Taking Better Pictures - Part 2

May 02, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Admittedly, I'm very tardy in posting to my blog. I'll attempt to do better, but hopefully this installment will bridge the gap.

In my last post, I discussed creative choices you can make in creating better photographs. In this post, we'll discuss using the technical side of the equation to do so. I can hear some of you tuning out already, but bear with me. It won't be as painful as you think!

Very often I’m sure you have looked at a photograph in a magazine or a book and noticed the incredible detail in it. Individual grains of sand perhaps, or the fine hairs of a kitten and thought, they must have some kind of camera to get a picture that sharp. Nope. Not the camera. It’s what is supporting the camera; a tripod! I can hear you again… “A tripod is bulky.” “I don’t want to carry that thing around.” “It slows me down.” EXACTLY. It slows you down. And when you slow down and really look, like we did in our exercise in the last post, we begin to improve our sight. It won’t improve your vision to 20/20, but it will improve your creative vision, which is more important. A tripod can hold your camera infinitely steadier than you can. And it allows you to frame the shot exactly as you want. In addition, with the new, space-age materials available, they weigh next to nothing. There are models out there small enough to fit in a woman’s handbag. There are also table-top versions and something called a Gorilla Pod, which has flexible legs that you can wrap around a fence or railing that hardly take up any room at all. Seriously; if you want to immediately see improved sharpness and clarity in your pictures, get that camera on a tripod.

Now that you have wisely mounted your camera on a tripod, we’ll discuss how to get sharper pictures yet, and that is with some kind of a release for the shutter, other than your finger. Most cameras have a place where you can attach a “cable release.” In the film camera days this was a metal cable that screwed into the top of the shutter release and then you pressed a plunger type devise which manually pushed the shutter down. Just pressing that button with your finger was enough to induce a bit of shake (read blur) into the picture. Well today there are a number of methods that may be able to be used with our camera.

The first is a remote cable that can be plugged into the camera. This is the most widely used method I’ll wager. Your camera’s manufacturer probably has one or more that will fit your model, as well as you’ll find lots of third party solutions out there. The next type of release is one that will fit on your camera’s hot-shoe mount. It then perhaps has a cable that goes into where the remote cable would go and comes with a separate remote control that’s used to trip the shutter, thereby removing any human movement that could be induced. Some of the newest cameras have an infrared sensor built in and then a remote can be purchased from the manufacturer so there’s no need for any sort of attachments at all. The Nikon 5100 features this and the remote is around $20. Nice.

So, our camera is on the tripod, we have a remote trigger, what else can we do to improve our photo? Improve our depth of field. What is the depth of field you ask? It has to do with the aperture of the lens and the amount of light reaching our sensor. Think of the aperture as the pupils of your eyes. Your eye dilates and contracts based on the available amount of light it receives. The less light available, the wider your pupil opens. Now your camera isn’t smart as your eyes, so you have to rely on its meter; unless you’re on Automatic mode, but we’re going to break of that habit too. The aperture size used on our lens, which helps us to control the light entering it, also correlates to depth of field. You’ve probably seen those funny “F” numbers and wondered what they meant. Those, my friends, are the size of the opening in our aperture.

Now this next part is a bit counter-intuitive, so again, bear with me. The smaller the F-number, the larger the opening, and the more light that reaches the sensor. Make sense? No? I know, it doesn’t make any sense at all, but here’s a little trick I stumbled on that helped a lot. Replace the “F” with a “1/” to the number. So instead of F/2 it’s 1/2. F/2 is a larger size hole than F/4. Using our quick method we would get 1/4. And 1/2 is bigger than 1/4 right? There you have it. Now F/2 doesn’t represent a ½ inch hole as the opening size, but for learning the difference in the F-Stops, this trick was helpful for me.

But what the hell does this have to do with the depth of field I spoke of earlier? Here we go. Ever been inside a dark movie theater and then stepped out into the bright sunshine? What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. You were nearly hit by a bus stepping off the curb because everything was a bit blurry because your eyes hadn’t yet had a chance to adjust and your depth of field was shot to hell. It’s the same with your camera. The depth of field is the amount of area in focus in a given field of view. We use the F-Stop to help make creative choices of how much of our scene is going to be in focus.

That pretty portrait of your niece where she’s in focus but the trees behind her a not? Shallow depth of field (small F-number). That landscape shot of the Grand Canyon where everything from the rocks right in front of you to the distant horizon and everything’s in focus? Deep depth of field (big F-number). So by increasing the F-number (smaller hole), we increase the depth of field. Every lens has an F-number whereby it’s at its sharpest as well, usually around F/8 or F/11. But many landscape photographers will sacrifice a little bit of sharpness to get the deeper depth of field at F/16 or even F/22. In photography, there always a trade-off. Which brings me to my final way to improve your photos; Exposure.

Again reverting back to the film days, you had to concern yourself with film speed. Were you shooting outside, indoors, in low light? There was a different film speed for all of them. And film speed was really how sensitive the film was to light and was referenced by the ISO speed. If you ever shot film and had say ISO 50 film loaded, but then wanted to go shoot outdoors on a bright day, you probably wasted a bunch of film. Well thankfully on today’s cameras, we can change that speed at will.

Whether you’re shooting film or digital, we still employ the exposure triangle. ISO, F-Stop and Shutter Speed. We’re adjusting the three of those things to give us a balanced exposure. Again, there are trade-offs. Let’s say you’re shooting a landscape, and there’s a bit of a wind blowing. In that case, you might need an F-Stop of F/11, a shutter speed of 1/500th to make sure we don’t see any moving branches, so the ISO ends up being ISO 400, to give us that balanced exposure.

Or to get that portrait of our niece, we might use an F-Stop of F/5.6 to make sure her face is in focus, but leaves the background soft; a shutter speed of 1/125th because she’s sitting still and the ISO is at 200.

Or we might be out shooting at night, so we raise the ISO up to 3200 to account for the lack light, we want the scene sharp so we use F/8 but the shutter speed is now 1/20th of a second to get a balanced exposure. You’ve got that tripod with you don’t you? Because there’s no way you’re going to get a sharp picture with a shutter speed of 1/20th shooting hand-held. The point is that there can be a number of combinations of ISO, F-Stop and Shutter speeds that will give a balanced exposure. And once you’ve got a balanced exposure, magic happens inside that camera.

Sure, you can leave it on Auto and the camera will make all of your exposure decisions for you, but read up a bit and just try out a Aperture Mode, where you select the F-Number based on your creative choice and your camera makes the decision about shutter and ISO. I guarantee you’ll be getting better pictures in no time.

Next time, we’ll talk about Histograms. I’m sure you’re giddy in anticipation.

Many happy clicks!


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