When you are just starting out in photography, it’s easy to pick up bad habits – and not even know they are bad habits. Kicking those habits can help you become a better photographer over time. Like most bad habits, they are easy to fall into, and take practice and conscious effort to get out off. Here are the 9 bad habits that you need to break, starting today…
1. Being Stationary.
The best way to bad photography is to root your feet like a tree! You need to move around.
If you have a zoom lens, this habit is one that is especially easy to pick up. The temptation is to “fix” the shot by zooming in or zooming out instead of moving around to get the best shot. In all cases, taking all of your images for one position or angle is going to limit your creativity and your ability to improve.
You will have to move around and change perspectives. Move the camera from landscape to portrait and tilt up and down. Move your feet closer, farther, or around to the side. You will get much more interesting shots this way!
Over time you will start to think about the end goal when composing a shot. You will start to learn which focal lengths, angles, and distances will work the best and plan for those, rather than planting yourself in one spot and relying on the zoom to adjust the image.
2. Relying on Editing to “Fix” It
It is so much easier to get the image right in the camera (but it takes practice). When taking your shots, don’t fall into the habit of thinking all those little things can be fixed in post. Move the subject to get shadows off the face, correct the settings to get the best exposure, analyze the foreground and background for trash and items you would otherwise have to “erase” later. Taking the time to move your angle so that ugly beam isn’t behind a person’s head, or a piece of trash is out of the frame, or taming the flyaway hairs on your model, will save you later in editing. You can “fix” all of those things in post, but understand that it is a trade-off and what you are giving up is improving your photographic eye.
So get as much correct in camera as you can! Relying too much on image correction will hold you back as a photographer. Additionally, wouldn’t you rather spend just a few seconds moving a piece of trash and have the time to take more photos instead of spending that time in editing?
3. Being Crooked
We don’t mean crooked as in thieving and dishonest, we mean crooked as in not level or not straight! In all your images, compose carefully. Don’t fall into the habit of rushing to get the shot. If there are vertical or horizontal lines, take the time to straighten up. The grid overlay in your viewfinder can help you with both horizontal lines (the actual horizon, tops of buildings, window ledges) and vertical lines (telephone poles or the edge of a building). Some cameras include a built in level so even when you can’t see the horizon you can still get your shot squared up.
Depending on the lens, most notably wide angles, you may find some subjects with long lines will show curvature. This may be a function of the lens and its optics or the angle of the shot creating an optical effect (intentional or not). In those cases, you may want the curve for its creative effect or you may have to use editing software to compensate and fix the curvature. The point is that images with a “tilt” because of careless mistakes can and should be avoided by composing the shot and making it level. Even a slight tilt will make an image feel “off” or distracting because our brain automatically expects the world to be level.
Tripods often feature levels to help you get your image straight on all axis points. If you don’t have a tripod try using the flat edge of something to hold your camera level, such as a wall or door frame or a railing.
If all else fails, most “tilts” and curvatures can be corrected in editing software. Here’s a quick video tutorial where we teach you how to fix a crooked horizon in Photoshop.
4. Lacking Situational Awareness
A terrible bad habit that can cause you to lose or break a camera, or worse to hurt yourself, is not having situational awareness. It is a bad habit to walk around with the camera up to your face! The lens and viewfinder do not accurately show you the depth of where you are and where an obstacle is so unless you like tripping, or falling, or dropping your camera, always take the camera down from your face to change locations or positions. Even using the LCD can be distracting enough that you could find yourself in a pitfall or stumbling over tree roots if you walk around while looking at it.
In addition, depending on your shooting location, it is a good idea to assess your surroundings every so often, especially if you are out in the wilderness. Keeping an eye out for snakes, bears, ants creeping up your shoes, and other potentially dangerous creatures is a good idea! When you are on the sidelines of a sporting match, it is equally advisable to keep a lookout for balls or players that might come crashing into your space. There have been many sports photographers injured when the play gets too close to where they were standing, not to mention damaged gear.
The solutions are simple. Keep your camera away from your face when moving, occasionally check your surroundings, and if you are in a scenario that might be more precarious, bring an additional person with you at act as a “spotter.” I used to assign photographers to sporting events and they were always assigned in pairs – one to hold the gear and keep watch, and the other to do the shooting.
5. Fumbling With the Buttons
This is a very difficult habit to break. I have taught photography and worked with cameras for years, but even I am guilty of this one. When changing your settings, try to learn to do it without having to take your eyes off the scene. This doesn’t mean you have to keep your eye up to the camera all the time (see #4 above). This means memorizing where the buttons are and how they work so you can switch them quickly and without losing focus on your subject. I have my buttons memorized and how they work, but I still want to look at my screen when I make changes! It’s a bad habit because every time I do this I take my eyes off the subject or scene which may be rapidly changing – an animal moving through the woods, the sun setting, or children playing. There is the potential of missing something important. It slows you down.
By memorizing the buttons you don’t have to take any of your mental capacity away from the subject. You can stay focused mentally on your composition and focused on the subject or scene. Memorizing the buttons takes practice. You will need to sit with your camera and practice changing them over and over. You can carve out some time to practice your settings during commercial breaks while you are watching TV. Don’t wait until a big moment is upon you and then realize you are going to miss some incredible shots because you are fumbling with the buttons between each image captured!
6. Incorrect Grip and Lack of Stability
Nothing will ruin a photograph more than blur or lack of focus, and it is the one thing that cannot really be fixed in editing. While software programs have gotten better and better and there are functions that will sharpen a photo, they are still limited in what they can do.
Blur and lack of focus are often caused by the bad habit of holding the camera incorrectly or not having the camera stable. When you hold the camera incorrectly, the lens can tip downward or wobble up and down while you are taking your shot. The proper camera hold is to grip the camera body with the right hand and support the camera underneath with the left. Tuck your elbows in and stabilize your body by keeping one foot in front of the other. Even better, use a tripod! Tripods stabilize your shots and if you use the camera’s timer you can reduce camera shake from the shutter press as well.
Most people don’t realize how much their body moves or wobbles while they are taking a photo. In some cases, your body movement from the time the camera focuses until the time the camera takes the photo can move enough to change the focus point, especially with wide open apertures. If you consistently have a lack of overall focus, it may be from body movements and using a tripod can solve the problem. Holding your breath while you take the shot also helps when shooting handheld. Faster shutter speeds can be beneficial. Your shutter speed, as a general rule, should be as fast, or faster, than your focal length. So for example, if you are using a 200mm lens, you should use a shutter speed that is faster than 1/200th of a second. In most cases, you should not shoot handheld at speeds lower than 1/90th of a second.
7. Hiding Behind the Camera
This bad habit is common among portrait photographers. Don’t give your models directions while your face is up to the camera (refer back to #4). It is very difficult to build rapport with a person when they can’t see your eyes or hear your words. Clear communication and seeing your face will help them feel more comfortable.
If you have this habit, you will need to work consciously at breaking it. Move the camera away and make eye contact while giving instructions for posing. If you need the ability to shoot rapidly and don’t want to move the camera away then learn how to shoot with both eyes open. I know it sounds really difficult, but did you know that is one of the reasons why the viewfinder is offset? It is so you can put your right eye to the viewfinder and still see around the camera with your left. Keeping both eyes open allows you to see the subject and they can still make eye contact (and it gives you more situational awareness too). It is easiest to learn this technique using 35-50mm focal lengths since those are closest to what the human eye sees. At those focal lengths what you see in the viewfinder with the right eye and what you see in the world with your left will be mostly similar. It takes practice but it can be done!
“Chimping” is photographer slang. It means to take a photo and then look at the LCD after every image (and vocalizing your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with each image). I think this bad habit is particularly difficult for beginners because as you are learning you have to look at your images to see what mistakes you made or what you need to fix (missed focus, incorrect exposure). So don’t be afraid to check your photos on the camera, it is how you will learn, but over time try to rely on that LCD less and less. Check it after every five images, or before you change locations and review several shots at once.
Here’s why checking after every capture is a bad habit – it causes you to totally disconnect your focus from the subject or scene in order to focus on the LCD. During that time you might miss a great image! Of course, it takes practice and confidence to break the “chimping” habit, but as your confidence grows you should need to check or review your images less often, kind of like taking the training wheels off your bicycle.
9. Not Learning Your Camera’s Other Functions
Learning how to set ISO, shutter speed, and aperture is only half the battle. There are autofocus types, metering modes, settings for exposure bracketing, and so much more. One of the worst habits for beginners is not reading the camera manual. I know, I know, that camera manual is boring with tiny type and lots of confusing symbols and small diagrams; however, that camera manual is a treasure trove of information!
Spend 10 minutes a day going through a section and trying all the functions and buttons and settings in that section. Don’t skip any sections, even ones you don’t think you ever use. Then go through the manual again, yes again. This time focus on the functions you think you will use the most. Try them all and take some notes. You may not remember them all (and you wouldn’t be expected to), but you will at least be aware of all the capabilities your camera has and in most cases it is amazing what they can do! Check out our previous blog post on “If Your Camera Could Talk.” It covers settings and functions that can take your photography to a whole new level. You can also enroll in professional coaching lessons here.
To Sum Up
Bad habits are so easy to fall into and it will take dedicated, conscious effort to break them. It will take work and practice to form good photography habits, but once you do they will pay you back tenfold. You will see your technique improve and with it your photos.
If your camera could actually talk to you and give you advice on how to improve your photography game, these are the 12 things it would tell you.
1. Focus Modes are not created equal and they are not scary.
DSLR camera manufacturers may have different names for their autofocus modes, but in general they all offer 3 main focus modes: Manual, One Shot/Single AF, and Continuous AF.
As a basic rule, full manual focus is best saved for professionals or after you have some experience, one shot is for stationary subjects, and continuous is for when either the camera, photographer, or subject are moving. Let’s look at each briefly.
Manual focus allows the photographer to use a focusing ring on the lens to focus the image. The camera has no control over focus at all. It is easy to “miss” your focus in this mode, especially with subjects that are moving.
Single or One-shot AF is useful for many types of photography where the subject is static or motionless. Portrait, product, landscape, and macro are a few examples. It is not a recommended choice for action, wildlife, or sports photography. In one-shot mode, the camera focuses when the shutter release is half-pressed. After focus is locked, it will stay locked as long as the buttons stays half-pressed. It will not adjust if you, the camera, or the subject moves. If you need to refocus, you must release the button and half-press it again.
This autofocus mode can be used to “recompose” the image. Center your subject, press the shutter release halfway to focus, and then while the button is still half-pressed reposition the camera to get the composition you want. Then fully press the button the rest of the way (do not lift off the button before taking the shot as this will cause the camera to refocus again). You must keep the distance to the subject the same, but this way you can position your subject on the left or right, top or bottom of the frame.
Continuous AF (known as AF-C on Nikon and AI Servo AF on Canon) is the best choice for subjects that move (or if you or the camera moves). The camera continuously checks and adjusts focus as long as the shutter release button is half-pressed. When used with continuous shooting mode (burst mode), you can take a series of images with the focus automatically adjusted in between shots. This is a great mode for kids, pets, sports, and wildlife, or anytime a subject may be moving towards or away from the camera. The camera continuously checks focus and anticipates the direction the subject will move, but it is not fool-proof. It is also not a good mode to use if you need to focus and recompose your subject, because as you move the camera it will automatically refocus.
Some cameras have a combination mode. On Canon cameras, this is called AI Focus. AI Focus is considered a multi-purpose mode where the camera switches between single and continuous as needed. If the subject is static, the camera will select one shot. If the subject moves, the camera will select continuous. This seems like a “one-size-fits-all” or “set-it-and-forget-it” mode that would be the solution to all focus needs, but it is not. While it is convenient, you are leaving the decision to the camera and the camera does not always interpret the situation properly. There can be delays as the camera switches modes and this can cause you to miss shots. It also does not work well when you try to recompose your shot. In most situations, you should select one shot or continuous depending on your subject and not rely on the multi-purpose option.
If you want a handy guide to keep in your bag, print out the cheat sheet below.
2. Please don’t fill me with cheap memory cards.
Investing in quality memory cards is important! You spend all the time and effort to pick a good camera, please fill it with good memory cards. You wouldn’t buy a Lamborghini and then fill it with cheap gas would you?
Your camera manual is the first place you should look before buying a memory card. It will provide you with the type of card (CF, SD, etc.), and a list of suggested/compatible memory cards and their card classification. Once you check compatibility, there are several other factors to consider.
The next factor to keep in mind is capacity. More capacity isn’t always better. If you have a small point and shoot with small file sizes, you would probably never need a memory card that holds 8,000 images. You would be paying for capacity you never use (like buying a 8 bedroom home and only using one of them). Consider your shooting style and file sizes to pick a card with the capacity you will use. For example, if you plan a trip to Italy, you might want a different smaller capacity card for each day so you can keep your images and locations organized. However, if you do video or large file sizes you might need one larger capacity card so you don’t have to split your work session onto two different cards.
Next, consider the writing speed. This affects how quickly the card can store the images as you shoot. And higher read speeds will speed up file transfers and workflow efficiency once you get back to your computer. Look for write speeds of at least 30-60MB/s and for video over 60MB/s is even better.
Look for a card that can withstand repeated use. Check for the number of duty cycles (10,000 or more). This represents the lifespan of the card in terms of the number of insertions and removals (with reading and writing of files). Try to find a card with ECC (Error Correction Code) which can help detect and fix transfer errors, as well as “wear-level management” which writes data evenly across the card potentially preventing sections of the card from corruption from excessive wear.
Lastly, depending on your photography genre, you might also need to look for a card that has increased durability, such as water resistance, can last in extreme temperatures, or survive drops and crushing.
Excellent resource from B&H Video:
3. Don’t blame me for things that aren’t my fault.
Sharpness in your images has little or nothing to do with the camera or camera sensor so don’t blame the camera. Lack of sharpness is either because of the photographer (camera shake, missing focus) or because of the lens. Every lens has a “sweet spot” and all lenses are not equally sharp at all focal lengths and distances.
Lack of sharpness may be related to the lens, but even more likely, it is the fault of the photographer or not understanding the difference between sharpness and depth of field (focus). Knowing how aperture and depth of field work are critical to getting good focus and crisp images. We’ve covered these concepts in other blog posts in the past:
4. We like to feel secure (just like you).
Your camera likes to be adequately secured. Nothing will “end” a camera’s life faster than a 5 or 6 foot drop out of your hands or off of an unstable tripod.
When using a tripod, make sure you purchase a sturdy tripod that is built to hold the weight of your camera and lens. After you invest all that money into camera and glass, don’t skimp out on investing in the tripod, getting one that will last and is constructed out of strong materials. There is such a thing as “catastrophic tripod collapse” and it is just as bad as it sounds.
If you are a tall person, be sure to buy a tripod that will get to your height using the legs only, without the need of the center column. Using the center column extended is usually a bad idea. It makes the tripod more unstable and more prone to tipping over.
Learn the proper hand grip for holding a camera. Two handed grip is always more secure! One hand on the camera body and one hand supporting the camera/lens from underneath. If you have a mirrorless camera, there are “grips” sold as accessories for some models to make them easier to hold.
Get a neck strap, wrist strap, or sling strap. These clip to your camera so that even if you lose your hand grip the strap can save the camera from dropping.
Lastly, never walk around with the camera up to your face/eyes. This is a sure way to trip and drop your equipment.
We can help you pick the right gear for your needs. We even have “Try Before You Buy Classes” where you can test different equipment and leave with a customized list of recommended gear for your photography genre and style! And in an upcoming blog post we will share some tripod buying tips.
5. You don’t need to ditch me for a new model
Camera manufacturers make lots of money every time they get you to buy a whole new camera. The honest truth is you don’t need to buy a new model, get an upgraded model, switch to mirrorless, or even have a DSLR camera to get great images. Any camera type (even crop sensor and low megapixels) or model (even a phone!) is capable of quality results when in the right hands. Think about it this way, if you gave Ansel Adams a point-and-shoot camera or your phone, he’d probably still create fantastic images. Give a beginner the most expensive camera on the market and their images won’t be that good. You are better off to work on upgrading your knowledge base and invest in better lenses.
Some often overlooked aspects of photography that will improve your photography game are composition, lighting, and exposure (not just the exposure triangle). Take time to analyze images you like and learn all you can about how they created it. Join photography learning and sharing groups where you can get constructive criticism and ask questions. Get some old fashioned books on these subjects. The underlying concepts behind good lighting and proper exposure don’t change, so these books can be used editions that you can pick up inexpensively from resellers.
If you’d like to read up on some Composition Basics, see our previous blog post or consider taking a Composition Basics Text message class (1 month for $5).
The other way to improve your photography is to buy better glass. “Faster glass” with wide maximum apertures, crisp prime lenses, and fixed aperture zoom lenses for full frame cameras are good places to start. However, it is easy to fall into “GAS”—known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Afflicted photographers find themselves unable to resist the temptation of buying more and more photography gear (ex. lenses). Save up and buy one good lens for each prime focal length or zoom range that serves well for your photography style and that is it. Once you have a great lens that covers the 24-70mm range, a 35mm prime, and a 50mm prime, you really don’t need a 35-70mm zoom because you already have it all covered with what you already own.
This link will take you to see some great examples of images posted on 500px that were taken with point and shoot cameras: https://iso.500px.com/15-awesome-photos-captured-on-point-shoot-cameras/
6. Know my size. Am I full frame or crop?
Camera sensors come in different sizes. Larger sensors are usually in larger camera bodies and smaller sensors are usually in smaller, more lightweight and compact camera bodies. But that is not the only difference. The sensor size and camera type can affect what lenses you can use and they will definitely affect how that lens performs.
Some full-frame cameras are not compatible with crop sensor lenses which are constructed for optimal performance on smaller crop sensor camera bodies. Trying to use them on a full-frame could cause damage to your camera. See your manufacturer’s camera manual to see which types of lenses you can use.
On the other hand, you can use full-frame lenses on crop sensor camera bodies, but the image will be cropped to the smaller size of that sensor. The “crop sensor effect” refers to how the resulting image appears as if it was taken using a longer focal length lens. For example, a 50mm full-frame lens on a full-frame camera will give you a greater angle of view than using that same lens on a crop sensor camera. On the crop sensor camera the angle of view is more similar to an 80mm lens. If you full-frame camera does have a setting that allows you to use the crop sensor lenses safely, then it will still have this cropped view since the lens was design to cover a smaller sensor size. Our blog article “FocusEd on Focal Lengths” goes into this in a bit more detail and the cheat sheets below can help you see the concept visually.
7. My Self-Timer isn’t just for “selfies.”
The self-timer camera function allows you to set the shutter to release after you have stepped away from the camera. Depending on the manufacturer and model, this is most commonly a two second timer or a 10 second timer, but there could be other options. Most often, the timer is used so that you can get a picture with you in it. You set the 10 second timer then jump into the frame before the shutter releases.
However, there are other great uses for this timer, the main one is that it can be used to reduce camera shake. With your camera set up on a tripod, set the timer for the 2 second delay. This way your actual finger press up and down on the shutter are not vibrating the camera as the image is taken because the image is taken a few seconds after the shaking is done. This is especially helpful for longer exposures and will ensure your images are as crisp as possible.
For instructions on how to use low key lighting and your camera's timer to make images like the one below, sign up for our mailing list.
8. Know the different File Formats I offer
Most cameras allow you to choose whether your images are saved in RAW (NEF, CR2, etc) or JPEG, as well as the size of the JPEG files – small, medium, or large. These choices affect your final images, how you can edit them, and the size of enlargements you can create while still maintaining a quality image.
RAW files should never be left RAW. They need to be edited in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom, otherwise they may look a bit dull.Then they can be saved in a format like PNG, or JPEG, to be shared on social media.
Shooting in RAW has many advantages in post processing. A RAW file contains all of the data from in the camera which allows you to recover shadow and highlight details, choose white balance, apply LUTs and profiles, choose your own level of sharpening and noise reduction, and more. RAW files are like negatives and allow you to make edits that are non-destructive, meaning you can revert back to the original at any time. They are “lossless” files and don’t have compression issues. JPEGs are simple, ready to go files. You have less editing ability and you should never edit a JPEG, save, then reopen and edit more and save again. Each time a JPEG goes through this process it loses detail to compression which leaves artifacts in your image (simply opening and closing without making changes or saving does not create loss). Shooting in RAW+JPEG gives you the best of both worlds (but it does use more memory so consider that when buying memory cards). You end up with a “ready to go” JPEG file that you can post and saves time, but you also get the “digital negative” of the RAW file that you can edit when you do have time later on.
Some people will tell you that editing is cheating. Basic editing like correcting white balance, improving the color (by bringing down highlights or changing vibrance), sharpening, or applying noise reduction is not cheating. JPEGs are RAW files where the camera has made all of those post processing decisions and applied them for you. RAW files allow you to make those decisions and apply those changes yourself. Post processing can be time consuming, so if the image looks great in JPEG then save time and just go with it!
9. Use my AE/AF Lock feature!
AE/AF lock is a commonly overlooked button. Auto Exposure (AE) lock will freeze the exposure and Auto Focus (AF) lock will lock the focus. These can both be helpful for recomposing a shot for difficult lighting or when a focus point does not exist where you want focus to be.
Have you ever tried to take a photo where the camera can’t decide whether to choose the lighting of the sky or the lighting of the person or landscape for the exposure? Half press your shutter while focusing on the area you want to base your exposure from. Hold the AE lock button and keep holding the half pressed shutter. Reposition the camera and fully press the shutter. The exposure will stay locked where you set it.
AF lock works similarly, except for focus. Have a shot where you want something in the foreground in focus and the camera keeps switching to the background or it won’t focus because there is no focus point on that spot? AF lock is the solution. Lock your focus, then recompose your shot.
Not all cameras have an AF lock button. If you are using one-shot/single focus the half-press of the shutter button functions as an AF lock. A separate AF lock button is only helpful if you are using a continuous/servo, or combination/hybrid mode. (See #1 – Focus Modes above).
These buttons are located in different places on different models and brands and may have slightly different names (or in the case of Canon AE-L is an asterisk * symbol). In some cases you may have to assign which function you want the button to use. Consult your camera manual for guidance and see the photo below for some examples of these buttons.
Your camera may also have an AF-ON button. This can be used for “back button” focus which allows you to set the camera focus button in this position instead of on the shutter release. The shutter release will no longer control focus. Focus will only activate using the AF-ON button. You won't know whether you will love or hate back button focus until you test it out, but many pro photographers use this feature.
10. I can save you so much time in editing, if you just spend a little time getting to know me.
Metering Modes, Histograms, White Balance, and Exposure Compensation all sound complicated (or terrifying), but a few times using these with your camera manual in hand and your images will be so much better in the camera that when it is time to edit there is much less to do!
Metering modes are how your camera chooses proper exposure. Your camera’s built in light meter then uses this mode/setting to indicate whether you are under or over exposed.
Common modes for metering are Zone, Partial, Averaging (or Matrix), Center, or Spot. Spot metering does exactly like it sounds. It takes a light reading from one small spot of the frame. The is most useful when there is one important area you want to make sure is properly exposed, like the face of a person. Matrix/Averaging tries to balance exposure by averaging the brightest/lightest and darkest parts in the frame. Landscapes are one example of where this metering mode can be very useful.
Perhaps in a future blog post we will go into metering modes in more detail, but for now, your camera manual is your best resource.
Once you understand basic metering, know that sometimes the camera exposure is not what you want – you want darker or lighter. This is where exposure compensation comes in. You can adjust more positive (lighter) or negative (darker) exposure. Not all cameras have this function. Those that do, most often allow you to make adjustments of 3 stops of light (positive or negative). How the camera creates this compensation will depend on what mode you are in. For example, if you are in Aperture priority, the camera will adjust ISO or shutter speed, but not the aperture. In shutter priority mode, it will adjust ISO or aperture, but not the shutter speed. A few practice sessions with your camera manual and you will have this function in your arsenal of tools to use in complicated lighting situations. The exposure compensation button is usually a square symbol with a plus and negative inside. You will need to consult your camera manual for the location of this feature and how to operate it.
Now, you have exposed your image, it’s time to review it. Learn how to read the histogram. The histogram is that scary looking graph that sometimes pops up after you take a photo (you may have to go into settings to be able to view this on your LCD after each shot). This graph represents all of the pixels in your image based on each shade of gray (the camera basically looks at all colors as grays – that’s why there is that 18% grey card in white balance card sets – but this is a whole topic all its own). A good exposure still has details in the darkest and lightest areas and on a graph this might look like a bell shaped curve, or even multiple spikes along the graph center, but not at the extreme left and right . If you see a graph where a lot of pixels are all the way over on the left (black) or all the way over on the right (whites), then “clipping” has occurred. This means the details of the image in the dark and light areas will be lost and most likely cannot be recovered in editing either. A “blown out” white sky is a common example of this. A few basic histograms are show below.
11. I need you to pick Focus Points/Autofocus Area Modes or I will have to pick for you (and I am not really very good at this).
One final, overlooked area in your settings are Focus Points and the Autofocus Area Modes. Again, these sound scary, but they aren’t and once you know how to use them they will help you achieve crisp focus! These are not the same as setting Auto focus (Servo/Continuous, One-shot) or Manual focus from our first section above, and this is not the same thing as selecting a Metering Mode. Metering modes as discussed above are related to light and exposure.
Your camera allows you to specifically pick which parts of the image you want to have in focus by using Focus Points. Focus points are the spots that cover your frame of view and blink or light up when you half press the shutter button. (If you have never seen this “blink” you may have it turned off in your camera settings). Unless you make a selection, all off these points are active by default. Having all of these points active or “on” might seem like a great idea, but it does not mean the camera is focused in all of those places. They are active, but when you go to take a photo the camera will select one of them, usually whatever it locks focus on first, whether that is your intended subject or not. Often it is the wrong point or wrong part of the subject and that is where choosing your point or Autofocus Area becomes important.
There are three common modes for selecting an Autofocus Area among most camera models and brands.
Single Point AF Area means you are selecting one single focus point. If you want a “set it and forget it” setting, then you’d be best off to choose this one and select the center point. The center point is most accurate and as long as you always put your subject smack in the middle then it should work 90% of the time (as long as you ½ press and make sure your camera locks focus before you take the shot). With Single Point AF the camera will focus on the subject under the selected focus point only. You can select which point this will be. This mode is best for stationary subjects like portraits, landscapes, macro, studio work like product photography, and architecture.
Dynamic or Expansion AF Area expands your point selection. The camera will focus based on information from surrounding points if the subject wobbles or moves slightly from the selected focus point. Many newer cameras allow you to choose how large of an “expansion area” you want. A smaller area (9 points) would be useful for predictable movement, like runners on a track. A larger area (21 or 51 points) is more useful for erratic and unpredictable or very quick movements, such as soccer players or birds in flight. Therefore, the Dynamic Mode is great for wildlife and sports photography. Of course, you will still need to pan or “track” your subject by moving the camera along with your subject to keep it inside the selected focus area.
Automatic AF Area is just like it sounds. This mode lets the camera make the decision about which point to use and what area to focus on. Unfortunately, the camera can focus on the wrong area. It decides what area is most important and it may give priority to a bicycle rider behind your child on the swing. This mode is best for beginners or when you need quick focus on something that is easy and close to you.
Your camera may also have a Group AF Area or even Eye AF, and new modes are being developed and added all the time. Some additional details about these are in the cheat sheet pictured below.
12. Shoot more than you need, because unlike film, digital is basically free.
Digital photography gives you a freedom that traditional film photographers never had. They didn’t know for certain how their images would turn out until they were in their darkroom waiting for their composition to appear. Nowadays, you can review your images, but even then, those little LCDs will lie like politicians, and when you get home you come to realize that you missed your mark. So consider all the previous tips in this blog and use some of those settings to lower the risk of this happening to you.
Shooting more than you need doesn’t mean 18 straight shots of the same thing without making any changes. It means take lots of photos with some adjustments in between each one. Shoot in burst/continuous mode or change the exposure with exposure compensation. Try a different metering mode, adjust your angle, or use a different auto focusing mode, AF point, or focus area mode. And always shoot in RAW (or RAW + JPEG)! If you are ever unsure about your results, shoot more than you need. It costs very little and whatever that cost is will be worth it when you only have one opportunity to catch the moment.
What is ISO? What does ISO mean when it comes to photography?
First of all, let’s get the pronunciation part out of the way. You will hear people pronounce ISO as “eye-so” or “eye-ess-oh.” The correct pronunciation is “eye-so.” Some may argue that ISO stands for International Standards Organization and therefore as an acronym it must be “eye-ess-oh.” This is incorrect. The actual corporation is the International Organization for Standardization and the founders gave themselves the short name ISO from the Greek “isos” which means “equal.” Since ISO is short for “isos” it would obviously be pronounced like a word and not as an acronym. You don’t pronounce all the letters of a word unless you are spelling it. Therefore ISO is pronounced “eye-so.”
Now why is the photography term ISO (which is part of the exposure triangle) related to this corporation anyway?
The International Organization for Standardization sets standards for all sorts of manufactured products, including film and photography products. Their purpose is to make sure everyone around the world uses the same measurements and regulations and thus whatever product you get in one nation is “equal” to what you would get in another nation on the other side of the world. For example, the steps on ladders and stairs in factories are standardized. Imagine what would happen if every staircase used different distances between steps. Lots of accidents! We take for granted that printer paper size is always 8 ½ x 11 (in the US) or that a 3-hole puncher will punch 3 holes in the same places. These “standards” are the work of ISO.
Many decades ago, there was a need to standardize film speeds. Enter ISO. They created a system to numerically measure film’s sensitivity to light. There were also a competing standards known as ASA and DIN which were combined into ISO standards in 1974. So since the 1970s no matter where you bought film and no matter what brand, you were assured that it would work in your camera the exact same way. Boxes of film were sold in 4 common speeds (and some faster and slower speeds that were not as popular). These speeds were 100 (slow), 200 (slow), 400 (fast), and 800 (high speed).
Now don’t be confused by the word speed – this rating system has nothing to do with shutter speed! So what is film speed then?
The film speed indicated how sensitive the film was to light. The slower the film, the less sensitive it was to light. You would use a slow film speed when you already had good lighting, like a bright sunny day. You didn’t need the film to be sensitive to light because you had plenty of it. The faster the film, the more sensitive it was to light. You would need a faster film when you had darker or low light conditions (or for fast moving subjects). You wanted the film to react more intensely and more quickly to the limited light you had.
How do the “speeds” of film work? How did they get the film to react to light differently on those different speeds of film?
Film was created with millions of light-sensitive silver halide crystals called “grains” on the surface. A film that was slower/less sensitive had less “grains” on it. A film that was faster/more sensitive had more “grains” on it. A faster film picked up more light, but it was also more visible in the final image. Once the film was developed, images that were shot using 800 speed film appeared grainy compared to 100 speed film. The grain in a developed film image is from the crystals of silver on the film.
How do the “speeds” of film relate to digital photography?
Today’s DSLR cameras use a sensor instead of film with silver halide crystals. Digital cameras convert the light that enters the camera and hits the sensor into a digital signal. The digital (or electronic) signal is then converted or processed into a visual image. On a digital camera, increasing the ISO setting “turns up” the signal. As the signal is amplified, the increased electrical charge makes the sensor more sensitive to light, but as a consequence digital noise is created. Digital noise has a noticeable “grain” to it that is similar to what is seen in higher speed films. The digital noise may be luminance noise which affects the brightness of pixels (but not the color) or it may be chroma noise which is highly undesirable. Chroma noise consists of colored grain or specks. While both of these can be mitigated to some extent in post editing programs like Photoshop or Lightroom, at a certain point the image quality becomes significantly degraded. The threshold of where this degradation takes place will vary depending on the camera’s processor, sensor size, and megapixel count. Additionally, noise reduction processing is now built in to some digital cameras.
How does the size of your camera sensor and the amount of pixels affect how much digital noise you see?
On a point-and-shoot camera the sensor is very small. It is larger on a compact camera and largest on a full frame camera. When you pack a bunch of pixels into a smaller sensor area you will produce more grain. As you increase the ISO on a point-and-shoot camera you will get noise at a lower ISO than you would with a compact camera. And as you increase ISO on a compact camera you will get noise at a lower ISO than you would with a full frame camera. The larger sensor of a full frame camera allows for lots of pixels and larger pixel size. These larger pixels are more capable of gathering light so the reduced electrical charge required in low light does not create as much digital noise.
So what does all of this mean for your photography?
ISO is one of the three aspects of the Exposure Triangle. Knowing what you now know, that higher ISO creates grain in your images, you will want to try to keep the ISO as low as possible. This means you may have to balance the aperture and shutter speed (the other parts of the exposure triangle) to get proper exposure.
Just like in film, ISO 100 is only good when you already have lots of light. If you don’t have lots of light you will have to open up the aperture (small f/#) or increase shutter speed, or both. Depending on your subject, this is not always possible and adjusting ISO may be the only solution.
Here are a few scenarios. You want to keep ISO low, but it isn’t very sunny. You can use a longer shutter speed as long as your subject is stationary like a landscape or a flower. But if you subject is moving, like at a sporting event, you may have to adjust the aperture, or increase the ISO. You can open up the aperture to f/5.6 or maybe even f/4, but if you widen it to f/2 you may end up with a depth of field that is too shallow to get your entire subject in focus. The Exposure Triangle is a balancing act, like a 3-way see-saw, and sometimes increasing ISO will be the only way to get the image. (See our website for a free Exposure Triangle "Sliders" Cheat Sheet)
Doubling your ISO from 100 to 200, for example, doubles the amount of light sensitivity. Therefore you only need half as much light from your other settings, so you could change the aperture from f/4 to f/5.6 to get greater depth of field, or you could change to a faster shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/250th. Sports photographers will consistently use higher ISO settings than landscape photographers. Photographers that photograph in low light situations will consistently use higher ISO settings than photographers that always take photos of flowers on sunny days.
What is the takeaway?
Lower ISO is always better for your image quality. Increasing ISO will add noise to your images (how much noise will depend on the ISO level and the camera specs). Just remember, when faced with a choice of getting the shot versus only using low ISO, always get the shot even if you have to turn the ISO way up!
If you’d like a hands-on lesson with some practice using ISO settings check out the Free Lessons section of our website. There you will find lessons on aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more.
All this talk about film bringing on some nostalgia? Want to try some old fashioned film photography?
Pull out that old vintage film camera or purchase one online! You can easily find vintage film cameras to purchase online from many sellers like Tommy's Camera Shop on Etsy, used sellers like KEH (affiliate link), or on Ebay. Film is available at B&H Video and Adorama. You need fast film for overcast days, fast moving subjects, or low light. For fast speed films, try Ilford HP5 Plus 400 or Kodak Portra 400. For very low light, try Kodak T-Max P3200. You can use low speed film for situations with lots of light, such as very bright days. Try Ilford Pan F50 or Ilford FP4 Plus 125. You can use these handheld, but a tripod can help reduce camera shake. Good luck!
Are you interested in product photography as a business you can start at home? Do you need to promote your own products, such as jewelry, on a website like Etsy? Maybe you are looking for photography ideas just for fun? If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then you need to keep reading! We’re going to explain the simplest product photography setups that are also budget friendly using items you probably already have around the house. So let’s get started!
First of all, once you have your products gathered, you will need backgrounds. The size and type of background you choose will depend on the size of the items. Smaller items can be places on colored wrapping paper, scrapbook papers, tissue paper, even brown paper bags work with some products. Contact paper and wallpaper can be used for medium sized objects. Some papers have patterns that look like marble and wood; however, solid colors may be a better choice for a few reasons. First, patterned papers may be copyrighted and if you plan to sell an image or promote another company’s products you would need to secure copyright permission to use it. Secondly, some patterned papers may compete for attention with the product. Tin foil, slightly crumpled and then flattened, makes a nice bokeh (background blur) and in larger pieces can be used for large objects and even for portraits.
Larger objects may require a large poster board, a roll of backdrop paper, or you can use fabric. Fabrics come in many different textures, colors and patterns including reflective and wood-looks! If you don’t have fabric or you don’t want to make a purchase, you can also use fabrics from blankets, sheets, and items of clothing. Fabric can also be draped around objects and under objects.
My favorite “hack” for product photography backgrounds is to use a computer laptop screen or tablet screen with images on them. I download an image that is free to use for commercial and business purposes from a website like Pixabay or Pexels and use it full-size on the screen behind the object. Websites like these have thousands of images you can choose from and there is no worry about copyright! You can quickly switch out images until you find a background that you really like.
The only drawback to using the computer screen is that you have to be careful about glare and bright reflections. We’re going to explain how to take care of those issues in the section on lighting, but first we need to finish with the setup.
Depending on the item and how you choose to set up the background, your background might also be under your item. For example, if you are using fabric you might drape it under and behind the object, or shoot at an angle where you don’t capture the foreground or the background. When using paper or a backdrop roll, many photographers set the paper up in a “sweep.” This means that the paper is vertical behind the object, but then at the base it is curved out and under the object horizontally so there are no seams.
In addition to paper and fabric, there are other items you can place under products such as old pieces of tile or waste sections of countertops. For example, when installers cut out the section of the countertop for a sink hole, that piece is often waste. Tile, such as crisp white subway tiles make nice backgrounds for food photography. Natural stone tiles complement products like perfumes and essential oils or soaps and make nice contrasts with cut gems and pearls for jewelry photography.
An old photo frame can be repurposed as a platform to put object on. Placing colored paper or fabric under the glass or Plexiglas allows the color to show but you also get a nice reflective property. This is especially effective with white and a white background.
My favorite item to use as a platform is an old tablet. The glossy black makes a nice reflection, especially for tech type items or jewelry. As an example, we took a simple charging block and used the laptop screen as a background. With practice you will start to get a feel for what types of backgrounds and platforms will complement the products you are taking photos of.
Many product photography setups also make use of additional props. While having the object by itself might look very nice, sometimes other items are needed to balance the image or improve the overall feel of the composition. The props can be simple and many items can be found around the house. Rocks and tree bark can make nice textures. Wildflowers, leaves, grasses are all good too. Small and medium size boxes can be used as props or for height so you can stagger the height of items.
In the ring images previously seen above, we used a piece of tree bark from the woods near our house. We set the wood on a small black box to give it height and a computer screen was used as the background.
Leaves, acorns, seed pods, pine cones, and other natural items like shells are also good choices. Once you start to gather items, you can keep them in a little shoe box and have them available to reuse. For food photography, some props might include powered spices, wooden spoons, nice china cups or plates, herbs, and sugar cubes. There is definitely an art to the arrangement of items and you will learn what looks good and what doesn’t through trial and error, as well as practice. Looking at examples of similar items online can also spark your creativity and provide ideas for arrangements and props.
Now let’s talk about lighting and light reflections.
If you have a window area where you can set up a table, like a card table, then you can use free natural light! If you are using a computer screen or tablet as part of your set up you will need to adjust the direction of your setup as well as the angle of the computer screen so that you are not getting reflections from the camera’s point of view.
If you don’t’ have a window area, or even with a window, you might still need additional lighting. It is always surprising to me how much light is actually needed for most photos! The exception would be if you want to try “low key” lighting. For low key lighting you actually need a room that is dark! (Visit our website at https://focusedcamera.weebly.com/free-mini-tutorials-videos--extras.html and sign up for our email list and you can get an instant free download for low key lighting at home).
Additional lighting does not have to be expensive. It can be very inexpensive lights from hardware stores, such as the clamp style lights used as work lights out in the garage. A two pack of clamp lights is under $20 and they even have built in reflectors on them! You can also get bright LED lighting – a pack of two – for under $30.
Professional photographers might be aghast at the suggestion and tell you that you need professional lighting. Professional lights can cost hundreds of dollars and while they do have benefits, such as allowing you to adjust the color temperature or intensity of the lights, there are workarounds to save you the expense. When you take photos make sure that you shoot in RAW, that way you can adjust the color temperature in Lightroom or other editing software. If the lights are too intense, move them farther away! You don’t need flashes or lights that are timed with your shutter release (unless you are doing water splash photography). For the majority of product photography you can use continuous lighting, like that light you might already have out in your garage.
Now that you have all your lighting taken care of, let’s go back to glare and reflections for a moment. If you are getting overhead glare turn off overhead lights. Rotate your table and your entire set up so you are getting as much light as you can, but keeping the direct reflections off your product (and/or computer screen) from the camera’s point of view. Make sure if you use the computer laptop screen that you test different angles to get the least glare. Using some creative movement you usually can find a sweet spot where you don’t have hot spots and reflections.
However, that still might not be enough. Sometimes you will need a way to diffuse light. There are several “hack” solutions for this. If you have a large area, like a whole window area, a white fabric shower curtain (I got one at the $1 store) can diffuse light. This also works well for portraits.
You can diffuse the light on your flash or your extra LED lights by making a softbox or using tissue paper. There are plenty of DIY instructions online for making flash and light diffusers and softboxes. Be careful that you never put paper or fabric over the hot style lights like incandescent and halogen – that would be a fire hazard!
You can also make your own “light box” using a big plastic bin like the one I use in my setup. It’s not perfectly clear, so it diffuses the light. Bins like these are available at the hardware store and you might even be able to get one at the $1 store. There are also lots of DIY tutorials online for making light boxes for product photography using a large cardboard box and white tissue paper and white poster board as the backdrop.
Now you are ready to take some photos! Obviously, you need a camera. The camera you use does not have to be expensive or even a DSLR. The charging block image above was taken with an older generation Android phone. Current smartphones are even better. Some of the other images shown as examples throughout were taken using a very old Rebel camera. You do not have to invest in an expensive camera to get started taking product photos. Whatever camera you have on hand is the best camera to use!
You can shoot handheld if you are steady. If you have enough light shutter speeds should be fast enough, but if you are going to invest, I would spend the money for a great tripod, and get one that can also allow you to do some flat lay work. I love my Manfrotto tripod and the 90 degree shooting tilt has come in handy for more than just product photos.
Now a few final tricks, or “hacks” for some cool effects! If you want to suspend something, then clear fishing line can be used to make items look like they are levitating. You will need Photoshop or a similar program to edit out the fishing line in post. It can also be a good idea to also secure the item at the base so that it is not swaying around.
When you have an object that just won’t stay put, some console tape or gaffer’s tape and help keep items in place and when removed they do not leave a residue. A loop of console tape held the ring in place in the images I included above. If any of the tape shows you might have to edit it out later.
If you want some cool colored lighting, try a colored gel or tissue paper over your camera’s built in flash or over top of your lighting (again do not put paper over hot bulbs). Some inexpensive LED puck lights can also create interesting effects when placed under or behind objects. Some smartphones and apps (Flashlight app on iOS and Color Flashlight on Android) also allow you to change the color of your phone screen and use it as a light. These colored lights can also be used for creative effects.
So there you have it, a complete set up for product photography using items you probably already have around the house! Even if you have to buy some garage lights, some colored papers or fabric, and make a diffuser for your window or a light box for your products, you can have an awesome setup for under $50.
It’s the most inexpensive, simplest set up for your product photography!
We’d love to see your images, so share them with us on Twitter @focusedcamera and use the hashtag #photofun.
You have a new camera, or a camera that’s been on the shelf, and you haven’t started using it...yet.
Does it feel like you are jumping off without a parachute or safety net? This is a very common feeling!
All those technical terms in that 150+ page manual with the tiny pictures full of data you don’t need can feel like information overload! Where do you start?
First of all, if you only listen to camera manufacturers and camera pros, they are all going to make you feel like you need to keep investing in more lenses, better lenses, bigger camera bodies, more megapixels to get better at photography. That is how manufacturers make more money or pros make themselves sleep better at night after investing in $4,000 lenses. Guess what, all that gear comes with even more instruction manuals. That won’t help you. Until you are at pro level and have some experience, you do not need to get pro gear. What you need to do is ---- JUMP!
In order to jump in and get started, it helps to figure out what’s been holding you back.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself. Are you worried you will mess up the camera and never get the settings back to normal? Has someone told you that your kit lens won’t do the job? Do you find yourself constantly comparing your photos to photos you see online? Do you lack “ideas” of what to shoot or have trouble making your “vision” a reality?
If you answered “yes” to any of those questions then you are facing one or more of the four very common issues that I would consider photography dream “crushers” or stumbling blocks (settings/gear, editing, composition/lighting, motivation). Once you know what your stumbling blocks are you can work to overcome them.
While we can’t resolve all of them in this blog post, I am here to tell you a few things to keep in mind when you take up photography as a hobby, or otherwise. If this advice doesn’t sound realistic to you, then check out the photos below each section. They are numbered and captioned to demonstrate each of the concepts discussed.
Settings / Getting the Most Out of Your Gear:
1. It’s okay to use Auto Mode. In our previous blog post we discussed not feeling pressured to use Manual Mode and went into some detail on camera modes that you can easily try.
2. You can’t “break” the settings on your camera. There is a reset to factory option in your camera menu and if you click here you can download our troubleshooting guide (scroll down to cheat sheets section) for when your camera is “acting up.”
3. You don’t need expensive gear to get fun photos. The best camera is the one you have in your hands, whatever that might be, even a smartphone! Our Buy Camera Gear page includes recommendations for inexpensive equipment and a lens guide by price point. However, you don’t need anything other than a smartphone, bridge camera, or entry level DSLR with kit lens to get some great images and more importantly, learn the craft. Towards the end of this blog post there is a link to our Best Settings Cheat Sheets on Etsy which gives you basic starting points for a variety of shooting scenarios (use coupon FOCUS20 for a limited time to get 20% off).
Editing / Getting Images that Pop:
4. Never, ever, ever compare your photos to other people’s photos online. Most of those photos have been edited to perfection. Your sunset photo isn’t going to look that bold right out of the camera in RAW (info on RAW versus JPEG). Let’s face it, we can tell when someone has saturated a sunset and we know it didn’t look like that in real life, or if it did look that way to our eyes, we still know the camera didn’t capture all of it so perfectly.
5. It’s okay to use presets until you get good at making your own. Here’s are a few resources for free presets you can download.
6. It’s okay to use tutorials to show you editing tricks and it’s also okay to not edit photos at all. All photographers will not have access to editing software. Photos can be left natural! Or use a very basic editing program, even an app on your phone, many of which are free (check out our videos on Best Apps for Editing and Graphic Design on our YouTube Channel - scroll down to the video links).
Composition / Lighting:
7. Every shot does not have to be something spectacular. Most people do not have the budget or time to travel to exotic locations. The most exciting place I visited recently was my backyard. Try our around-the-house Scavenger Hunt (scroll down to the video section) to get some practice with composition.
8. Get outside your comfort zone and try new things. Work on your areas of weakness. Even though those photos might be truly awful now, they will get better as you learn and improve (see our blog post on Composition Basics or try out our Text Message Composition class for only $5 at Arist.co)
Motivation / Getting Ideas and Getting Started:
9. Some days the ideas will flow, but when they don’t, look for inspiration everywhere and anywhere. What we normally look at as boring or mundane can actually be the source of new inspiration. If you sign up for our email list you can access our first Boredom Busters Photography Guide for free and get updates when we add new ones. If the pop-up doesn’t generate in about 20 seconds, just email us to ask for your copy!
10. Keep it simple silly. Create a doable goal and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet that goal. Some people try setting a goal of one photo a day. Others may find one photo a week to be a better fit.
11. Build “photography time” into your schedule. If your schedule is already full, where can you shave some time for even ten minutes of photo taking? Remember that very few prize winning photos are taken from a sitting position on your couch.
12. Repeats are okay. If you run out of ideas there is no reason why you can’t photograph some of the same subjects again. Different times of day or year and different lighting or backgrounds will result in new images even with the same subject matter.
Hopefully this blog post will inspire you to determine what's been holding you back (if anything) and get you to jump into your photography with new vim and vigor! And as promised, if you keep scrolling down, you will find the Best Settings Cheat Sheets.
Basic Settings Cheat Sheets - this link will take you our Etsy sales page. Use coupon FOCUS20 for 20% off for a limited time. Then download your copy instantly!
The short answer is yes!
Do expert or professional photographers always use manual mode? The short answer is no they don’t (unless they do one of a few specific genres of photography all the time). To further illustrate my point, let’s say Ansel Adams or Steve McCurry or Annie Leibovitz came over for dinner and you asked him or her to take some pictures using auto mode on your crop sensor camera with the kit lens. What do you think their photos would look like? If you said “better than mine” or something along those lines, then you already know and understand that what you do behind the camera and your understanding of composition (lighting, balance, form) is so much more important than what camera mode you are using or what camera you own.
You can be a “real” photographer without manual mode.
As I mentioned above, first you need to learn and understand composition and give yourself lots and lots of practice. Hours and hours of practice. No one becomes a pro in any field without practice and experience. Practice also helps get the creativity flowing. When you practice and something doesn’t “work,” don’t give up. Troubleshoot. Try something different – angles, lighting, background, camera settings. If the changes make the problem worse, then try something else or another way. For some helpful starters check out this previous blog post on the Basics of Composition.
Ansel Adams began taking photos when he was 12. His famous photo, Monolith, was published at the age of 25. That’s 13 years of practice! In those days, photos were taken on plates and had to be processed in a darkroom. You had a limited amount of plates so creativity and thought and planning had to go into each and every image. This is the aspect of photography that many beginners overlook. With digital it is so easy to snap and snap and snap without any thought to arrangement, lighting, or other compositional tools. Don’t be in such a hurry! Slow down and think about your photography. At the same time, don’t be afraid to take 25 photos of the same scene, changing angles or settings, until you get it right!
Don’t rush yourself to use manual mode. Use the settings that you are comfortable with and if that means practicing on auto mode, then do it. Above all else, when you are just beginning, if there is a photo you “have to get” then definitely use auto to get the shot. Never risk missing a moment because you were too busy getting the dials set. Use auto to capture the moment. Check the camera’s settings provided to you by auto mode, and if you feel comfortable, try aperture or shutter priority modes. Dial in the settings provided by auto mode and then make adjustments based on that starting point to try to improve the photo.
These modes do still require an understanding of the exposure triangle, so give yourself time and practice to learn the effects of changing ISO, shutter speed, or aperture. When you use auto mode, always look at the settings the camera is selecting for each shot, and over time you will begin to understand what the camera sees (how it selects those settings) and why certain settings work in certain circumstances.
Once you have given yourself permission to slow down, don’t pressure yourself, and use auto while learning, you will find photography is more fun! What would be the point of photography if it wasn’t fun to do? Then you will be ready for those priority modes. Very rarely will you need full manual mode. I can count on one hand the amount of specialty circumstances where you would need to control both aperture and shutter speed. Normally, you only need to control one of these fully for the creative effect you desire. Priority modes let the camera brain do the rest of the work! Which of these modes you should use will depend on what your subject will be.
In aperture priority, you set the aperture and the camera will select the shutter speed and ISO. For my purposes, which is mainly flowers and landscapes, I am often most interested in having control over the depth of field and the amount of blur in the foreground and background. So I use aperture priority most of the time because this allows control over the depth of field. If you are taking portraits, this would also be the correct mode to use.
In shutter or time priority mode, you set the shutter speed and the ISO and aperture are selected by the camera. If I was taking pictures where I needed to stop motion, for instance a child’s football game, then I would need to use shutter priority set to fast shutter speed. For free lessons and practice with these shooting modes visit our mini-tutorials page.
In my experience, both of these modes are extremely effective, much easier to use than manual mode, and can make you a “real” photographer (with proper practice and composition). I have professionally sold photos taken using these camera modes, like the example of this white hydrangea which used aperture priority mode.
FocusEd Camera on Fine Art America
So when might you need to adjust both aperture and shutter speed? When do you need to use full manual mode?
Macro (extreme close up photography) is a favorite specialty of mine and it can be difficult to get correct exposure at high magnification levels. Just a tap or breathing movement can change the lighting and focus point, so there are times where full manual can be useful. Aperture is often still the main factor in the composition to get the depth of focus I want. I will set aperture first, then adjust shutter speed to get enough light and keep the ISO low.
Another instance where I use full manual is in landscapes where there is water and I want the blurry water effect or when I am using a neutral density (ND) or other filters. Landscape photographers mostly use narrow apertures, like f/22, to get large depth of field. They may also use ND (neutral density) or polarizing filters or want a long exposure to blur a waterfall and therefore need longer shutter speeds. Your camera is smart, but not smart enough to know that is what you want. It will try to pick average settings so you get a moderate ISO and a moderate shutter speed. Full manual allows you to change both of those to get the right combination, like a longer shutter speed and the ISO can be lowered to reduce grain.
I don’t do a lot of studio or portrait work, but those are other genres where full manual mode could be required. If you want to keep the ISO low and are using flashes you may be limited to certain shutter speeds (if your shutter is too fast, the flash won’t have enough time to light the scene). You would also want low ISO for product photos that might be reproduced at a large scale. In these cases, having control over all three aspects of the exposure triangle would become necessary.
Another photography style that I have only dabbled in is stitching photos into montages or panoramas. If you are interested in this form of photography you will have to use full manual mode. The settings must be the same in order for the images to flow together properly. The lighting should also be kept consistent (if possible).
So as you can see, there is no reason you need to shoot in manual mode all the time, unless it is just because you want to! In which case, the struggle might be more fun than frustration. We each have our own idea of what makes a hobby enjoyable. I don’t like solving quadratic equations, but some people do! If the frustration of learning manual mode is keeping you from picking up the camera, then take the pressure off and don’t use it! Try priority modes instead!
Afraid to play with the settings because you are worried you won’t be able to undo something? We’ve got you covered! You can always do a reset (in your camera’s menu – check your manual) and put the camera back into the default settings it had when you first pulled it out of the box. So no excuses! Go take some photos!
Here is a scavenger hunt to get you started and check out our YouTube or Rumble channel for the accompanying video instructions.
Whether it’s to celebrate the New Year, Fourth of July, Diwali, or a birthday in the backyard, here are a few tips to capture those sparkly, colorful delights!
A fireworks display may seem like a challenge, but even a beginner can get some great photographs with some advance planning and a few specific camera settings. You don’t need fancy extra equipment either – just a tripod, a piece of non-stick tape, and a black piece of paper large enough to hold in front of the camera lens.
Location, Location, Location
Knowing in advance where the fireworks will be allows you to scope out a good location to shoot from. Look for a place with higher ground and an unobstructed view. You don’t want telephone wires or street lights in your shot. A backdrop with some trees or buildings or monuments in the perimeter of the shot can make effective compositions, but these need to be off to the left or right or bottom, not where they will block the fireworks. Pick a place where you can have space to set up your tripod and where the camera will be able to get the full firework in view. Think ahead to when the location will be full of people and make sure that other parked cars or people standing around won’t be in your way. Depending on your camera lens options and whether they are primes or zoom lenses, you might have to visit a few locations before you find one that will work. Plan to be there in advance, while it is still light outside so you can claim your spot!
Which camera lens?
You may not have many options. Many beginning photographers have only the kit lens that came with their camera. This is usually an 18-55mm lens and it is a good choice. Generally speaking, you will want a wider angle lens (the 18mm to 35mm range) so you can get the whole firework and sky around it in view. However, if you will be very far away, you may need a zoom, or even a telephoto lens like an 18-200mm. This brings us back to the location… it is important to scope out the location ahead of time and bring your camera, tripod, and lens with you. Set it up in daylight to make sure your lens and location combination will work.
(For more information about lens focal lengths and their uses see our blog post on this topic.)
What camera settings?
If you are using a new camera or haven’t had time to read your camera manual, you will want to find these settings and practice with them in daylight so you won’t be fumbling around in the dark trying to figure them out. No camera manual? No problem... go to this page to download your manual. Here’s the list of what you will need to know, then we will go over what to do with those settings next:
Getting Set Up and Getting the Right Settings
Set up your tripod. Legs should be open at their widest angle (and locked if your tripod has that function). Decided how “tall” to set the tripod. If you are in windy conditions, you should take care to secure the tripod and if at all possible DO NOT fully extend the leg height and definitely do not raise the center column. This makes the tripod less stable. Once you have the tripod secure (remember you will be moving around it in the dark – you don’t want it falling over), firmly attach the camera. The lens you will be using should be attached and set to the level of zoom (if it is a zoom lens) you plan to use.
If your lens has image stabilization, you can turn that off while on the tripod. If you are attempting photos without a tripod, then leave image stabilization on. A tripod is highly recommended for nighttime photoshoots.
If your camera has settings for noise reduction or long exposure noise reduction, you should turn those on. Also in the settings, change your file type to RAW (this will allow more editing options later).
We are going to be using Manual camera mode, but beforehand, while it is still in Auto camera mode, set the focus on your lens to “infinity.” You should be in location when you do this. First you have to turn off Auto Focus on your lens (a switch on the lens or near the lens on the camera body) or in the camera settings (menu) or both. This is NOT the dial that changes camera modes. Once you have Auto Focus turned off, you will manually turn the focus ring on the lens to the infinity mark* (the symbol on your lens looks like a sideways number 8). It is possible to focus past infinity. Today’s autofocus motors need room to make adjustments at higher speeds so the hard stop that you would find on a manual focus lens is not a hard stop on an autofocus lens. Look for the symbol and notice that you can probably turn past it. Turn back until you are on the symbol. Test the focus during daylight (that is why you are setting up early!). Focus on a very distant object near the horizon, like a building or a tree.* Take some test shots and then zoom in on the photo review on your LCD screen. Make small adjustments to the infinity focus by moving the focus ring on the lens. Once you have the focus locked in, you can use a piece of non-stick tape like painters tape or gaffers tape to hold the focus ring in place. That way if you bump it in the dark it won’t move. You can also use your phone to take a photo of the numbers/markings on the side of your lens once you have it set. Then if it does move while you are in the dark you can use the photo and your flashlight to reset it.
*Alternate method, works with some cameras, but not all, and can be used for lenses with no outer markings for infinity. While the lens is in autofocus mode, use a very white piece of paper that is very well lit, and hold the paper up in front of the lens, about 4 inches from the lens. Make sure the white fills the viewfinder. Then 1/2 press the shutter/autofocus button. This should set the lens to infinity focus. Change over to manual by changing the switch on the lens/body or in settings.
Photo by FocusEd Camera
A word of caution, if you get set up, and once the fireworks start your level of zoom needs to be adjusted, changing the zoom can (and often will) change the focus of the lens as you zoom in and out. Some lenses have fixed focus, but many, many more are variable focus. What this means is that your infinity focus may no longer be set properly. This is why it is important to scope out your location with your camera and lens ahead of time. Get your composition and framing set up and then don’t touch it. However, if you MUST make changes, you will need remove your tape before you zoom in or out. Then take test shots of the fireworks and use your LCD review to check the focus is still good. If not, make adjustments to the focus ring on the lens. Once the focus is set again, reapply your piece of tape to keep the focus locked.
Now we are ready to switch the shooting mode to Manual mode using the camera dial. Changing to Manual mode will now allow you to control all three aspects of the exposure triangle -- ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
If your camera has a shutter speed setting called “bulb” or a camera Bulb mode, then that is what you will want to use, we will come back to that. Otherwise, for all manual mode users, you can start off with a shutter speed of 1/10 of a second and make adjustments from there. Set your aperture at f/8 to begin with. Set ISO low at 100.
If you are setting shutter speed at 1/10th of a second, take some test shots. If the shot is too dark (underexposed) use a longer shutter speed, open the aperture, or change ISO to 200. If the shot is overexposed, close down the aperture to f/ll.
Longer shutter speeds will capture longer light trails on the fireworks. You can set shutter speeds to several seconds or even longer and this is where a “bulb” setting comes in handy. This setting can also allow you to capture multiple firework bursts in the same exposure. With “bulb” setting once you press and hold, the shutter remains open until you release it. You can do this on camera (but it might produce camera shake) or you can use a shutter remote. Shutter remotes typically cost under $20 and can be used in many different ways for many genres so you will get your money’s worth from one of these gadgets. Be sure to get the right kind for your camera (check compatibility before ordering). Some cameras are equipped with Wi-Fi so with those you can download apps – like Canon’s Camera Connect app -- that let you take the picture from your phone.
For some camera users the "bulb" setting is a camera mode and is on the dial. For other cameras "bulb" setting is in the shutter settings if you continue to increase the shutter time past 30 seconds. In either case, when using “bulb” setting it will affect your shutter speed and allow for longer exposures. Therefore, an aperture setting of f/11 is probably a better starting point so you don’t end up with overexposed images. Start with an ISO of 100. You will need to take some test shots and since fireworks shows typically last 30 minutes you should have the opportunity to make adjustments. Try starting the exposure in “bulb” setting by pressing and holding the remote and leaving it open (continue to hold) for three fireworks bursts, then release. Check your work. You can try four or five bursts and if you start to get overexposure, adjust the aperture by closing it down to f/16 (or by one-third or ½ stops if your camera allows).
Photo by FocusEd Camera
And here is where that black piece of paper I mentioned at the beginning comes into play. When using “bulb” mode you can expose the full firework burst or multiple firework bursts. Just use the black paper to keep the lens covered (hold it in front – does not have to be directly touching) until you want to start exposure and in-between fireworks bursts. This can work with manually set shutter speeds too (set the camera shutter speed to 30 seconds or whatever length your camera allows that you want to try). The steps are like this:
If this seems complicated, take a few deep breaths… this is not beyond your skill level. Read over your camera manual and practice with making the setting adjustments while you are in daylight. In other words, know how to switch the ISO from 100 to 200 and know how to close down the aperture (smaller opening = larger f/# = less light, use when overexposed/image too light) or open the aperture (wider opening = smaller f/# = more light, use when underexposed/image too dark). Know how to set the shutter speed. Start with the settings provided of shutter 1/10th second, ISO 100, and aperture f/8 while focused far out in the distance (manual focus at infinity) on a tripod, and you should get good results!
Want to stay in touch or share your fireworks photos? Follow us on Twitter @focusedcamera and tag us in your posts!
P.S. Have you ever wanted to try “light painting” with sparklers? The process and settings are almost the same – just focus where your subject is instead of out at infinity. Set up the tripod and focus point in daylight beforehand by having your child or friend stand in the location where you will be using the sparklers then lock the focus in (use a piece of non-stick tape and keep the lens set to manual focus).
Wide depth of field is especially desirable for landscape photography. This is where understanding hyperfocal distance becomes important. If you are just starting out, it will be important to understand the basics of depth of field, so before you continue reading, you might want to check out that blog post first.
What is hyperfocal distance?
Hyperfocal distance, in a nutshell, is the point in the foreground that is the closest point the camera can focus while still having acceptably sharp image quality throughout the rest of the image to “infinity” (which is the background/horizon in most images) In other words, it is the point of focus that will yield the greatest depth of field.
When composing an image, if the focus is on the foreground, then the background will be blurry. In a portrait shoot, whether for people or animals, the subject can be in focus and the background can be blurry, and that is normally desirable.
If the focus point is changed to focus on the background, then the foreground will be blurry. When capturing a distant mountain at sunset from an overlook, one can focus on the horizon or “infinity” and won’t notice the blurry foreground because there are no objects in it.
Understanding hyperfocal distance is only important when there are objects both far away and close up that need to be in sharp focus. Focusing at a point in between the close and faraway objects becomes necessary. The calculation of where this point is will depend on several factors like the focal length, the “circle of confusion” for the camera sensor, and the aperture (see the depth of field blog post). When we find the hyperfocal distance point, “acceptable sharpness” will be found throughout the image.
Acceptably sharp – what is that?
Imagine a photograph is hanging on the wall. It is an 8”x10” size photo. If a person with good vision (20/20) stood 10 feet away, and the image looks completely in focus to them throughout, then it is “acceptably sharp.”
The hyperfocal distance point does not create an equal amount of focus in front of and behind the focus point. Depth of field is always greater beyond the subject/focus point than in front of the subject. For example, one-third of the distance may be in front of the focus point and two-thirds behind it. There will be areas that are blurred, but the size of the blur is so small the human eye cannot distinguish the blur from a point of light. This is known as the circle of confusion. There are specific calculations for this and it becomes complicated very quickly (see depth of field blog post for an introduction to “circle of confusion”). While there are a lot of scientific and mathematical calculations that can help locate the hyperfocal distance point, some ways are easier than others, and where the best focus point is may depend on the circumstances of each unique landscape and the particular taste, artistic style, and preference of the photographer. So let’s start there…
Which is better to have in focus, foreground or background?
Since it is a given that some area of a photo will always be out of focus (even if it is so small one can’t see it without pixel peeping or blowing the image up to super large sizes), which is better to have in focus? This will depend on the characteristics of the image one is composing and one’s personal tastes.
Expert photographers have discussed and taken opposite positions over the years. On one side, some photographers suggest that faraway objects need crisper focus in order to be recognizable and that the loss of detail is especially noticeable in enlarged prints. They claim our eyes will be more forgiving if objects in the foreground a slightly blurred. To use this in practice, one would focus beyond the hyperfocal distance (maybe even use infinity) and then adjust the aperture (f/stop) smaller and smaller until foreground objects become focused enough.
Other photographers claim the loss of focus on nearer objects is more noticeable and disturbing and that background focus can be less sharp, especially if they are large and easily identified objects like a mountain. In practice, a photographer would focus at hyperfocal distance or in front of the hyperfocal distance, and again make changes to the aperture (f/stop) to get crisper foreground focus.
Gazebo in Autum - Image by FocusEd Camera
How do I find the hyperfocal distance?
With the exception of a few readers who are math wizards, most of us don’t want to have to do hyperfocal distance calculations on the fly while out in the field. Fortunately, there are hyperfocal distance charts and apps like DoF Table, Digital DoF (my favorite), and PhotoPills that can provide a good starting point for reference. Unfortunately, they are not always accurate and are one-size-fits-all, not taking into account the actual scene. Some lenses also include markings on the side of the lens barrel that give you these calculations, but the easiest method is to use the approximation method of “double the distance.”
How do I use “double the distance?”
A very simplistic way to achieve equal sharpness in the foreground and background is to use a method called “double the distance.” Find the closest object or element in your composition and determine (approximately – exact accuracy is not necessary) how far away it is from the camera sensor (not the end of the lens). Then double that distance and focus at that point. Use live view if available on the camera and use it zoomed in. This method does require some practice at estimating distances, but can be quite effective and efficient once one gets the hang of it.
Keep in mind that depth of field increases with smaller apertures, so if the closest object is not in focus at a certain aperture, then one may have to adjust the aperture. For example, if the camera is set up using a 35mm lens and the closest object that needs to be in focus is 8 feet away and f/8 is not working, increase the f/stop to f/11 or f/16 to bring the focus closer (increased depth of field). Other adjustments may then be required to shutter speed and ISO, so an understanding of the exposure triangle is also essential to achieving the desired outcome.
Should I use a hyperfocal distance chart?
As I stated before, a chart can be a great starting reference point. Find the focal length of the lens being used and the aperture settings, and it provides the closest point for focus where the background will still be “acceptably sharp.” A quick online search of hyperfocal distance charts will give you many options, but a quick look at the options also will demonstrate the inaccuracies I describe. One will find that the numbers don’t match from chart to chart. For example, I pulled up three charts and looked for the focus point if I was using a 24mm lens at f/2.8. The charts told me: 22.3 feet, 22.6 feet, and 21.1 feet. Now since most of us aren’t going to be pulling out a measuring tape to measure off 21 or 22 feet from our camera’s sensor, these numbers are close enough to give us a starting point. We would pick a point of focus that is approximately 22 feet from our camera’s position.
The apps for smartphones do these same calculations and are often a little more exact and definitely more convenient than carrying around paper charts. Unfortunately, these apps, depending on who made the app, can also be very inaccurate. Of the apps available, I prefer Digital DoF, which is free and often gives me good results to start with.
Do I need to know how hyperfocal distance works?
If one plans to take landscape photos, yes. Having an understanding of how hyperfocal distance works and changes with focal length and aperture will allow adjustments in the field that will improve image quality.
Hyperfocal distance moves closer to the camera sensor as smaller apertures are used. Remember smaller apertures make greater depth of field therefore the range of what is in focus moves closer and closer to the camera. The farthest reaches of the focus range are also getting larger, allowing the focus point to move closer (away from the horizon or infinity) while keeping the level of acceptably sharp focus both in front of and behind the focus point.
As the focal length on a lens gets longer, the hyperfocal distance moves farther away. This does not mean, for example on an 85mm lens at f/11 and a hyperfocal distance of 70 feet, that everything closer than 70 feet will be out of focus. On the contrary, the image will be sharp from halfway to 70 feet (35 ft) all the way to infinity. Anything 35 feet or closer will start to lose focus. Remember, double the distance? This is that same principle in reverse.
If you only use a chart, you will be constrained by the limitations of the chart. Going back to “acceptably sharp” focus for a moment, we come across the first limitation of a hyperfocal distance chart. They rely solely on the math calculations that include the “circle of confusion” (which I have also already explained is quite complicated and an internet rabbit hole all its own should you choose to go down it). The problem is that in camera-land long ago and far away, the circle of confusion was set at .03mm to create those charts. For technical folks, that .03mm is the size of the out-of-focus tiny points of light on your camera sensor and they are roughly circular. That .03mm standard is too large for today’s high resolution prints, computer monitors, and cameras, so the charts can’t be the “end all” tool you use.
The second problem, is that the charts (and many of the apps) are one-size-fits-all solutions for all lenses and in the field that does not take into consideration the vast array of possible landscape situations one may find oneself in. Where you should focus should change depending on the scene in front of you!
Let’s look at this this way – we have two very different scenes and for both compositions we are using our 35mm on our full frame camera at f/8.
According to the chart, for both of these should be focused at 17 feet in front of where the camera is standing. Using the chart we would have acceptably sharp focus for both images, but all that means is that both images will have the exact same amount of blur (0.03mm for each pinpoint of light to be exact).
Does that even make sense if we think about it logically? Of course not, the focus point should depend on the scene! For image 2 with the hot air balloon, if there is no foreground why would we want to focus at 17 feet in front of the camera? We wouldn’t, we should focus out at the horizon at “infinity.”
So the takeaway is to start with a reference point, either from a chart, app, or double the distance method, then know how to adjust the hyperfocal distance point and lens focal length and/or aperture to get the best overall sharpness for all images, not just acceptable sharpness for some of them.
Why can’t my camera just calculate the hyperfocal distance and tell me what it is?
Let’s say we are shooting a meadow with a tree off in the distance and even farther away is a mountain range. Let’s also assume the camera can give us a readout to tell us what the hyperfocal distance would be, say its 237 feet. How would we be able to put that into practice? Would we pull out a 237 foot measuring tape or cart around a measuring wheel with us on our shoots? What if there was a lake between us and the mountain and 237 feet puts us into the water? In practice, getting a readout on a camera would be no more accurate than using a focal distance chart or app (taking into account the camera sensor’s circle of confusion and lens focal length/aperture). That readout wouldn’t help that much more than just using the “double the distance” method, although I expect cameras will be adding more features like split screen focus, focus peaking, and live view modes that will make the process of finding hyperfocal distance easier.
So if Double the Distance is easy and works well, how would I use it in practice?
Let’s go back to the example I gave above of a bike rider in the city. The first step in our approach would be to determine if there are any foreground objects nearby – like a fire hydrant or a parked car. Whichever object is closest to the camera that we want to be in focus, we approximate that distance and then double that number. Our focus would be at that distance.
Let’s look at this sample image. If we assume the dog and the rocks around him are approximately 15 feet away, then the focus point should be double that distance, which is about 30 feet away. Voila!
The best part about this method is that it doesn’t matter which camera or aperture setting or lens focal length is being used; it works for all landscapes. Now this isn’t to say that camera settings are not still critical. They are! For landscape photography we use smaller apertures like f/11. If we did set the aperture to f/4 and use the double the distance method and focus 20 feet away, it will still give us the most sharpness in the scene, but it is probably not going to give us the image we would want.
It is important to also know the limits of the lens being used. Lenses are not their sharpest at either end of their range. For example a lens that will shoot at apertures from f/1.8 up to f/22 will not be at its sharpest at either extreme. And understand focal lengths. When trying to capture landscapes, an 85 mm or 200 mm are not the best lens choices, one will want a wider angle lens and even more so if using it on a crop sensor camera body. See my blog about lens focal lengths here.
To be completely honest, even if you learn all the background information and understand the concepts, no technique for hyperfocal distance will be perfect even with adjustments in the field. Chasing “perfect” sharpness is like chasing the end of the rainbow.
If you are glutton for punishment, and just can’t get enough about hyperfocal distance, then check out our next blog post about other hyperfocal distance calculation methods and trouble-shooting hyperfocal distance while on the go. Additionally we will discuss ways to work around the limitations of lens focus depths by using focus stacking and bracketing to make composite images.
If this is enough information for you, then let me leave you with one final thought, remember that for almost all images you compose and shoot, that “good enough” is better not taking the shot at all.
Forums and Facebook groups are full of someday want-to-be professional photographers and an extremely common question they ask as beginners is “How do I get that blurry background in my photographs?” The blurry background, or bokeh, is an effect accomplished by knowing how to create a shallow depth of field. It is a compositional tool used in many genres of photography such as portraits, flowers/nature, and products. A quick word of caution, overuse of any one compositional tool can create a portfolio that is, well… boring. So don’t rely only on “blur” to create memorable images. Check out our blog post on Composition Basics here.
While bokeh creates a pretty effect for many images, some genres require crisper focus throughout and blur is not desirable. Landscape, night photography, and some types of street photography are examples where a wider depth of field is common. To accomplish this wider depth of field, hyperfocal distance is often used. (You can read about Hyperfocal distance in next month's blog, but it is recommended you first have a solid understanding of basic depth of field and factors that affect it as discussed in this post).
What is Depth of Field?
Simply put, depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in an image that are in acceptably sharp focus. In some photographs, everything seems to be in focus throughout and in some photographs the foreground or background, or both, may have blur. This is achieved by manipulating the factors that affect depth of field.
Depth of field is calculated using the lens’ focal length, distance to the subject, the acceptable “circle of confusion” size, and the aperture setting of the lens. Thus by changing one or more of these factors, different depths of field can be created. Let’s investigate the effects of each factor on the depth of field, starting with shallow depth of field.
How does one get shallow depth of field?
Shallow depth of field, also called a small or narrow depth of field, means that only a part of the image is in focus. Most often this is accomplished by using a wide aperture (small f/stop number) on the lens and shooting in aperture priority or manual mode. If a lens has the ability to shoot at f/2 at its most open setting, the resulting depth of field will be small or narrow. If that same lens was set at f/22 and its position and the subject/background positions are not changed, the result will be a much deeper or wider depth of field.
In these images above, the only factor that was changed was the aperture, or f/stop. Notice in the first image shot at f/32 there is more of the image, from front to back, in focus. The main flower and the flowers behind it are more defined and the bars on the iron door can be seen. In the second image, the aperture setting was changed to f/5 so much less of the image is in focus. There is more blur behind the main flower in this image and the bars on the iron door are completely out of focus, so much so, they almost disappear into the background. This is one advantage of a blurry background; to get rid of distractions behind the subject.
Shallower depth of field can also be accomplished with longer focal length lenses or by changing relative positions of the camera, the subject, and the background. A photo taken in close range will have a much smaller depth of field. Moving the camera closer to the subject and moving the subject farther from the background will increase blur in the background and make the depth of field narrower. For example, a portrait photographer will want to put some distance between the person/subject and the background to get the desired blur effect. A flower photographer might use a longer focal length lens to get a smaller depth of field and blur behind the bloom.
The images below demonstrate this effect. In the first image, I was much farther away from the flower arrangement which produces a wider depth of field. Some of the background, like the door behind the flower arrangement, were already somewhat blurred, but most of the flowers in the arrangement are in focus. In the second image, I have moved closer. There is a narrower depth of field. At this very close range, the background is fully blurred.
A camera can only get precise focus at one exact distance from the lens. Everything in front of or behind that distance will be blurred. The blur “spot” will be shaped like the aperture of the lens, thus almost a circle. If these spots, or circles, are small enough they are almost indistinguishable from a point of light and they appear to still be in focus. When this happens we have acceptable sharpness or acceptable “circle of confusion.” The “circle of confusion” size is related to a camera’s sensor size, and is a complicated concept that could be a whole article in and of itself. Any blur one can see in a final photograph is simply the blur spot as it registered on the camera sensor, only enlarged (on your screen or in print). How big this blur can get without being noticeable, is the acceptable "circle of confusion" size.
The take-away here, is that even the most crisp looking landscape image one has ever seen actually has areas that are out of focus or blurred, it’s just the blur is so minimal one’s eyes can’t tell unless the image is magnified or the viewer gets closer. The mechanisms of the camera and the way light bends as it enters the lens makes it impossible to have an image that is totally in focus from edge to edge at every given distance.
How depth of field and the “circle of confusion” changes from a crop camera to a full frame isn’t something most photographers will need to know. If one plans to make super-sized prints or enlargements, then it might be beneficial to know the sensor size and "circle of confusion" calculation in relation to the anticipated print size. More important for most photographers to understand are the effects of a specific camera body and lens combination on depth of field. Most photographers would not change camera bodies to achieve the depth of field they want when they can change position, lenses, or settings instead.
A full frame camera sensor will create a shallower depth of field when adjustments are made to keep the same field of view (remember a 50mm lens on a crop camera will only “see” the field of view of approximately an 80mm on a full frame – see our blog article on focal lengths here for clarification). Otherwise, this formula shows that depth of field is unaffected by sensor size if aperture, focal length, and distances are kept constant.
How do you get wider depth of field?
Wide or deep depth of field results in a much larger area (front to back) of the image being in focus. Basically by doing the opposite of any of the above, one can accomplish a wider depth of field. Using a shorter focal length (for example switching from an 85mm to a 50mm) or setting a larger aperture (from f/5.6 to f/11) will increase the size of the depth of field and make it deeper. The next set of images show the results of changing the focal length.
I remained stationary, but used the zoom on my lens to change the focal length from 18mm to 400mm (these images were also cropped to fit together). The shorter focal length in the first image creates a wider depth of field. The iron door is clear and the door knob appears mostly focused. In the middle image, the depth of field is narrowing. By the time I zoomed all the way in for the last image, the depth of field has become much more narrow and the only part that is really in focus is the solitary flower.
Changing the distance between camera and subject will also change the depth of field. If the subject is placed closer to the camera the depth of field is smaller. When you want to blur the background the subject should be closer to the camera, but keep some space between the subject and the background. If the subject is placed closer to the background, and the camera is moved farther away, the depth of field will be wider. In the example above, if I had remained in position after the third image and had moved the flower arrangement farther away from me (moving the subject farther from the camera), then the depth of field would have gotten wider again.
How is shallow depth of field used as a compositional tool?
In portrait photography, shallow depth of field creates that soft bokeh or blurry background behind the person (and sometimes in front of the person as well). The blur can give a photo a moody look or be used to create a dreamy, mysterious, or romantic “feel.” Additionally, the blur is sometimes used for an abstract effect.
The selective blur creates dimension and reduces distractions from the background. Since our eyes are drawn to and gravitate towards areas in focus, creating a composition where only some of the image is in focus allows the viewer to be guided to the subject. In portrait photography it is considered an important standard practice that the most crisp focus point be on the eyes.
Blur in the foreground can also remove distractions that are in front of the subject, like fencing around a cage, allowing the focus to be on what is beyond. In this image below, the wire fencing on the bird enclosure "disappears" and I am able to shoot "though it" even though my lens was several feet on the other side and the lens glass far too large to put between the wires.
Shallow depth of field is most often used in the genres of portrait, nature, travel, and to some extent street photography. With street photography, too much blur will take the subject out of context and the story behind the image can be lost.
How is wide depth of field used as a compositional tool?
Wide depth of field is desirable for landscape photography especially. This is where understanding hyperfocal distance becomes important.
Hyperfocal distance, in a nutshell, is the point in the foreground that is the closest point the camera can focus while still having acceptably sharp image quality throughout the rest of the image to “infinity” (which is the background or horizon in most images) In other words, it is the point of focus that will yield the greatest depth of field.
The hyperfocal distance point does not create an equal amount of focus in front of and behind the focus point. Typically, 1/3rd of the range of focus will be in front of the point and 2/3rds will be behind that point.
For a detailed look at hyperfocal distance and how to make calculations in the field, check out our hyperfocal distance blog next month.
There are hyperfocal distance charts and apps (like DoF Table, Digital DoF, and PhotoPills) that can provide a good starting point for reference, but they are not always accurate and they are one-size-fits-all, not taking into account the actual scene. Some lenses also include markings on the side of the lens barrel that give you these calculations, but the easiest method is using the approximation method of “double the distance.”
How do I use “double the distance?”
A very simplistic way to achieve equal sharpness in the foreground and background is to use a method called “double the distance.” Find the closest object or element in your composition and determine (approximately – exact accuracy is not necessary) how far away it is from the camera sensor (not the end of the lens). Then double that distance and focus at that point. For example, in the image below, if the closest rock that needs to be in focus is 10 feet away, then make the focus point 20 feet away (where the water ripples are). Use a small aperture (large f/number). Use live view if available on the camera and use it zoomed in. This method does require some practice at estimating distances, but can be quite effective and efficient once one gets the hang of it.
Keep in mind that depth of field increases with smaller apertures, so if the closest object is not in focus at a certain aperture, then one may have to adjust the aperture. For example, if the camera is set up using a 35mm lens and the closest object that needs to be in focus is 8 feet away (focus point 16 feet away) and f/8 is not working, increase the f/stop to f/11 or f/16 to bring the focus closer (increased depth of field). Other adjustments may then be required to shutter speed and ISO, so an understanding of the exposure triangle is also essential to achieving the desired outcome.
Image by strikers on Pixabay.
What is the take-away?
In summary, manipulating the depth of field is a compositional tool used by photographers in many genres. It is typically accomplished by changing the aperture of the lens, the lens focal length, or the positioning of the subject and background along with the positioning of the camera.
A shallow depth of field creates a nice blur effect in front of and behind the subject which results in a softer or more abstract feel, whereas, a wide depth of field has crisper focus throughout the image from front to back.
Knowing the calculations or keeping a focus distance chart is not necessary. An understanding of the exposure triangle, and the effects of focal length and aperture settings on your specific camera are essential. Practicing with your camera and lens in different settings is the best way to see the effects on depth of field in practice.
For improved landscape photography, narrow the aperture and use the “double the distance” method to get a wider depth of field. For portraits and flower blossom, put space between the subject and background and use a wider aperture or a longer focal length, or shoot in close range of the subject.
With an understanding of these basics, one will be ready to move on to a more detailed look at hyperfocal distance, or some practice with other compositional tools.
Composition is essentially an art form. It is the way you frame or arrange an image and it is critical to the outcome – whether that image is just good or great! A set of rules for good composition exists, yet it is still at best subjective, and great photographic images break these rules all the time. The best advice is to know the rules, so then you are aware when you are breaking a rule and can decide if that will, in fact, make your image better. Aside from the “rules” there are a couple of general photography guidelines that will also help you. Let’s start with those…
First, know how to properly hold your camera by using the grip with one hand and support under the camera with the other hand. You can have perfect composition and still have blur if you don’t hold your camera correctly. Even better, use a tripod. Many people believe that using a tripod will “mess up” their freedom and limit their creativity. I find the opposite to be true. Using a tripod forces you to slow down and think about positioning (which is critical to several of the composition rules). Where should the tripod go? Closer? Should I lower the height? Should I raise it? Should I rotate the entire set up to shoot from a different side? Should I rotate the camera from landscape to portrait? The worst thing you can do is always shoot in the same mode from the same distances using the same orientation! If your camera has a zoom lens or interchangeable lens system then slowing down also forces you to think about those options. In my experience, I am more apt to play with camera settings when I am on a tripod as well.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” -- Ansel Adams
Second, learn to see what the camera actually sees. Look through the viewfinder (preferable to LCD screen in my opinion). Don’t just look for the subject. Look at everything else. Look for distractions you don’t want to see in the photo like wires, cars, poles, or really bright light sources that could create flares or exposure issues. Good composition emphasizes the subject. If other aspects of the photo compete for attention, then that is not good. Also, remember, that when you look out at the world, your eyes are much more powerful and capable of more impressive color ranges and light ranges than even the most expensive camera sensors. You will not always be able to capture what you see in your camera – and that is okay! Know when to capture the memory instead.
Third, understand the basics of lighting and your camera modes (including the “exposure triangle”). Automatic shooting modes will have a difficult time capturing your “vision” so you will need to know how to use Manual mode, or other modes based on shutter speed and aperture. Read a few articles or tutorials about the best times of day for lighting your specific subject and try to practice during those times (for example, many portrait photographers use the hours just before sunset, known as the golden hour). As a general rule, avoid harsh sunlight which can create large shadows and washed out colors.
Okay, so with those three basics plus your passion for photography, you are ready to learn composition. The elements of composition will not all be present at all time in every shooting scenario, even in controlled studio environments. Use what you have available for each image.
Pay Attention to Form, Patterns, and Textures
What you are photographing has 3 dimensions, yet we are putting it into a 2 dimensional product. Move around your subject so that the form shows clearly. Side light (early morning or later afternoon and evening) provides shadows that help show form. Look for patterns – the row of slats in a picket fence for example. Then look for breaks in the pattern. Patterns appear in many man-made objects and places, but they exist in nature as well. Examine textures of what you are photographing. The material that something is made of will have a texture, whether that be rough or smooth. Nature has textures too, like the bark of a tree. Using forms, patterns, and textures will give your images depth, which is a good thing!
Look for Balance (Symmetry vs. Asymmetry)
A good photographic composition has balance.The image does not feel “weighted” to one side. Portrait photographers balance their photos when they arrange groups of people. Symmetry creates balance because the photograph will have basically the same or very similar scenes on both halves of the image. Asymmetric photos will still have a balance, but the scenes will be of different subjects.The balance is created by the size of objects, their distance, and their color.Darker objects in the front of an image are “heavier” than lighter colored objects in the background. Examine your image, before you snap it, through the viewfinder and check for good balance.
Visually Check for Lines, Curves, and Frames
This is where the most famous photography rule comes into play – The Rule of Thirds. The rule of thirds means to imagine lines dividing the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Then placing important aspects of your subject on those lines and their intersections. However, the Rule of Thirds lines are not the only lines to think about. In landscape photography the horizon is also an important line!
Lines are not always straight. Sometimes they are curved. Think about those beautiful scenic photos with the curving roads through the mountains. The most famous curved line that occurs in nature is the Fibonacci sequence. Some post production editing programs offer overlays of different types of lines and patterns so you can find one that works for your images.
Lines of any type, whether straight or curved lead our eyes. These types of lines are also known as “leading lines.” They force our eyes to move around the image. The curved (or straight) path through the forest leads our eyes through the forest.
When lines converge or surround a subject, they also create what is known as frames. Frames can be man-made, like windows or doorways, or natural like a stone arch or tree trunks. Use the lines and curves in your image to emphasize the subject. If the lines and curves are all over the place, try a different position. Make sure tree trunks are not “growing” out of people’s heads!
Find Opportunities to Use Contrast, Color, and Shapes
Visual contrast can really increase the excitement in your images. Visual contrast can be based in light versus dark (using color or black and white). Look for areas in the image that are light versus those areas that are in shadow. Try experimenting with silhouettes, or a portrait of a person standing at a window. Consider the same for color, or tonal contrast. Are there areas of light color that are in contrast with areas of darker colors? Contrast can also be used with shapes. Clouds, the sun, and the moon, are often photographed as shapes in contrast to their surroundings. Rock formations are also popular shapes that have contrast with their surroundings. Size can also provide visual contrast in an image. Small objects next to larger objects really show scale and can inspire awe!
Check Your Viewpoint
One of the most overlooked ways to improve composition is to simply change your viewpoint. Get down lower! Go up higher! Rotate around for a different angle! Actually getting down on the ground to shoot a small subject or to shoot up at larger objects can provide fascinating new perspectives. This is sometimes called “worm’s eye view.” Getting above and shooting down can do the same! So go higher. This is sometimes called “bird’s eye view.” Drone photography is a very popular new form of changing your viewpoint.
Consider the Space (Negative vs. Filled and Foreground vs. Background)
Look through that viewfinder again. Locate your main subject and then check the background. What is behind it? Is it distracting? Are there telephone wires? Bright colors that compete for attention? Then do the same for the foreground. What is immediately in front of your subject? Does it attract our eyes away from the subject?
Think of the background, foreground, and your subject (mid-ground) in a way similar to the rule of thirds. Only this time instead of using the concept as lines for focusing attention, think of the areas as the three dimensional spaces that they are.
The foreground is the distance from the camera to the subject and the background is the distance from the subject to the vanishing point or horizon. These are not necessarily equal thirds. We want to use these spaces to show the viewer the dimensionality of our image. Photographic prints basically compress the image into 2D so we need our subject to appear 3D. Therefore, the foreground and background should not be completely empty. Something needs to be there, even if the background is indistinguishable because it is blurred out (see Depth of Field next). Whatever we use in the background and foreground should not be distracting, as already discussed above.
Use Appropriate Depth of Field
Depth of Field is a tricky concept because you will have to understand your lens focal lengths and aperture settings. You may need to do some additional reading on these concepts. (See my blog post about Focal Lengths). You will hear photographers talk about shallow or narrow depth of field and deep or greater depth of field. Depth of field is, in a nutshell, how much of your image is in focus.In a landscape scene you would need everything, from front to back, all in focus. This means you want deep or greater depth of field.You will need higher aperture settings to accomplish this. For a portrait, or picture of a single flower, you would want your subject in focus, but everything else to be blurred or softly focused which is shallow depth of field.Lower aperture settings are used to accomplish this.
Depth of field is an important compositional tool because you determine what the viewer will look at by deciding what areas will be in focus.The brain naturally tends to ignore areas that are out of focus and instead attends to the areas that are in focus.Decide which level of depth you need before you shoot and then experiment with different aperture settings.Try using aperture priority mode on your camera and photograph the same person or subject at f/5.6 (or lower if you lens allows), f/11, and f/22 (or its highest setting) and see how the focus range changes.
One final tip… Study the Masters
Most of the compositional elements in photography were developed in the art world of painters. These experts have given us hundreds of years of examples of compositional techniques that make people want to stare a paintings for hours and wait in long lines to see them. They use the same techniques of leading lines, repetition of patterns, symmetry and balance, curves, and contrasts to make their works feel three dimensional and compelling.
Fortunately, composition techniques can be learned! Great composition takes observation, patience, and practice, but most importantly, can be accomplished no matter what level of photographer you are or which equipment you use. That’s the fantastic part of photography, anyone can get a prize winning photo!
Want more Composition Basics? Consider our Text Message Class -- $5 for one month of lessons and hands-on activities.
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