- You don’t own a tripod
- You describe your blurred pictures as “artistic”, or “soft focus”
- The best pictures you take are with your smart phone
- You set your picture size to small or medium to save space on your memory card
- You believe that real photographers don’t need photo-editing
- You believe that real photographers can fix anything with photo-editing
- You’ve owned your camera for years, but still aren’t clear on what “f-stops” are
- You returned a new camera because it took terrible pictures
- You hate flash, and are proud to be “strictly a natural light shooter”
- Your friend asked you to shoot her wedding with your new camera and you said “yes”, adding that you’ll do it alone to save her money
TutorPics – Learning Camera Skills from our BAD pictures
This image was hand-held in bright sunlight with a 250mm lens.
• The bird looks fairly sharp until you zoom on it all the way. The background blurring is understandable, given the length of the lens (250mm) coupled with the distance from the subject, even though the aperture isn’t at optimum for maximum DOF compression.
• The main problem here is blurring caused by the lens magnification. When you magnify the subject, you also magnify all movements – whether by the subject, the camera, or both. The rule for hand-held shots calls for a shutter speed of NOT LESS THAN 1/250th, but the shooter chose – or the camera’s metering chose – 1/200th instead: Not fast enough to arrest the movement with “a thinner slice of time”. The bottom line? She should NOT return her new lens until she tries the same shot – either keeping her shutter speed well above (faster than) 1/250th. What about using a tripod? Great suggestion if it was a dead calm day, but any wind would have made a tripod irrelevant for this shot.
• The image begs a major crop to make the subject more prominent, but the lack of sharpness remains. The original image was about 3000 pixels wide. That left us with only about 800 pixels on the long side for this cropped version. To be clear: Even shooting at the largest size that our cameras can produce has nothing to do with fixing a blurred image in post. In fact, don’t look to any editor for a miracle sharpening cure. Just to be thorough, I applied the powerful “high-pass filter” sharpening technique before uploading this cropped version.
To repair “gray skies” in pictures – Here in Rochester, New York we joke about how often our pictures include gray skies. It’s usually easy to replace a sky using Photoshop, but the trick is making the image look like it was shot that way, and that means choosing a sky with lighting that’s similar to that of our problem image. Because of that, it’s important to have a collection of sky pictures with as many different kinds of lighting to pick from as possible. The shots above are just a few of over a hundred in my collection. Also for you DSLR purists, don’t rule out getting shots with your smart phone cameras for this job. Consider what the shot will be replacing: In most cases, a little softness will do the job nicely.
For website or photo backgrounds – Website pages often have background images, and those images can be created from images that you take yourself. Even if you’re not a website person, consider shooting backgrounds for photos as well. What’s more, don’t limit your search to just skies: What about tree bark? Stone surfaces? Barn wood? If you think about it, the list is practically endless.
To improve our vision – Wildlife photographers spot wildlife while driving on country roads. Wedding photographers see great settings for group shots while sitting in a restaurant. Why not make shooting backgrounds a priority in your life and begin to see more of your world each day, rather than less of it?
- Create a Family History – We’ll start with the most meaningful photos to me: I have eighteen grandchildren and my wife has none of her own. I’m very interested in creating a detailed family history and she doesn’t think about it at all. She’s also not much of a camera person, which may or may not be a coincidence. The thing about family histories is that the older they get, the more valuable they become. Eighteen grandchildren: How many descendants will that be a hundred years from now? Keep your eyes on them and how interested they’ll be in all your details about today, however mundane they might seem to you now.
- Church or other ministry – In our local camera group one member is a retired nun. She’s used her twenty-thousand images to assemble several calendars and other printed reminders of God’s role in her and our lives – however we choose to see that.
- Teach a class – This one isn’t for everybody of course, but it’s been a big one for me. One great reason for teaching any subject is that often the teacher grows more than the class does. If you want to really learn a subject, teach it to someone – even if that someone is only your cat.
- Create a book – This can be a coffee table book, an instruction book, a book for children or anything else that interests you. Search for self-publishing firms online, or just print the images and put them in a binder.
- Enter Photo Contests – I’ve enjoyed shooting for contests, and have even won in a couple of local ones. I soon learned that some of the big ones are mostly interested in selling your contact information to marketers (it’s called lead-mining), but the challenge still added to my experience while shooting.
- Club Photographer – One other member in our camera group is into antique cars in a big way, and he was asked to do all of their photography needs. You can imagine that he was in a “target-rich” environment!
- Tell a story – A story can be anything you want it to be. Pretend you’re a 60-Minutes photographer and it’s your job to get “coverage” for one of their exposes. Or maybe a “before and after” story about landmarks in your town using old pictures mixed with your new versions. Or let’s finish our list where we began: Why not tell the story of some special or interesting person you know: Your mother? Or maybe the reclusive old man down the street whom nobody seems to know very well? Use your imagination!
TutorPics – Learning Camera Skills from our BAD pictures
This image was taken in aperture priority from a tripod inside a zoo building during the daytime. Some bright light source has blown out highlights in the subject. Blown highlights are areas that are “clipped” to pure white, and that lack detail of any kind.
• Clipping occured here in the brighter areas probably because the ISO setting (AKA “film speed” in film cameras) is way too high for a room lit with daylight like this one.. The ISO control can either be set on “auto” or locked into a fixed value, which is likely what happened here.
• As for the light reflection on the glass, the tripod might have been moved… but the angle and background of the frog is good. To keep that, the shooter might have tried putting the camera on 2-second shutter delay, and taken those seconds to just step to the side enough to block the light source with his body. One caveat on that idea: If he can block the light fine, but the risk then is becoming a new reflection in the glass himself. There’s a reason photographers tend to wear solid dark clothing!
• This image is a lost cause. Levels or curves adjustments are the textbook remedies for overexposures, but not for blown highlights like those in the brightest areas of the glass and frog. If the photographer had a better version he might be able to clone from there, but if he has a better version why bother?
This is one of those images that technology may be able to fix some day, but in the meantime it’s giving us a great reason to learn how to avoid the problems in the first place.
If your product photography lighting challenge includes subjects that need to be displayed together, you’ll be glad to take a few minutes to consider whether to shoot them together in the first place, or separately and grouped later in post-production. Let’s look at some considerations for each:
Product shots often require groupings, but what if one of those items becomes unavailable, changes color, or otherwise makes a reshoot necessary? Will it be the same lighting, setting or even the same photographer? If each item in the group was shot separately, then the solution can take as little as ten minutes in Photoshop. Sometimes the nature of the items makes the decision for you. A group that consists of nothing but bottles that stand upright and have labels that need to be read is one thing. You might not be that lucky though. Introduce draping garments or rolled-up wash towels, and shooting the group begins to make more sense.
When you can shoot individual items, it’s important to keep the lighting, shooting angle and distance consistent between shots. Ideally you’ll be using the same camera with the same lens for each.
Photographing Grouped Items
Best practices include being sure that you’ve got good focus, white balance and lighting for any shot before moving on to the next setup, but that becomes doubly important when shooting a group of items. I’ve taken as long as a half hour just adjusting items for a single group exposure, even then not sure whether or not the client will agree with my choices. If the decision-maker is nearby that’s not a problem of course, but when they’re not, I’ve learned to get singles when practical, just in case. Once it came in handy to repair a shadowed area in a single bottle within a group.
Shadows are as much a part of our images as light is, but what about the “255-255-255” standard for all white backgrounds? My approach is to shoot for minimum shadows at capture: I use continuous light umbrellas positioned at about 45 degrees: Key high left and fill lower right. I adjust the key to eliminate reflections, and the fill to eliminate dark areas caused by the key – turning it slightly to “feather” it down a bit. The object is to not have any noticeable shadows, while still conveying a hint of depth. If you select (i.e. cut out) your subject from the background in post, and your subject has a dark shadowed side that suddenly ends at its edge, that’s not good. Drop shadows can mitigate that somewhat, but the rule there is “less is better”. If you’re a Photoshop person, be sure to see our “Drop Shadow” tutorial under our Editing tab.
Cameras are really just “light management tools”, and their main job is to get great exposures of the light that enters the lens and strikes the sensor. Here are the techniques to know, in no particular order:
- Learn and Use the Histogram (above) – It’s included in most cameras and can tell at a glance whether or not to use EC to improve your second attempt
- EC – Exposure Compensation – A shortcut device that really just tunes the light up or down using the exposure control that you haven’t locked in (shutter or aperture). It’s a horizontal scale with a marker that you simply dial up for more light, or down for less.
- Shutter – The “slices of time” adjustment. To control motion blurring, choose “shutter priority” on the mode dial and let aperture or ISO float.
- Aperture – The “DOF” adjustment. To control background blurring, choose “aperture priority” on the mode dial and let shutter speed or ISO float.
- ISO – AKA “Film Speed”. Make a decision here and lock it in, or let it float just like the other two “exposure partners”.
- AEB – Exposure Bracketing – Best used with Aperture priority when on a tripod and the subject isn’t moving at all. Use layer masking in a program like Photoshop to blend three different exposures of the same scene, using the best of each.
- Fill Flash – Usually a mistake if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you do though, magic can happen, especially if you get the flash OFF the top of the camera.
- Turn the lights up/down – Indoors or out: Try to position the subject so they’re lit by, rather than shadowed by the lighting.
- Reflectors – For example, hold a white poster board in front of a human subject to fill facial shadows with bounced sunlight.
- Levels and Curves – Two tools included in nearly every photo-editing program. Blurring in pictures can NOT be fixed, but exposure levels often CAN be!
The word “bracketing” is a military term that dates back to artillery units firing at a distant target. If they zeroed in on a single distance, any error would make each shot a miss. If they instead “bracketed” their target by shooting within a range of distances, some would be long and some short, but some would be right on target.
Many cameras are equipped to “exposure-bracket” automatically (AEB). The images above show a bracketed set: The top picture is the camera’s attempt to get the shot right in one shot. Then next one is the same scene that’s 1 stop darker, and the last is 1 stop brighter than the first one. In this sequence, notice the bright “highlight” areas (eg. the computer screen) and the dark “shadow” areas (eg. the man’s hand on the keyboard). Picture number 2 has the best screen, and picture #3 has the best hand. Now watch as the three shots are blended together in a photo-editing program:Blending is only one advantage of exposure-bracketing. Even if you’re not an editor, it can be a great safety net to be sure that at least one of your shots has the right exposure. A tripod is essential when shooting brackets for blending.
Author’s note: Today most of my paid shooting is for product photography. Because my subjects are never moving, I shoot from a tripod and exposure bracket almost 100% of my shots. I’m in aperture priority with the ISO set at 100 (for noise-free shots), leaving the shutter to do all the exposure adjustments. Without this procedure, I’d take down my 585photo.com website immeditately.
A stop in cameras is a doubling or cutting in half of light. Using money as an analogy, if I start with a dollar and my money increases by one stop, I now have two dollars. If I start with a dollar and it increases by two stops, I now have four dollars (not three). If I start with a dollar and it goes up by three stops, I now have eight dollars: One becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight. Reverse that when decreasing.
Cameras have three light-management tools: Shutter, aperture and ISO. Each is measured in different terms. Shutter is measured in seconds and fractions of a second. Aperture is measured in “f-number” or “f-stops”, which is the ratio of the focal-length to the diameter of the opening inside the lens (aperture). ISO (aka “film speed” for film) is measured in a scale commonly starting with a low of 100 through a high of 1600 to 12800 or higher.
Imagine the time before airliners could fly around the world. American pilots spoke English to American control towers, but what about those first flights to French or Spanish-speaking destinations? Today of course the airline industry requires that all pilots and control tower personnel be fluent in English, because English was declared the official language of the international air traffic industry.
Now imagine the days before digital photography and preview screens that let us “dial in” our settings by trial and error. Photographers had to calculate their settings before the shot, and then wait until the prints came back from the developer to find out how they did. What was needed was a common “language” that put all three controls on equal footing. That language was “stops”.
Let’s say that a film photographer knows that his settings are right for the conditions: If he then increases his shutter speed by one stop to avoid motion blurring, the picture will be darkened by one stop. He then can either use film that ‘s one stop faster, or increase his aperture by one stop. Either one will offset his shutter adjustment, and keep his original exposure correct. Of course the same is true for a digital photographer, except that instead of switching films, that part of the process is now a control on our cameras just as shutter and aperture are. In fact, you may have noticed that when you spin the dial that adjusts each of these three settings, you feel it clicking. Each of these clicks represents an adjustment of either 1/3 or 1/2 stop either way (see your manual for more).