Friday, January 18, 2008

Lesson #4 - Tradeoffs

Let's review a little:

Lesson #1 was about which end of the camera the light goes in and where it goes once it's inside.

Lesson #2 was about using a camera's shooting modes to CONTROL aperture or shutterspeed.... or nothing ... or everything.

Lesson #3 was about making your photographs have IMPACT by using good composition.

Now it's time to tie all of it together with some discussion about tradeoffs. Photography - just like life - is full of tradeoffs. This lesson and the next two to follow will be all about photographic tradeoffs......

Remember that there were three important parameters that needed to be chosen for each photograph in order to get a good exposure: ISO, aperture, and shutterspeed. In this lesson, I'm going to show you the tradeoffs that are associated with ISO. I'll start with a brief description, then I'll show some examples of photographs that illustrate the tradeoffs. You'll see how these tradeoffs happen in REAL LIFE!

Let's start with ISO....

Remember that ISO is all about the sensitivity of your sensor - or film, if you've not yet made the switch. An ISO setting of 100 is half as sensitive to light as an ISO setting of 200. Likewise, 400 is twice as sensitive as 200, and 800 is twice as sensitive as 400. Some cameras go all the way up to 3200 and 6400 ISO. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive it is to light.

So when do you need your sensor to be more sensitive to light? There are two answers: (a) when there's NOT much light and (b) when you don't want to use much of the light that is available. Lowlight situations like during a church service are an example of the first. Sports photography when you want to stop the action with a super fast shutterspeed is an example of the second. Indoor sports photography inside poorly lit gymnasiums is a double-whammy. In that case there's not much light available AND you want a fast shutterspeed to stop the action. That's when you'll have to crank the ISO up as high as it will go.

So what is the tradeoff? Why not shoot at a high ISO all the time? Because of digital noise.

Back in the old days with film, the higher the ISO - the grainier the photograph would be. With digital, we have the same problem. High ISO leads to more digital noise. The good news, however, is that in the last few years the camera companies have gotten very good at managing digital noise. The Canon 40D camera that I use now gives me photos at 3200 ISO that have about the same amount of digital noise as my old Canon Digital Rebel had at 800 ISO. That's a huge difference! Yay Technology!

Tradeoff #1 - ISO - Higher ISO lets you shoot faster shutterspeeds and with less light but it may result in more digital noise.

Here are some examples:

This first shot is of a young lady playing guitar in a very low-light situation where I had to shoot at 1/100th of a second (fast enough to keep her moving hand from being blurred) with the lens aperture at f/2.8 (wide open) and with the ISO set to 1600 (as high as it would go on that camera.) The result is a very nice photo when you look at it this size.

But if you were to enlarge it very much, you can begin to see the GRAININESS in the photo. That's digital noise.

Another pair of examples: Different young lady, ISO at 100 (1/16th as sensitive as ISO 1600) in a brighter setting.

Enlarge just her face and..... very little GRAININESS ..... very little digital noise.

Now, did I say GRAININESS is bad? No way! There are times when digital noise can add a certain artistic look to a photograph. You also must keep in mind whether or not the photograph will be enlarged. I shoot lots of sports photos at high ISO that would make very grainy posters. But most of my customers buy 4x6 prints! Graininess and digital noise are much less important on the smaller uncropped prints.

My point is NOT to teach you to avoid digital noise or graininess but to KNOW when to expect it and decide for yourself if it's okay in each situation. I personally like the first photo of the young lady playing guitar and I think the digital noise doesn't hurt at all. Why? Because it gives the photo IMPACT and that is something we learned to work toward in our last lesson. A grainy photo taken in a coffeehouse setting under the warm glow of stage lights: very cool!

Now that you understand ISO, you know what to expect when you change it. It's a tool in your camera bag that you can begin to use effectively.

Go shoot some photos. Mess with the ISO settings on your camera and watch what happens to your photos. Good Luck!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Back Home in Texas!

There is something fundamentally wrong with getting on an airplane and then getting off three hours later to outdoor temperatures 70 degrees warmer. That's what happened between Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Dallas, Texas, on Monday. Uggggh!

Anyway, we're back home and we're trying to catch up from being gone. I'm shooting soccer games this weekend and a retirement ceremony. Maybe I'll find Lesson #4 in there somewhere......


Friday, January 4, 2008

Look Who Came for Dinner!

Today was pretty slow..... until about 4:45pm and that's when our dinner guests arrived!

This guy was checking us out through the window of the condo.

It turns out that bird feeders aren't just for birds anymore. Jill was concerned this morning about why her bird feeder had been emptied in one night. Now we know.

I slipped out the front door and discovered that our dinner guest had not come "stag" but had brought a younger friend. I was able to get good shots of both of them before they wandered back across Teton Creek.

FOR THE RECORD: I've hunted muledeer with great success in eight of the last nine years but I've never taken one as large as this big boy. Even with a major fork of his right antler broken, he's a trophy. I'm just as proud to get photos of him.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lesson #3 - How to make GREAT photos

Let's get something straight.

I'm glad you like some of the photos I've taken but what really matters to me is that I like them. I shoot for ME FIRST! I've entered a few photo contests with some of my absolute favorite shots and I've come away disappointed. I've posted my favorites on internet photography forums and I've had people tell me why they didn't like my best work. Please understand - I'm not afraid of criticism but I do recognize that opinions are like bellybuttons...... everyone has one: some stick out and some are full of lint. Our goal is to get you making photos that YOU like. I can tell you what I like about a photo and I can give you some ideas about what makes a photo compelling to ME, but the big question for YOU should be whether or not YOU like it.

With all that in mind, many of you have told me that you are disappointed with the photographs that you get and that you wish you could make shots like I make. You should probably know that I get lots of disappointing photographs too. I'm shooting at a rate of 40,000 shots per year these days. LOTS of those shots aren't very good. Many are downright disappointing. The trick for me, however, is that I usually know what to do when I get a lousy photo. I know how to adjust the camera - on the spot - to salvage the moment. That's what Lessons 1 and 2 were all about. Learn to use the camera so that when you are standing in front of that beautiful mountainside..... you can get it...... on the second or third try, at least.

TRANSLATION: Digital media is cheap. Shoot lots of photos. Learn to look at the display on the back of your camera and learn to ADJUST your shooting based on what you see. END OF TRANSLATION!

Now let's talk about COMPOSITION.

What makes great photographic composition? Is it a great subject? Or, is it something more subtle? I believe it is possible to make great photographs with lousy subjects and lousy photographs with great subjects. So what makes the difference?

Good photographs have EMOTIONAL IMPACT. If its a shot of your kid or your dog or your aging grandmother, it's easy to understand the emotional impact. But what about a landscape photograph. How can a beautiful mountain photograph have emotional impact? Simple: It has to make the viewer feel like he is there instead of just looking at a pretty picture.

How can a photograph make you feel like you are there? We'll get there with three simple concepts: Arrangement, Perspective, and, uh..... Arrangement, again.... This should be fun!


For me, a photograph should draw the eye of the viewer into the frame. The most compelling photographs make the viewer feel as though he is part of the scene. Most postcards appeal to us because they remind us of BEING THERE. Of course they are perfectly exposed and the color is captured during the best light of the day, but what really makes them work is that they draw us into the scene and stimulate the emotions that we felt when we were actually there.

The lines and elements of a photograph can draw us in ...... or bore us completely. Let me tell you what I have seen over and over again. As many of you know, I love Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In fact, I was there TODAY. I'm writing this after spending part of my afternoon in what I consider to be one of the most beautiful places in the whole wide world! I always chuckle as I drive up the main highway because I see people pulled off in the National Park Service pullouts photographing the spectacular Teton Range. The mountains along this drive are unbelievable. If you've never been to Grand Teton National Park, you should put it on your list. If you don't have a list..... start one and put GTNP at the top. It's a must-see.

Anyway, I see these folks snapping photos from the highway and I'm sad for them because I know they are going to be disappointed with their photographs BECAUSE THEY ARE FLAT! They'll say things like, "well, those mountains are unbelievable.... my pictures just don't do them justice." The problem is that there is nothing to DRAW the viewer into the photograph.

One of the best known photographs of the Tetons was taken by Ansel Adams in 1942 from a spot known as the Snake River Overlook. After you drive past three or four boring pullouts, you get to the overlook and you can take almost the same photo that Ansel took. Here's the one I took today:

This shot works because the viewer is drawn into the photo by the foreground and middle ground. Grand Teton, the 13,770-foot mountain in the background, anchors the scene but its the foreground of the trees and the middle ground of the river that make it work so well. Without the foreground and middle elements, this would just be a FLAT photo of the side of some really pretty mountains. Granted, you would have recorded what was there if you just shot the mountains with no foreground elements. But if you really want that POSTCARD feel, draw the viewer into the photograph by including foreground and - if possible - middle ground elements.

Here's another shot of the Tetons that I took last summer. It's at a place called Schwabacher's Landing and you have to hike a couple hundred yards from the parking area at the end of a two-mile gravel road off the main highway. Go to the GTNP visitor center and you'll see lots of posters and postcards from this spot....

This shot works because of BEAVERS! Beavers built a dam on this little backwater of the Snake River causing the water to backup into a nice pool that creates a perfect reflection of the mountains. You get foreground with the reflection, middle ground with the trees on the back of the pond, and the Teton Range anchoring the background. The elements of this photograph work together to draw you into the frame. It almost feels like you are there!


Diagonal lines that lead away from the foreground are another great way to draw the eye into a photograph. Fences, roads, rivers, arms, legs, you name it..... use it to draw the eye into the photograph. Here's an example....

This is the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia. I took this shot back in 2000 using film.... and I got very lucky! Everyone notices the spectacular bridge leading your eye across the harbor, but did you notice the railing in the FOREGROUND?

Here's another example that I love...

This is the west endzone at the Aledo High School Stadium. See how the endzone lines draw you into the photo from the foreground and notice how your eyes follow the lines into the frame and end on the impressive home bleachers. Because I'm not facing the home bleachers straight-on, the line of the seating leads away on another diagonal. It doesn't hurt that the sky behind the bleachers is interesting as well! Imagine how boring this would look if I just shot straight across at the home bleachers.

Another example: Anyone hungry for TexMex?

I took this shot looking up at an angle. I took some others looking straight-on at the building and there just wasn't anything that made those shots appealing. The perspective of this shot just makes it work so much better. Or, maybe I'm just craving chicken enchiladas.....

Arrangement, again!

Maybe you are shooting something that doesn't allow any neat perspective and it doesn't afford the luxury of strong foreground elements.....what do you do then?

There is something called, "The Rule of Thirds," that you need to know about and you need to be prepared to break it whenever you feel like it.

The Rule of Thirds says that you should arrange the elements in a photograph so that they are not centered left to right or top to bottom. The most "pleasing" arrangement is for the elements of the photograph to be located one-third of the way across the frame and one-third of the way up or down in the frame.

TRANSLATION: Don't center your subjects. END TRANSLATION.

Don't center the horizon - one-third of the way from the top or bottom is much better. A person in the photo? One-third of the way from the left or right. Person doing something? Let them "do it" toward the open part of the frame. Pitchers pitch better from one edge toward the middle of the frame. Running backs run toward the open field....unless you want to make him look elusive and then you show them running out of the frame with people chasing him. (See Lesson 2.)


Emotional Impact happens when you draw the viewer into the photograph. You want to make them FEEL like they are a part of it. You can do this by including foreground elements. You can draw them in using diagonal lines and different angles and perspectives. You can draw them in by arranging the elements in a pleasing way. This stuff works! When I look back at my best photos I recall exactly what it was like when I stood there. I want you to be able to feel the same thing when you look at your photos.

You also need to understand that shooting photos this way - using these concepts - becomes a part of HOW YOU SEE. After a while you won't have to think about what you are doing. You will just find yourself drawn to the kind of scenes that work. You will even find yourself skipping the roadside pull-out in favor of something much greater.


Take a look at the photos in my Personal Favorites Galleries. Try to notice all the different ways I use diagonals lines, foreground elements, and the rule-of-thirds in my shots. You might also notice how often I break the rule-of-thirds, too!

NOTE FROM THE TEACHER: I'm a little lonely out here and I'd love to get some feedback on what you've been reading. Is it helpful? Is it a heaping pile of smelly refuse? Send me an email and let me know what you're thinking about these lessons so far. Thanks! JRA

Lesson #2 - Get Your PRIORITIES Right!

In Lesson #1 you learned how cameras work. Hopefully, you spent a little time with your camera's manual so that you know how to adjust the three important parameters that were covered: shutterspeed, aperture, and ISO. Maybe you discovered that your camera has lots of other settings that are even more confusing. You may have run across words like "shooting mode," or "program mode" or modes that include the word "priority." Trust me on this: the camera makers are trying to make it easier for you - it just might not feel like it.

Most high-end digital cameras have four creative shooting modes: PROGRAM, APERTURE, SHUTTERSPEED, and MANUAL. These are the important ones. Learn about them and you can forget about all the other modes you might have seen: sports, action, portrait, landscape, nighttime, etc...

The creative shooting modes are all about giving YOU part of the control and letting the camera's brain (software) help with the rest. Remember how shutterspeed, ISO, and aperture work together for a good exposure? Your camera has a light meter inside that feeds information to the internal computer. The computer does its job and decides whether or not there is enough light (or too much light) for a good exposure. Then it looks to see what MODE you are shooting in so it can know what settings it needs to make. The best way to understand these SHOOTING MODES is to look at examples. You'll probably learn a lot of other great stuff in these examples because they are REAL LIFE. Here goes....


Example 1
You are shooting a football game in the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day. You want to stop the action making sure that your shots are not blurry at all. You know from previous experience that a shutterspeed of 1/500th would be perfect to stop the action. You choose an ISO of 400 believing it might be "fast" enough and you set your camera on Tv (Time-value for Canon) or S (Nikon) meaning that you've chosen Shutterspeed Priority. You then set your shutterspeed to 1/500th of a second and begin shooting. As you point your camera toward the running back and half-press the shutter button to activate the meter, the camera measures the light coming in, notices that you are in Shutterspeed Mode and it looks for an aperture value that will give a good exposure for the ISO and shutterspeed that you have chosen. If it is possible to get a good aperture setting with the ISO and shutterspeed that you have chosen then the camera will proceed to make a well exposed photograph for you. That's how Shutterspeed Priority or Shutterspeed Mode works. What if the camera can't get an aperture big enough to get a good exposure? Then the best thing to do would be to increase the ISO. Raise it to 800 and you just made it TWICE as sensitive to light. Now when you meter the scene you find that the aperture setting is good and the camera will take a good photo.

Example 2
You decide to shoot a waterfall and you want the water to look soft and "dreamy." You set your ISO to 100 (slow) and put your camera in shutterspeed priority mode. Choose 1/4th of a second and strap your camera down to your tripod because you know that it will be blurry if you try to hold it in your hands with a shutterspeed that slow. You focus on the waterfall and half-press the shutter release button and let the camera meter the scene. The camera chooses an appropriate aperture and then you snap the picture. Because your shutter was open for a relatively long time (1/4th second) the water appears to be smeared across the frame - perfect. Shutterspeed priority mode lets you choose the shutterspeed for the effect you want while the camera does the rest of the work to make it perfect.


Example 3
Let's say you are shooting a portrait of an annoyed young man standing on a railroad track and you want your subject in focus but your background blurry. You know that you need a wide aperture to make that happen. With the ISO set to 100, you set the camera mode to Av (Aperture value for Canon) or A (Nikon) for Aperture Priority. You then set the f/stop on your lens to f/2.8, the widest aperture your lens can allow. You half-press the shutter button and the meter evaluates the exposure and determines what shutterspeed would be appropriate with this f/stop (aperture value) and ISO setting. If the shutterspeed the camera chooses is fast enough to justify handholding the camera, then you snap the photo and check the LCD to see what you got.

Example 4
Now it's time to shoot a portrait of someone in front of a distant mountain. You want the person in focus and the mountain in focus so you know that you will need a very small aperture. You set your ISO to 100 and your shooting mode to Av (Canon) or A (Nikon) for Aperture Priority. You then select an aperture of f/16 which makes a very small hole for the light to pass through. When you half-press the shutter button to meter the scene the camera determines the shutterspeed that will work with your small aperture and your low ISO. Uh-oh, the shutterspeed chosen is 1/30th second and you know the photo will be blurry because you didn't bring your tripod. Quickly you reset your ISO to 400 (4x faster than before) and see that the shutterspeed has now changed to 1/125th. This will work fine so you snap the photo.


Example 5
You're outside in the yard and want a photo of your prized rose bushes. You select an ISO of 100, set the camera on P for Program Mode and snap the photo. In this case the camera chose both the aperture and the shutterspeed because neither of them were particularly important to you. That was easy but it allowed you the least amount of creativity. If you wanted one of the roses in focus and all the rest to be blurry, you'd have to override the PROGRAM in order to set your own very wide aperture. In that case, you might as well take control of your aperture and use Aperture Mode.

Example 6
You're outside in the yard and want a photo of your grandmother admiring your prized rose bushes. Point and shoot. The camera takes care of everything and you get a well-exposed photo. Maybe the camera even notices that there isn't enough light for a good exposure and it pops open its built-in flash and zaps granny right between the eyes with enough light to make her look years younger. Perfect!


Example 7
Back in the old days, the meter told you when there was enough light but you had to choose the aperture and the shutterspeed. You can still do this in MANUAL Mode. You point your camera at the group of kids in the snow and decide to set the aperture wide open so that you can let a lot of light through to the sensor. You then select a shutterspeed that makes the internal meter happy. But wait, you know that the meter will be fooled by all the white snow so you bump the shutterspeed down a couple of steps to overexpose the snow and get the kids in the snow looking great.

Example 8
You plan to shoot the fireworks at the picnic so you set your camera to manual, open the aperture wide open and then start adjusting your shutterspeed until you get the fireworks to look the way you want. Somewhere along the way you realize that you've been completely ignoring the light meter and just looking at your LCD to decide whether your shots need to be adjusted or not.


Todays digital cameras offer unbelievable flexibility allowing us to be creative in ways we don't yet understand. One key to successful shooting is understanding what the different PROGRAM or SHOOTING PRIORITY MODES do.

Step 1: Choose the ISO - that tells the camera how sensitive the sensor (or film) is going to be
Step 2: Choose the shooting mode or PRIORITY MODE

PROGRAM - lets the camera choose the aperture and the shutterspeed
APERTURE - you select the aperture and the camera selects the shutterspeed
SHUTTERSPEED - you select the shutterspeed and the camera selects the aperture
MANUAL - you select BOTH the shutterspeed and the aperture

Step 3: Make the choices that need to be made based on the results you want to get (this is the creative part)
Step 4: Half-press the shutter button to see if the choices that have been made will actually work
Step 5: Adjust if necessary
Step 6: Take the photograph

Did you learn anything in this lesson? If you read the examples carefully, you should have learned that the aperture is also known as f-stops and that the larger the number the smaller the aperture. You also learned the kind of choices you would need to make if you were shooting sports, or waterfalls, or even portraits. Oh, and don't forget about grandma. If she needs flashing, the best place to get that to happen is in PROGRAM mode.

In Lesson #3 I'm going to shift gears a little and start talking about creative composition. You know enough now about how your camera works that you should be ready to start exercising those creative impulses.

Questions or comments? Post them here!