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Ten simple ideas to improve your photography (and a fun quiz)

Ten Tips

Ten Tips and 12 fun quiz questions.

Simple things help you…

We should all take a step back and think about the basics sometimes. It helps us remember essential techniques and keeps us on our toes. Here are the basics with some fun quiz questions too.

The simplest techniques in photography are often the most important ones. In this post we make sure we don’t forget them…

10 essential things to know; 12 fun quiz questions
  1. Not knowing your camera: This is really bad news. If you are hoping to improve your photography make sure you learn what every lump, bump, dial, screen, lens and twiddly bit does. Read your manual regularly. Practice with each function until you have got it right. Then practice it in the dark so you can do a night shoot.
    Quiz Question 1: How many lenses are there on a camera? Answers at the end!
  2. Poor stance: Most people when starting photography don’t realise that the way they stand and hold the camera creates all sorts of problems and poor performance. If you are a keen photographer a good stance can contribute to improved sharpness (hand-held shots), better focus, more steady hand and better shot timing. Learn to stand properly right at the start and you will save yourself lots of re-training time later.
    Quiz Question 2: At what point in the breath cycle is it best to take your shot?
  3. Not using a tripod: classic mistake. Tripods save you lots of time and give you pin sharp photographs. They give you an opportunity to set your camera up properly and ensures that your are ready for your shot.
    Quiz Question 3: A monopod has one leg, a tripod has three legs. What is, and how might you use, a bipod?
  4. Not giving the camera time to focus: When you press the shutter button halfway down it causes the auto-focus to cut in which focuses the camera. But if you punch straight through that to the shot the focus has not had time to do the full focus. This normally happens on the first focus attempt when the focus is right off. After that the lens in nearly focused and will adjust more quickly. So don’t make your first focus attempt too close to the shot or it will be blurred.
    Quiz Question 4: Why do you have two rings on a modern auto-focus/zooming photographic lens? What do you call each of them?
  5. Taking pictures against a bright light? Cameras don’t like very bright lights. Especially if there are also very dark spots nearby. Shooting indoors while looking at a window out to a bright sky will cause a strong white spot. This is very distracting and draws the eye away from the subject. Not good. There are Light and Lighting resource pages on Photokonnexion for you to learn more.
    Quiz Question 5: How many stops of light can healthy human eyes see (20:20 vision)? How many can the camera (rough generalisation) cope with?
  6. Relying on flash (especially pop-up flash): Pop up light has a very small concentrated source. It discolours faces, washes out colours, creates harsh, sharp-lined shadows and is badly placed (too close to the optical axis) creating nasty highlights on faces. Try to use natural light more. It is much more forgiving and does not produce such harsh shadows most of the time.
    Quiz Question 6: What is often the result of using pop-up flash with respect to two parts of the face?
  7. Dead centre subject: If you put the subject of your picture in the centre it will usually be boring. If you off-set your subject the eye will be looking to see why the symmetry is broken. That keeps the eye hunting around the screen. Learn about the “Rule of thirds” and other Composition principles. That will help you make the shot more compelling to the eye.
    Quiz Question 7: What type of compositional perspective would you be working with if you want to promote a three dimensional feel to your picture composition?
  8. Horizon control: Make sure your horizon is level, especially if it is a seascape. If you leave it on an angle the picture will be ruined because it will look like the sea is sliding off the page! Horizons also induce mid-picture viewer-stupor. Make a decision. Either shoot for the sky in which case place the horizon in the bottom third of the picture. Or, shoot for the ground in which case the horizon goes in the top third of the picture. An off-set horizon is more dynamic and keeps the viewers eye moving.
    Quiz Question 8: If your main choice is to shoot for the sky, where would you take your exposure from? (Where would you point your viewfinder focus point?) a. The sky? b. The ground?
    Quiz Question 9: Describe autofocus hunting and why it happens?
  9. Simplify, simplify, simplify: The most effective way to show a subject to your viewer is to de-clutter the picture. Take out of your composition everything that is nothing to do with the subject. The more you make the viewers eye go to the subject the more effective your shot will be.
    Did I mention that you should simplify your shot?
    Quiz Question 10: What is it called when you paint out something from your picture in post processing to simplify a shot?
    By the way, did I mention that you should work really hard to simplify your shots?
  10. Go manual: Auto-modes on your camera are really best guesses about what the manufacturer thinks will be suitable for the average shots most snappers will take. Buy you are a keen photographer. To get the camera to do exactly what you want, and to make discerning choices about your images you should work on improving your manual control. Your understanding of photographic principles will improve, your skill at exposure will improve and you will find yourself making informed choices about how you want your picture to come out. You will turn from a snapper into a photographer.
    Quiz Question 11: What does the ISO control do? a. Adjust the sensitivity of the digital image sensor or b. Change the aperture size?
    Quiz Question 12: Does ‘shutter speed’ or ‘aperture’ control movement blur?
Answers to quiz questions
  • Quiz Question Answer 1: I am talking about any camera that has a lens, not just DSLRs. the number of lenses is a matter of variation. If you are discussing photographic lenses then only that one will count (but read on). Some people think of each glass element in the photographic lens as an independent lens. Technically that is not true. They are optical lenses or glass elements, not photographic lenses. However, if the photographic lens (and elements if you included those) were all you counted you would be wrong. Here is a short list of Possible lenses on a camera of any sort…

    There may be others.

  • Quiz Question Answer 2: You should take a shot at the full inhale point or full exhale point before inhaling or exhaling in the next part of the cycle. You can choose which is best for you. All you do is delay the next part of the cycle while you take a shot. This is the point in the breath cycle when there is least movement of the shoulders/chest. Read more about it in Simple tips for a good stance
  • Quiz Question Answer 3: A bipod is photographically uncommon. Understandably, it has two legs. Find out more here… Definition: Bipod
  • Quiz Question Answer 4: The two rings on an auto-focussing photographic lens allow one ring to focus the image – the focus ring. The other ring is for zooming the lens. The latter changes the focal length and is called the focal length ring.
  • Quiz Question Answer 5: Human eyes can see about 18 to 20 stops of light when healthy. However, by contrast the best commercially available cameras have to operate with a dynamic range of 8 to 12 stops of light. Research is pushing the boundaries but there is still a big gap to meet the dynamic range of the human eye (in 2013).
  • Quiz Question Answer 6: Pop-up flash is very likely to cause red-eye.
  • Quiz Question Answer 7: To make things look three dimensional in your image you should be working with three point perspective. Look for lines in your image that promote cube-like structures. For example buildings, walls and other objects with lines and shapes that have a solid feel in real life. This will trick the eye into believing that there is a solid object in the picture. Read: Simple ideas about perspective in photography and: Definition: Perspective
  • Quiz Question Answer 8: If you shoot for the sky you will need to be taking your exposure from the sky as that is the brightest point. This will leave the ground darker in your exposure than you would see it with your eye. You can use one of a number of techniques to correct that later.
  • Quiz Question 9: Auto-focus hunting is when the auto-focus in the lens cannot focus and will keep going up and down the focus range trying to get a focus. This is a common problem at night, in darker conditions, low contrast conditions and clear or totally grey skies. You can read more about it in: Auto-focus ‘Hunting’ Definition: Hunting, Auto-focus

  • Quiz Question 10: when you paint out something from your picture in post processing to simplify a shot? You normally use a cloning tool. You can find out more in: Definition: Cloning; To Clone; Cloned; Clone Tool.
  • Quiz Question 11: What does the ISO control do? It adjusts the sensitivity of the digital image sensor allowing you to work in bright light (low ISO setting) or low light (high ISO setting). There is an article on ISO here: ISO.

  • Quiz Question 12: Shutter speed controls movement blur. Aperture controls blur (bokeh) created by the loss of sharpness outside the zone of acceptable sharpness. This is traditionally known as the depth of field. More reading on: Definition: Exposure and related to aperture: Definition: f number.

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.

Six tips for photographing silhouettes

"Figures on the dunes"

“Figures on the dunes” – the art in silhouettes is about shape
Click the image to view large

Shooting silhouettes is about photographing contrasts

The only difficulty with silhouettes is seeing them. Our eyes often see detail in scenes that the camera cannot. We take a shot at something and a silhouette comes out – what’s happening? The difference between the brighter and darker areas of the shot creates a silhouette.

1. How a silhouette is created

Humans, and cameras, see a silhouette when there is a foreground-object placed in front of a strongly lighted background. The foreground-object looks black if it is not lit from the front. The strong back-light just looks bright behind the black and this creates the silhouette. In other words, the contrast between the bright background and the dark foreground object is so large the camera image sensor, cannot resolve details in it, leaving it black. In photographic terms, if there is more than two stops difference in the light between the foreground object and the background lighting there will be a silhouette.

"Cows Grazing" - Creating silhouettes is fun and easy.

“Cows Grazing” – Creating silhouettes is fun and easy.

In the picture above the tiny cows on the brow of the hill are black (dark) objects because they are not lit from the front. The sky behind them is relatively bright compared to them. So, a silhouette is created.

Clarity of the image is everything. So, in addition to ensuring the edges of your silhouette are well defined and not confused with clouds and other objects, make sure they are sharp. The shape is important, so is the focus. The simplicity and purity of the silhouette is lost if the sharpness is not there to support it.

2. You can ensure something becomes a silhouette

A silhouette will be created every time a dark foreground object is placed against a brighter background. However, sometimes you can still see some detail in the foreground object, which is not a true silhouette. There are some things you can do about this.

  1. Lower the foreground lighting to darken the foreground object
  2. Brighten the background increasing contrast between front and back.
  3. Underexpose the foreground making it go black so the background stands out.
  4. Overexpose the background so it darkens the foreground object.
  5. Post-process the image to blacken the silhouette and brighten the background

In effect the techniques increase the contrast between the front and back. That blows out or brightens the background. This relatively underexposes the foreground object so detail is lost making it black. If you do any of these, or more than one of them, you are controlling the light to create a silhouette. You can do these to a lesser or greater extent with a scene you create, or one you see when you are out and about.

3. The art in is in the shape

The silhouette art form has been used to strongly characterise shape since the time of the Greeks. The stark and well defined edges in a silhouette are simple and attractive. Dating from around 1750 onwards, the method of making silhouettes was to cut them from thin black cardboard and mount them on a white background. This established a strong tradition of high contrast silhouette art. In the last 150 years the cut-out form of the art has mostly been replaced by photography silhouettes.

A powerful silhouette is about shape. The more graphic you can make it the more the image stands out. The best silhouettes are two dimensional although modern photographic techniques allow for the scene to have depth and apparent texture. The trick in producing a successful image as a silhouette today is therefore to provide a clear image, a traditional shape-format for the silhouette shape itself, and a great photograph in which the silhouette has context.

4. Sunset and sunrise

These are ideal times for creating silhouettes. The darkening sky still has sufficient intensity of light for making a photograph. The sky often has great colours too. Highlighting objects of interest against the sky at these times gives not only the drama of high contrast in the image, but also dramatic or attractive colours. Any great sunset or sunrise can be used for a silhouette. The best ones are against a clear sky because the colours are more intense and there is no cloud to confuse the edges of the silhouette.

When working at these times you will need to be working with longer exposures to compensate for the darker tones and colours. Make sure you set out with a tripod. Also read up on night photography because the same settings and techniques apply in these low-light conditions.

5. Bright sunny days

The hottest mid-day light is often a disaster for the photographer. The sun beats down from above and drives out the colours as well as flattening the shadows. Everything looks flat. However, guess what? This is a great time for silhouettes.

Photographing objects against strong, blue, mid-day sky creates great silhouettes. You can lie on the ground shooting straight up at things, or just pick out objects in the environment. Just make sure the contrast between the silhouette object and the background is high. This usually means exposing your shot for the sky itself.

To expose for the sky get the camera to focus on the brightness of the sky. Point it so your focus point in the viewfinder is in the bright area but your silhouette shape is still in the frame. If the sky is very bright, or featureless, the auto-focus may ‘hunt’ and fail to focus. Auto-focus works by matching contrasts of tones. If it does not see a contrast it has nothing to focus upon. So try to find something that can be used. You can try to put your focus point near the silhouette subject, but not on it. That sometimes works. Or, you can focus on a cloud, bird or other object that is still mainly very bright. Once you have managed to get your camera to focus on the sky the silhouette subject will be relatively darker and you have your silhouette. The darker your subject the better it will be in silhouette.

The picture with the cows on the brow of the hill above was taken at about 1.30pm on a bright sunny day. When a few dark clouds passed over the hill nearby I exposed for the clouds. They came out with lovely detail. The cows were little black silhouettes as they were underexposed.

6. Wind and movement

Wind is the enemy of the silhouette – outside anyway. There is nothing worse than your tree waving its branches when you are doing a longish exposure. Even a slight wind can ruin things. The image will look blurry and there will be ill defined edges for the actual shape. So look carefully at everything around you and make sure that you have no movement. If you do have wind blowing, find something solid and immovable with which to do your silhouette. For the same reason, it is not easy to do silhouettes of anything moving, like cars or people.

Do you have any great tips to add to this? Please enter a comment below and we will write them up!