels around the picture from foreground to background. Sometimes there’s a big element of luck involved, in the top picture, for example, I was riding at the front of the bus, photographing the driver and some of the passengers when we passed another bus. I looked over and made one frame and the moment, where everything lined up so well, was gone.
Sometimes the framing works on multiple levels. In the picture above, the drummer’s warm skin tones are picked up with the red in the cart, at the same time, the yellow embroidery in his shirt mimics the yellow accent colors on the cart and the banners hanging over the street.
I photographed demolition workers tearing down a neighborhood of cheap bars, run down hotels and faded cabaret theaters in Bangkok (it’s being turned into another high end shopping mall) and I liked the way the entrance to a theater framed the work going on inside.
When I’m photographing, I use the layered approach as much as I can. It adds depth to the photo and helps set up a way for the viewers’ eye to wander around the frame.
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The rainy season in Bangkok will soon be upon us, which is a great time to get creative with your compositions. After a big rain there are plenty of opportunities to create interesting images using reflections from the puddles (or sometimes rivers) in the streets. Typically your reflection images should be fairly symmetrical so that the object being reflected and the reflection itself are equally distributed in your image. In order to accomplish this you may need to change your viewpoint by either crouching down low or possibly getting up high on a bench or some other elevated surface.
The “rules” of photography exist for a reason. When followed correctly they can result in engaging and beautiful images. But rules are meant to be broken. Try getting creative with your reflections by only photographing the reflection itself and then flipping the image vertically using Lightroom or Photoshop. By flipping the image vertically the viewer is able to see the object as it appears in real life, but the reflection will add an abstract element to the photo.
The image above is of the reflections of some trees in Phu Kradueng National Park in Northeast Thailand. After a heavy rain the night before this area was filled with small puddles, reflecting the surrounding trees nicely. I started photographing the reflections, but no matter how I composed the shot I didn’t like any of the images with both the trees and their reflections. I finally decided to exclude the actual trees and instead just photographed the reflections themselves with the idea that I would later flip them vertically in Lightroom. The fact that there were several small puddles instead of one large puddle helped break up the reflections and enhanced the abstractness of the image.
Here’s a very simple tip to help improve your photography: change your point of view. Sometimes we photographers get used making pictures at eye level. We think about using different lenses and trying various focal lengths, we even move to a different spot but how often do we think of changing our point of view right where we are standing?
This picture was made during the Chinese New Year parade in Vancouver. I was literally fighting the crowds to photograph the parade as it went by and getting very frustrated as people with cameras and phones blocked my view as every float and band went by. Finally I decided to drop to street level and see things from a different perspective. The real gem was when I turned around and looked through the legs of the crowd and saw this scene of people watching the parade.
My favourite camera these days is my Olympus OM-D E-M5. It has many great features but one that I use quite often is its rear screen which tilts 80° upwards and 50° downwards. This allows me to photograph without bringing the camera up to my eye. I can put the camera above my head, tilt the screen downwards and still clearly see what is in my frame. This perspective is the equivalent of either being 7 feet tall or standing on a ladder which I would never get from just shooting at eye level. With the upward tilt, I can put the camera into low, small or tight spaces and still see the screen, like I did with this picture. Even if you don’t have a camera with a tilt screen, you can still shoot overhead or at waist or street level, it’s just that you won’t have a preview so it will take a few more tries before you get what you might be looking for in the frame.
Changing your point is especially useful when photographing certain subject matter. I find when photographing children, it is particularly effective to photograph them at their eye level. Taking pictures from the level of an adult can dwarf children and make them appear less important or worse yet, not quite human. If you are interested in doing food photography, changing your perspective can make a big difference to your photographs. Breeze through the many pictures made of food and you will see novices tend to photograph from the perspective of being seated at the table with a plate of food in front of them. Change your point of view and photograph a plate of food directly from above and instantly the viewer has a different experience.
As with all things photographic, experiment. Try placing your camera in a different place and see what the world looks like from that perspective. Get into a habit of working your perspective and make it part of your process. Like me, you might just be surprised with the results.
Ever get bored of the rectangular image format that comes out of your camera? If you’re looking to shake up your photography and want to experiment with something new, give square images a try.
The square format works well with a wide variety of images. A square already has a natural sense of balance which lends itself nicely to symmetrical compositions, but accommodates well spaced, asymmetrical compositions as well.
All of the normal elements of visual design still apply to square images, such as the use of shape and form, texture, lines, color, subject position and space, but regardless of how you construct your image, simple compositions tend to work best within a square frame.
To create a square photo you’re going to need to crop part of your image in the computer using Lightroom, Photoshop, or some other editing software. With this in mind, you’ll need to be careful when out shooting to make sure the crop won’t cut off an important part of your composition. A trick I learned to ensure my square compositions fit nicely in the frame and can be cropped properly is to use the focus points in my view finder. To do this I shot several test images to find exactly which focus points would line up with the edge of my square image. Now anytime I want to make a square photo I know exactly how to line up my shot.
It’s always good to pre-visualize your final image before you press your shutter release button, but there’s no harm in going back through your catalog of images to see if maybe some of them might be well suited for a square crop.