Friday, March 21, 2014

on photography


I can’t help but wonder why the first thing out of people’s mouths when I show them a picture I’ve taken is so often “What kind of camera do you use?” I suppose these are the days of automation, and cameras have become increasingly “smart”; they automatically expose images for the light hitting the sensor; they automatically focus on the subject; they automatically adjust the white balance. So it just seems natural to assume that a good picture is the result of a really high-end digital camera.

But I present a counterargument:


One of these images was taken with my Nikon D7000. The other was taken with my iPhone 4s. Can you guess which is which?

If all a good photo depended on were the technological prestige of the camera by which was taken, then these two images wouldn’t even be comparable. Yet they are . . . because photography is less about the camera than about how you use it.


1. Know the light.

Light is as integral to your photography as your camera itself. In its absence, your camera can’t focus, can’t expose, and therefore can’t render an image. And when light is present, it can be the one factor that decides between a good picture and a crappy one.

There are three components that play into how light is rendered in your camera: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Shutter speed measures the length of time that light is allowed into the sensor; aperture measures the width of the opening into which the light flows; and ISO measures the sensor’s sensitivity to the incoming light. If you study these carefully, you will know how to expose an image manually—which is always, always better than letting the camera do it automatically.

In addition to knowing how your camera processes light, you need to be alert to the characteristics of the light itself. Learn to understand its qualities. Is the color temperature of the light warm or cool? Is it harsh or diffused? What direction is it coming from? What kind of light would make this picture outstanding?

For example, the first picture below is taken in warm, diffused backlight; the second is in the exact same location, but from the opposite side—so the light is now warm, diffused frontlight. I personally believe the backlight does the picture more justice, because frontlight tends to wash away shadow texture and facial contour.


2. Know your subject.

This is essential whether you’re photographing a person, a landscape, or a wild animal—though all in different ways. People are obviously the most complex; not only do you need to be conscious of their appearance (what lighting will best flatter their complexion? what pose will show off their best physical qualities?) but also of their personality. Everyone has different mannerisms, different smiles, different demeanors in front of the camera. Pick these things out and work with them. Don’t show me a face, show me a soul.

With landscapes, you’ll always be ahead of the game if you know the area well, but even if you don’t, you can learn to ask the right questions. Where on the horizon does the sun rise and set? Are there textures to be aware of—like the thousands of blue-green treetops in the Simcoe Mountains, or a sea of long golden grass? Keep the weather in mind as well; a clear, windy day after a rainstorm is often the best time to get razor-sharp images of distant landforms, though cloud cover or haze can add interest and drama in the right situations.

Animals can be unpredictable, but a little observation goes a long way. I kept an eye on the hummingbirds for awhile before I set up to take pictures. I noticed that they always came to the feeder alone, but took turns; the female Rufous would come by, followed by a male Costa’s, then a male Rufous. Then there would be a long break before the cycle started over. I also noticed that they preferred the feeder opening farthest from me, so I locked my focus on that point; as long as I avoided eye contact with them, they were happy to hover less than two feet away from me.


3. Know your equipment.

I touched on this briefly when I mentioned shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Every camera uses these factors in some way to create an image. With some cameras, like my iPhone 4s, there is no manual override—the camera chooses its own settings automatically based on the light it senses. However, you can still choose what part of the picture your camera-phone exposes for (i.e., if you choose a dark part of the image, a longer shutter speed, higher ISO, and/or wider aperture will be used) by pressing the screen and then moving the yellow box to the area you choose. That’s what I did in the hummingbird picture I took with my iPhone. (Check out this link for more tips on cellphone photography.)

If you’re using a digital SLR, you need to be aware that different lenses change what your camera can do. While shutter speed and ISO are the responsibility of the camera body, the lens is what decides your aperture options. A standard 18-55mm zoom lens will have a maximum aperture range of around f/3.5 to f/5.6, while a 50mm prime lens will usually be f/1.4 or f/1.8. The smaller numbers indicate an ability to open the aperture wider (let in more light), so you can use them in darker situations with less camera blur and/or in bright situations to create that deliciously soft background blur we call “bokeh.” (Check out this link for a thorough explanation of manual DSLR photography in a nutshell.)

Obviously, my iPhone can’t do everything my D7000 can do no matter how well I understand its functions. But the relative quality of the pictures produced by either one can be dramatically improved with some study and practice. Overcome the temptation to just “point and shoot”!

4. Edit fearlessly.

Never be ashamed of editing a picture. Photography “purists” who don’t believe in editing are, I believe, missing a vital part of the art that is photography.

The plain fact is that the camera cannot record a scene with the accuracy of the human eye. As good as digital technology is, there are still flaws in the way the camera records color, light, and depth of field. Every photograph I  use for blogging, printing, or selling has been color-enhanced and retouched at least a little bit. And there are some photos that I edit more heavily—to remove distracting elements, to make the subject stand out better, or just to experiment with my own ideas. I’m not “cheating,” I’m creating.


5. See.

Above all, don’t just look at the world around you—see it. Observe it. Notice its habits and patterns and nuances. Pursue beauty, and constantly sharpen your ability to relay that beauty accurately to others. Watch for distractions—misplaced shadows or ugly backgrounds or something blurry in the foreground; watch for good compositional elements to frame or balance or intensify the photograph. When you take a picture, you are communicating to others through your own line of sight—and if you don’t learn to see with more than just your eyes, your message will be void of meaning for anyone else.


Those five rules apply to photography at every level. They are the five attributes that separate artist from amateur. The non-photographic public will probably continue to unabashedly ask “What camera did you use?” every time you take a good picture, but learn to take it as a misdirected compliment. :)

Oh, and the answers to my pop quiz:

Taken with my Nikon D7000 and 50mm f/1.8 lens (original on the left, edit on the right):

Humbybirds 022-2HummingbirdCamera

Taken with my iPhone 4s (original on the left, edit on the right):


Happy shooting!


  1. What a wonderful post, Hallie. I hate the question "What camera did you use," because it means people assume that the camera did all the work and all I did was point it in the general direction and push the shutter. "They" can't seem to be able to grasp how much work a great photograph can take. :)

    #4... yes. I need to start working on that. ;) I've never edited, (besides an occasion crop or something minor like that,) not because I I'm a "purist," but just because I've never invested the money and time in an editing program. What is the program you would recommend most?

    i love that photo of Hannah. So gorgeous!! :)

  2. This post is seriously the best. I'm pinning for future reference for my blog photos :)

    And for the photos taken by your D7000 and your iPhone . . . I couldn't tell :)

    walking in the air.

  3. I've heard that telling a photographer "Your camera takes good pictures." is like telling a cook "Your oven makes great food."
    This is so so true.



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