This one’s gonna be a long one…so I hope you have, on your desk, whatever vice you need to get through the daily trials and tribulations life throws at you. Whether it be dip, chew, a can of Natural Light, (full) glass of Merlot, Ritalin, cocaine, heroin, LSD…whatever helps you get though a long-winded blog post…I don’t judge. I’ll take any reader I can get. Just don’t ever touch me, please.
We can start out with a simple Tip of the Day.
When taking pictures of your children, regardless of where you are, there are just two words you need to know right before you get ready to take the picture. And if you heed these two words, your photos will improve immediately:
There are exceptions to everything (sometimes a directly overhead shot of a child looking up at you is a keeper for sure), but generally speaking, the photograph looks more natural and, simply, better, if the viewer of the photo is looking from a perspective that is at or just under the eye level of the subject.
In the photo above of my son Tyler, I was actually standing up…but I was much lower down a steep hill, so the camera was actually at about his shoulder level, without me needing to kneel. Perfect height to catch him there. If I had knelt, the camera would have been too low relative to Tyler, risking one of the most catastrophic events known in photography: a crystal clear shot of the nostrils. Nostrils are a vital human part of the body…they help us breath, and they help fight infections and kick bad stuff out of the body. But, they are ugly when you’re looking up at them. They have these two huge, dark holes…and my mind is taken immediately to the all the possible things that could have gotten sucked into that deep, dark, chasm.
Believe it or not…taking a picture is actually an anxiety inducing activity…especially for those who don’t do it often. Whenever you’re doing something you don’t have much experience doing, say, asked to take shots of everyone at the annual July 4th office party, and its something that you know everyone in your office is going to see, it will probably make you drink a little more at your office party’s social event to offset the anxiety…and as we all know, alcohol allows the body to perform highly intricate tasks at an exceptionally efficient level. So by the time you are about to take the pictures, you’re nervous, hammered, but full of false confidence thanks to the alcohol. You feel like Ansel Adams with that Panasonic point-and-shoot in your sweaty hands, that awesome little plastic camera you got earlier that day from Best Buy, as an opened boxed discount. Did you even charge the battery?
But, in a more timid scene, say, at visitor’s day at summer camp…a lot of the time, parents seem to rush when taking a picture (composition takes time and patience), and as a result, they march way to up close. Getting too close will crop out what could possibly be a nice background, and often lends en element of awkwardness to the feeling of the photograph. Awkward moments can be funny, but only when they are candid, not accidentally created by bad photography. When that close, the parent must tilt the camera down at a steep angle. When tilting a camera to a significant degree, there is a chance that the camera falls off its horizontal axis, which will make the photo look like it’s about to fall on its side, or that it was taken by someone who needs one of those alcohol measuring breathing tubes to start his car.
Background in most photographs is important for many reasons. One vital purpose of background is it helps tell the story of the photo, and it adds ambiance. But, if you’re too close, like the rushed parent we just talked about, you’ll probably create a photo of your kid exactly how you usually see him or her all the time. Other than being a picture of a cute kid, there will most likely not be anything unique about the photo. Additionally, if your camera is angled down, chances are good that much of your background will be the floor. If you’re shooting with a camera that has good resolution, you will see every speck of dirt and otherwise gross stuff on that floor when viewing at 100%. It’s ok though…it’s not at all distracting to the viewer to see a dirty floor behind a subject.
When you are trying shots in public, either in a pretty area somewhere like a sunflower field, at the beach at sunset, at Disneyland in between throwing away $20 bills for a bottle of soda, at the strip mall, at Jiffy Lube…wherever you are, you probably want the photo to let the viewer have some sense of location, and what you were doing before the picture was taken. First…at very first…take a nice deep breath, and remind yourself that you’re about to capture one of life’s moments. I like to do that because it makes me nervous…and when I am nervous I invariably do stupid stuff, which makes my kids laugh, which presents an excellent opportunity for photos. Natural laughs are SO much more photogenic than forced smiles. One series point: If you can, make some silly jokes that you know will make your kids laugh. Kids have the short term memory of a hamster…if you make them laugh, they will instantaneously forget that they were just previously in a very awkward and forced situation in front of a camera held by my really annoying dad. Laughter makes everything better…including photography.
OK…now stand back far enough to get some landscaping into the shot. If you’re at Disneyland, pick a spot where no one will be walking behind you. Random people in the background of a shot is distracting to the viewer…let’s face it, most of the random people you walk by in Disneyland aren’t exactly the most photogenic bunch…all sweaty in their tank tops, tattoos worn in lieu of clothing…patchouli…and, worst of all, t shirts that are not only too small to cover below the waist of the random gentlemen, but a t shirt that is so small (due to being washed on the hot cycle 300,000 times) it does us all the awesome favor of riding right up that ski slope of a hairy belly, giving us full frontal of what 30 years of fast food has literally turned a human being’s six pack into. Then…there’s…. that belly button….which looks like the poor guy got shot in the middle of the stomach, by a cannon. Seriously, it gets really dark almost instantly if you look at a deep innie. There has to be all kinds of stuff that got sucked in there over the years, which will never get out to see the light of day again. Hmmm…kinda like a nostril. Cool, never made that connection before. Whatever…you don’t want or need that in your photo of your cute little kids in their mickey hats.
The moral of that example is to mind your background when in public. Get down on a knee, and when kneeling, check to make sure that the background is drowning out the humans behind it. If we’re all set to take the picture, look into the viewfinder, and aim the cross hairs at just above the middle of the torso…or just below the chin so that your camera is either perfectly level, or on a very, very slight incline.
This shot above was taken in Annapolis. The single, only time my kids have ever hugged for a peaceful reason. I was on one knee, and my eye height was about the same level as my younger son’s, Cooper. If you are taking a shot of people who are of varying height, put them in order from shortest to tallest in a row, and when you kneel, try to make sure your camera is lower than the average of everyone’s height. You will have a well-balanced image.
If a few of the people in the photo are much taller than the shortest among them, make the tall people stand behind the shorter ones. More depth gives you a higher ceiling to work with, so you don’t have to risk cutting off a head at the top of the image.
OK, back our shot. Make sure your camera is in focus (most cameras can be programmed to beep when focus is achieved). This opens up an all new can of worms…even for auto focus cameras.
Important Note: Never assume your camera’s auto focus is finely turned and calibrated just because its fresh from the factory. This is one of the most overlooked issues for new cameras…most people just assume that since it’s brand new, the focus is accurate.
When you purchase a new camera, test its focusing accuracy by taking some pictures of a ruler sitting at an angle, so that it’s inclining as it points away from you (the lowest point of the ruler is the part that is also the closest to you…and the top of the ruler is the point furthest from you….try to prop up the ruler at about a 45 degree angle). Put your camera in Aperture priority, set it at the lowest f-stop, set ISO to 800, stand back about 20 feet, and aim for the 6″ mark of the ruler. If the area in front of the 6″ point of the ruler is in better focus than 6″ point, your camera has a front-focus problem (it will focus on stuff closer than the point you wanted in focus). If the back of the ruler is in better focus than the 6″ point, your camera has a back-focus problem. If the 6″ point is the most clear point, then you’re all good.
Most DSLRs give you the option of manually fine tuning the auto focus of the lens you are using. So, for example, if your camera is front-focusing, you can manually adjust the camera to “push” the focus plane back a little bit to balance out the issue. Some of the more sophisticated bridge cameras (cameras that come with a permanent zoom lens attached), or even some point-and-shoots have the option of fine tuning focus. If your camera does not have that ability, and it has a front or back focus problem, I strongly recommend taking the camera back because many shots will appear to have a blurry subject, especially when you’re shooting at a wide aperture.
Here’s a great example of a photo that, while it has promise due to the awesomely cute kid it in (my son), it could definitely use some improvement. I used this photo specifically because I didn’t take it. I won’t divulge the culprit, though, for fear of retribution. What makes this photo in need to some “fine tuning”? For starters, because the photographer is practically right on top of my son here, one step closer and the poor kid gets run over. We have a nearly pure vertical angle from camera down to subject. Like I said earlier, on downward angle shots like this, you get little background or context, and the child will look like he always looks in the real world, cute, but short. There is nothing memorable in this photo.
Outside of being on concrete with a handle bar within reach, I have no clue where he is, what he is doing, or why he is wearing those ridiculous sunglasses. If you get down on a knee and take this shot, you get a nice horizontal viewpoint, and the background gives us a story about the picture.
Taking Action Shots in Low Light Situations
In situations where you are taking candid shots and don’t have the time or opportunity to set the scene up (i.e. at your kids basketball game)…it’s still as important as ever to kneel down. Actually, if you are serious enough about your photography to let a salesperson talk you into buying an unnecessarily long and fast telephoto lens (in lieu of making that car payment for the next 6 months), and are standing reasonably far from your kid, get that body of yours all the way down on your belly! It will make whatever the kid is doing much more interesting and dramatic if you see it from a low point. He/she will also appear taller than they are in real life. For a child like my older son, who is very short, it really makes him like his photos more.
If you are shooting action photos of your kid in a poorly lit gym, it will always be a challenge to properly expose the photograph without blurring the subject due to a slow shutter speed. Here’s a step-by-step process to get the best possible exposure with an adequate shutter speed.
STEP 1: Put your camera in Aperture mode (the “A” on the wheel if your camera has a wheel…if no wheel, look in the menus for shooting settings and pick Aperture mode), then set your aperture to the camera’s lowest f-stop setting (the lowest number available as an option). Most point and shoots have a menu you need to navigate through in order to adjust aperture. If you have a more advanced camera, usually there is a dial on the camera directly in front or behind the shutter release which is preset to adjust aperture when spun.
Wait. What the heck is Aperture?
A Quick and Dirty Explanation of Aperture: A camera’s f-stop number (aperture and f-stop are the same thing) is the inverse of a fraction that measures the relative width of the opening inside the lens’ barrel. Relax, there are no math problems dealing with fractions here.
The f-stop number and the width of the lens’ opening are inversely proportional. In other words, when the f-stop number goes up, the opening inside the lens gets smaller…and when the f-stop goes down, the opening gets wider.
For a simple example of aperture, let’s use our eyes. At a high f-stop number, we are squinting our eyes so that the width of the opening is relatively small. With the smallest f-stop number, our eyes are effectively as wide open as our body will allow.
There are all kinds of reasons why you would choose a certain aperture over another. There’s no need to get into all that right now…maybe for another blog post. If you want to remember just one thing about aperture, remember that its simply a measurement of how wide the hole is in the lens where the light passes through.
OK, back on point. Lock your aperture to its smallest setting (widest opening in the barrel). Once you have aperture set, we now move on over to setting your ISO.
STEP 2: Changing your ISO unfortunately adds one huge mixed-up bucket of monkey shit to our understanding of how camera settings work. Just kidding!
ISO is a pretty straight forward exposure characteristic: Basically, ISO is a number which tells us how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. ISO is only tricky because it affects different cameras in different ways. For example, let’s say my camera’s ISO is set to 200, and so is yours. If they are different cameras with different sensor sizes, having the same ISO number does NOT mean both cameras’ sensors will collect the same amount of light.
Here is the universal truth about ISO: The HIGHER the ISO number, the MORE sensitive your sensor is to light…the LOWER the ISO, the LESS sensitive your sensor is to light.
What’s the catch? The higher the ISO number, the more your image’s quality will deteriorate. When your sensor gets REALLY sensitive to light, there’s a greater chance that the sensor will pick up “noise”, which basically looks like that snow you used to see on a TV using rabbit ears for reception. When the TV had poor reception, the TV picked up all kinds of other trash floating around out there, and the TV tube interpreted it to look like flashing colored snow…or something like that.
Always reminds me of Poltergeist, when the girl put her hand on the TV. That movie really freaked me out when I was a kid. I actually had nightmares about that movie for a few weeks after I saw it. I mean, seriously, a guy peels his own face off in front of a mirror in that movie…what the hell were my parents thinking when they let a 10 year old watch that??? Probably the same thing I think about now with my 10 year old…if he’s being quiet, not breaking anything, and not bothering me, it’s cool with me. I am kidding of course…I know everything my 10 year old is doing all of the time. Except for the internet…we let him do whatever he wants on the internet, because from what I have been told, the internet is a bastion of safety, integrity, and void of criminal enterprise.
OK, where were we. At relatively high ISOs you will get hideous noise all over the photo. The term “relatively” in that last sentence is very important, because some cameras can work at high ISOs, while other cameras suck even at relatively low ISOs. Most cameras have a particular threshold ISO number where the amount of noise in the photo becomes unacceptable. That threshold is totally subjective…some viewers don’t mind a little grain, while some others head for the tallest building without fences on the roof if they see even the slightest grain in their shot.
Key Point to Remember: When shopping for a camera, keep this one idea in mind: Generally speaking, the smaller the sensor, the less effective it will work in lower light, higher ISO situations. Those cute little point and shoots that are a steal at around $250? They work great if the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. But, if you head inside…that camera will be blind as a bat without a flash. And, we want to avoid using the on-camera flash of most point-and-shoots, because they are a terribly weak little creature, and that horrid flash of pale white light will make the subject look like they are being interrogated by the CIA in the basement of a shack somewhere near Langley.
But, if you’re willing to spend significantly more for a high quality DSLR, you’ll be rewarded with a sensor that is much larger than the one in those point-and-shoots…a sensor which can suck up all kinds of ambient light, even when there isn’t much light available. How? By rising your ISO and making that bigger sensor more sensitive.
Most smaller point-and-shoots struggle at ISO over 800. The high-end Nikon and Canon full-frame DSLRs can easily handle ISOs approaching the 10,000 range, and even beyond (depending on which camera we’re talking about).
Now, how do we make this ISO number give us some perspective? Think of ISO in terms of doubles. Why? Because each time you double your ISO value, you add one “stop” of light by making your sensor twice as sensitive to light than it was before, which effectively doubles the amount of light captured for the exposure. When you cut the ISO number in half, you go down by one “stop”, and the sensor becomes half as sensitive as it was before, thereby allowing half as much light in the exposure. A “stop” as you may have guessed, is a term that measures the doubling of light which reaches the sensor. Adding a stop means changing the camera’s setting to allow twice as much light in as before you changed anything….going down a stop means whatever you did to the exposure settings, you are now letting in half the light you were before.
Why am I talking about this? ISO can be a very powerful tool to manipulate light when you either can’t, or don’t want to move your aperture and/or shutter speed. This is especially helpful if you’re shooting something fast-moving with little ambient light available…like your kid playing in a gym which uses those new fluorescent bulbs that take three lunar cycles to warm up…and are in lunar cycle #1.
Back to getting the shot of our kid in the gym: we are already at wide-open aperture…now we know how to adjust ISO in order to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze your son while he is in action. But, how do we figure out the best ISO for our current situation?
It goes like this: If the shutter speed is too slow, your son will blur. We do not want your son to blur. In that case, we gotta raise ISO so we can speed up the shutter. Conversely, if you son looks like he is pretty much sharply frozen in time, that’s great….unfortunately, the picture is so grainy with noise, your son looks like he is inside a 1978 Atari game…random colored pixels everywhere that have no rhyme or reason for being there…they just float around…so peacefully, yet so disruptive. In that situation, we gotta tone down the ISO a little…
If you are an experienced photographer and are very familiar with the camera and lens you are using, you can go right to the proper ISO because you know what you need in this situation to freeze action and still get good light. Or, you may have your own style of getting proper exposure. Some people prefer to set shutter speed manually at first, thereby letting the camera control aperture and ISO as variables. Sort of the reverse of what we are doing here. Both ways work just fine.
To freeze action, you will need a shutter speed of around at least 1/500, assuming the action is kinda slow (i.e. taking a shot of your son at the free throw line). If you want to freeze something much faster (i.e. your son in a dead sprint down the floor chasing after the cherry picker on the other team), you gotta at least double shutter speed…1/1000 or more.
TO SUM IT UP
If you don’t have much experience, here’s what ya do: Begin at wide open aperture and ISO 800. I start at 800 because it’s a reasonably sensitive setting, and if your camera has too much noise at 800, well, the world always needs more paperweights.
Put your camera on ISO 800, and take some test shots of players in action. Look at your LCD screen. Be very careful, the LCD is terribly small, and things that look crystal clear in the LCD screen can look horribly blurry on a normal size computer monitor. You can get more accuracy out of your LCD screen by setting it to zoom into the image. I zoom in 100% on my Nikon because, well, Nikon LCD screens were built by someone with a really screwed up, no doubt alcoholic binge induced, sense of humor. Seriously, Nikon’s LCD is barely clear enough to see anything well…let alone something that might have slight motion blur. Anyway, I set the LCD to magnify the image by twice its size, so I can get nice and close to those pixels. If there is motion blur, Ill see it there, right before my eyes begin to bleed from so intensively trying to look through all those evil Nikon LCD pixels.
If you see too much blur, but have an otherwise well-exposed image…raise the ISO to 1600…which will effectively double your shutter speed while letting in the same amount of light as the previous photo (you double the ISO, and the camera automatically compensates by doubling the shutter speed). Shoot an example, and check your LCD screen. Lather, rinse, and repeat until one of two things happens: 1) You created a shot where the action was acceptably sharp and frozen, and the exposure was good, or 2) The noise became so annoying it felt like you were looking through a rabbit eared TV at 2am after the Star Spangled Banner. If #2 occurs, my apologizes, but you either need a gym with better light, or you need a faster lens and/or a better sensor in your camera.
In this image of the running back on my son’s football team absolutely trucking a defender, my aperture was maxed out to f/2.8, and I believe I was at ISO 800, with shutter speed being 1/4000. I seriously overkilled the shutter speed here…it was one of my first test shots that day. I could have dropped down to ISO 200, with a shutter speed of 1/1000, and gotten the exact same exposure you see here, with a slightly higher quality image (because, remember, lower ISO=higher quality image).
TECHNIQUE…and SOME BLABBERING ON ABOUT THE PHILOSOPHY OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Good technique can also compensate for poor conditions. Reminds me of a story…whenever I go to one of my son’s sporting events, and bring along the appropriate equipment…someone will invariably say “Nice lens”, to which I will always say “it helps compensate for a lack of talent”. Funny ’cause its true. Having good equipment (i.e. a fast lens, or a full frame sensor) can definitely make life easier for the photographer.
That said, I am personally more impressed with photographers who produce excellent work under difficult conditions, using equipment that isn’t ideally suited for that environment. That is a TRUE test of an excellent photographer. Working with whatever equipment he has, and by knowing what he can and can’t do with that equipment, compensates on the fly and improvises…resulting in a shot that’s just as good as the lazy slacker’s shot using the best camera and best glass who just sits down, chooses f/2, ISO 800, and never again thinks a single thought about exposure for the entire day. Yeah, he might get some great shots, but he didn’t learn anything…and he didn’t do anything that any millions of other people can easily do if they want to splurge for that equipment.
There is an incredible sense of appreciation of the craft, respect for the history of the craft (since you used techniques that were once pioneered by the best photographers of past generations), and general sense of self-accomplishment when you are able to catch a really neat photo when facing adversity (i.e. you lost the lens you really needed for this shot, and had to settle with working with a lens that’s not idea for the shot….or your camera died, and were forced to use your backup camera, which does not work nearly as well in low light as your #1 camera). It’s that kind of stuff which makes photography a spiritually rewarding adventure. Even if you ended up missing the shots, you still learned a great deal about the limits of the equipment you used…and that will definitely come in handy at some time in the future.
That’s why you will never stop learning in this field. There are an infinite number of possible photographic challenges just on this one planet. You could spend a career photographing just one line of beach along California, and still one day, at 76 years old, run into a situation you hadn’t seen before.
OK, on to some pointers for technique: Get that support elbow at a vertical angle directly under the camera or lens you’re supporting…its at that angle where your support arm offers the most stability, which helps keep camera shake down. This is especially important for heavy lenses, like the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, or the “Hand Cannon” Nikon 200mm f/2.
Another pointer: when ready to take the shot, don’t hold your breath…keep gently exhaling…and then gently slide your index finger down over the shutter release. Don’t jerk your finger or quickly press the shutter. That can cause more shake. And don’t hold your breath…that causes muscles all over your body to tense up and twitch. We don’t want tense…we want relaxed. OK!??!?
One more pointer: when kneeling, sit up straight. Not only will that give you more stability, it will take the weight off your back. Your legs are the strongest muscles in your body…make them do the work. If you ever get into using large telephoto lenses, your back will thank you for getting into the habit of using good posture.On a more serious note, if a few of the people in the photo are so much taller than the shortest among them, make the tall guys stand behind the shorter ones. Moore depth gives you a higher ceiling to work with.
This is my son, after one of this football games. It’s one of my favorite shots of him playing sports…for several reasons. But, the most important characteristic here, to me, is that what you are seeing in this picture is really not much of what Tyler looked like when the shot was taken.
It was immediately following the game…and the coach had just given the post game spirit speech. Then he coach made an announcement that candy and soda are being served on the other side of the filed. Before the coach could finish the sentence, the kids bolted for the sweets. I was on the far side of the field, about 50 yards from Tyler. He was in full sprint mode to the candy table, and I was running as fast as I could to get close enough for a cool helmet off shot.
What’s so cool is that Tyler looks like he is casually walking: He was actually in a real hurry to get to that table, and he was moving briskly. When he sorta is in between a walk and a run, Tyler has this really cute way of scooting his feet back and forth, without his knees bending and his feet barely getting off the ground.
I had already been shooting all day, so I knew exactly what settings I needed to freeze him up:
My focal length was at 200mm, f-stop at 3.5, almost fully wide open, ISO at 200, shutter speed 1/4000. It was a very bright sunny day, and that fake turf on the field reflected the sun quite severely, making for almost unusually bright ambiance. That’s not a bad thing because it allowed me to shoot at low ISO, giving me the best possible image quality (the least amount of noise)…and allowed me to stop down just a little bit.
Mission was accomplished. I yelled “Tyler” as impolitely loud as I could…it got his attention, and for the one half of a second he looked over my way, I got this shot in. It makes him look like he is in a very deliberate, serious mood, contemplating the physicality of the game he had just played in, and totally looking like a badass. He was nothing like that at all. He had just been laughing but quickly stopped to squint his eyes to try to located me…and then went right back to scooting over to the sugar.
I was still a good bit far away from him when I got the shot, but I was using the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 lens, and I was zoomed all the way out to 200. I LOVE the 70-200…it’s one of only two zooms I own…everything else on the lens shelf is a prime. The 70-200 f/2.8 comes in handy for all kinds of shooting, and it’s built to survive being run over by a battleship. And, as you can see in this example above, even when shot at its longest focal length, there’s no image distortion, no softness whatsoever, or light falloff to the corners that I am able to see. It’s not quite as good as the Nikon 200mm f/2, but its a third the price.
OK, I think that’s enough for today. I hope you all laughed and cried along with me as I wrote this. Any questions, I would love to hear from you. If you see anything in here that is factually incorrect, please let me know so I can bribe you to keep your mouth shut after I correct the mistake. If you see anything in here that is subjectively incorrect, you need to pick up a dictionary and start with the words that begin with “sub”.
Enjoy your week!!! And, if you can, try getting some shots of your kids, or pets, indoors in low light. Play around with ISO at wide-open aperture, and see how much your camera can tolerate. If you made it all the way through this blog post, I already know you can tolerate pretty much anything, especially since you popped those Methylphenidate capsules before sitting down in front of the computer….
Final Note: any of you ever wish to discuss a question you may have about your own experiences…or if you want someone to objectively offer advice and critique your photos for you, I’d be more than happy to help you out…at no cost of course. I am as nonjudgmental of a person you will ever meet…and I harbor no preconceived notions or expectations about anyone’s work. I enjoy viewing photographs by starting with a blank canvas in my mind…and I let it be filled in as I study the photo. And, I am selfish. Seeing some of your awesome photos will help inspire me to get out and shoot more.
Hope to hear from you!