Blue Skies

I received a question from Sally, who has a jewelry shop here and also writes about her art in a blog here.  Sally isn’t happy about the way the sky looks in her photos, saying that they’re washed out and flat.  Her camera of choice is a Leica D-Lux 3, one of Leica’s great little compacts.  I looked at Sally’s blog, and found some beautiful photos (some with really great looking skies).  But I also found a few that did look a bit washed out, where the blue looked a bit too white.

Skies can be tricky for a number of reasons, the biggest being that they’re often flat, and look gray or white even to our eyes.  And as I discussed in  a few previous posts, if our eyes can’t handle a scene, there’s little chance that a digital camera can.  So, as with many scenes, the first step is being realistic with your expectations.  Take a close look at the sky.  Is it really something you want as part of the scene?  Often, it’s not, so don’t just keep clicking.  Recompose and keep the sky out of the frame.  There, that was easy.  But let’s assume for a minute that you’re on vacation (or is it holiday?) and it’s a beautiful day, with blue skies and a few white puffy clouds, and you just have to capture a few shots.  No problem, here are two simple things you need to remember:

  1. Keep the sun behind you.  Anywhere behind you between your left and right shoulders is fine, and you can even cheat a little bit on either side.  You just can’t shoot in the direction of the sun, even if it’s not in the frame, and expect a decent shot.
  2. Meter on the sky, not the earth.  If the sky is that important to your composition, then sacrifice a bit of what might be in the lower half of the frame.  You can’t have everything, so if you really want a beautiful sky you’ll just have to compromise.  If an earth-bound subject is close enough, you might want to consider using a fill flash to keep the lighting balanced.

Okay, those are the two simplest ways to get better sky shots.  But here are two more;

  1. Use a polarizing filter – it can make a huge difference, especially on shots where the sun is at your left or right shoulder.  Always keep in mind that a polarizing filter will reduce the amount of light getting to the sensor, so a proper exposure will require a change in aperture and/or shutter speed.  If you have a compact like the D-Lux 3, adding a polarizer is a little trickier than adding one to an SLR lens, but it is possible.  You can even hand-hold the filter in front of the lens if need be.  And speaking of hand-held, try holding one side of your polarized sunglasses in front of the lens of your point-and-shoot.  Shown below is a “with” and “without” sunglasses example (shots taken about 5 seconds apart).  Not a huge difference, but the one with the polarizer certainly has a deeper blue sky and the clouds are a little more three-dimensional.  One other thing — this sunglasses trick should only be used on compact cameras, not SLRs. 
  2. Post-process.  It’s not cheating, so go ahead and do it.  Many photo editing programs (even the free ones) now have features that allow selective editing, and it’s usually a very simple process.  So unless you’re a purist who frowns upon digital editing of any kind, give it a try.

Before I finish, just a quick note about the flag photo at the top of this post … My wife happens to use a D-Lux 3.  She took this shot without any special settings or filters, and other than cropping, no adjustments were made to the image.  The camera was in “Program AE” mode (automatic) and the metering was set to “multiple.”  What made this shot work were (1) where she stood in relation to the sun (it’s high but off to her left), and (2) where she pointed the camera to meter the exposure (the sky).  Nice and simple!

Keep those questions coming, and until next time … Happy Shooting!

High Contrast Scenes

I received a question from Ricki, who makes really cool fabric banners, pennants and flags, and also writes a blog about plants and flowers and such.  She uses a Panasonic DMC-TZ1 camera, and often has a problem with loss of detail on photos of white flowers.  Here’s an example:

An here’s the corresponding histogram (click here if you need a refresher about histograms):

I can certainly see Ricki’s concern.  The white flowers sure do lack detail, and the histogram illustrates the selective overexposure (the high vertical bar on the far right).  No amount of post-processing is going to recover that lost detail.

So what went wrong?  Well, it looks like an unfortunate combination of a few things:

  • That scene has a lot of contrast, with the bright white flowers set against the shadowed green background.  If we were to look at that scene with our eyes, we wouldn’t have any trouble seeing detail in both the flower and the background.  That’s because our sense of sight has a very high “dynamic range.”  In other words, we do a pretty good job of resolving both bright and dark portions of our field of view at the same time.  Digital cameras, in short, do not.  So when we come across scenes like this, we need to change our expectations and compromise a little bit.  We need to accept that we’re not going to get the same image out of the camera that we can see with our eyes.  But what we can do is make sure that the important parts of the image are properly exposed.
  • The Panasonic DMC-TZ1 is a pretty darn good camera overall, but one of its known weaknesses is its inability to handle high-contrast scenes like this one.  How’s that for bad luck?
  • The camera’s metering mode was set to “multiple.”  That means that when it was judging what kind of aperture and shutter speed to use to get an acceptable image, it considered the entire field of view.  Since that field of view was mostly green and brown background, that part of the image got a lot more weight in the camera’s analysis.  The exposure was pretty good for the background, not so good for the flowers.
  • The camera’s exposure compensation was set to +0.66.  That means that after all the metering was done, the camera boosted the exposure even more.
  • And last, but certainly not least, the flash fired.  It’s hard to tell from the image what the lighting conditions were like at the time this was shot.  Regardless, using a flash in this situation is nearly always a bad idea.

Now that we know what went wrong, what can we do to fix it?  I took a few mid-morning test shots (I don’t usually like to shoot in direct sun unless there’s a special effect I’m going for, but I did so in this case to illustrate a point).  Although the sun wasn’t up at mid-day height, it was certainly high enough to brightly illuminate some white petunias that my wife planted.  I put my camera in “spot metering” mode, aimed the camera into some green shadowy areas, let the camera figure out an exposure, recomposed and got this shot:

Can you see how nicely exposed the green area is?  Great, but Ricki wants to show detail in the flower, not the greens.  So this time I metered on one of the white petals, and this was my result:

Well, that’s a little better.  But I still don’t like it quite as much as one I took in the evening about an hour before sunset.  It’s the same flower pot, but on the opposite (west) side.  The evening sun, although still evident, was lower in the sky than during my morning shoot, and was therefore more subdued and softer.  I didn’t even use any special metering.  I just put my camera in “matrix” metering mode (similar to Panasonic’s “multiple” mode), composed and shot.  Here’s the result:

I think that’s a keeper!

So, what did we learn about shooting white flowers (or any white objects)? In summary:

  1. Evaluate the scene and decide what’s important.
  2. Learn a little more about your camera.  In this case, spot metering might be useful (page 75 of the DMC-TZ1 user manual).  Meter on the part of the scene that you care about.
  3. Don’t use a flash unless you’re absolutely sure about what it’s going to do for your shot.
  4. Consider the quality of the lighting.  It’s much easier to get better photos when the sun is lower on the horizon and not so bright.  The contrast of the scene will be lower, the detail will show more clearly and the colors of the entire composition will be more pleasing.  More predictable still would be shooting when the sky is overcast (I discuss that in detail here).

Keep those questions coming, and until next time … Happy Shooting!

Q and A Time

Up until now, I’ve been deciding what to write about based on both my own interests and what I think would be most useful to all of you.  But maybe I’m neglecting issues that need to be addressed.  So here’s your chance to speak up!

Ask your questions, any questions.  No guarantees, but I’ll do my best to answer them in a future post.  And not only will you get your question answered, but I’ll also feature your shop, blog or website!  Here’s all you have to do:

  • Send me your question either by email at “” or by using the “Contact Me” form on this page.
  • Even if your question is general, be as specific as you can so I don’t miss your point.  In other words … “Why do all the people in my photos look pale?” is a better question than “What’s wrong with the colors in my photos?”.
  • If you’re asking a question specific to your photographs, please include samples or provide me with a link to those images.  And tell me as much as you can about how you took the shots.
  • If you’re asking a question specific to your camera, don’t forget to let me know what kind of camera it is (and if it’s an SLR, tell me what lens you used, too).
  • If you’re going to ask me about beer, or politics, my thoughts about Tiger Woods or anything else of a personal nature, be forewarned that you might be offended by my answers.

I’m looking forward to this already.  Until next time … Happy Shooting!

Aperture & Depth of Field

In this post, I’ll be talking mainly about how your camera’s aperture setting affects “depth of field,” the portion of your image which appears to be in focus.  Those using SLR cameras and the right lens really have it quite easy, while point-and-shoot users are a bit more limited.  And for those of you with P&S cameras without any manual or semi-automatic options, controlling depth of field is even more tricky, but it can still be done.  Lots to talk about, but first a little background information.

Your camera’s aperture, or f-stop, is a relative number.  In other words, it’s a ratio of two other numbers, and that ratio only means something for your particular camera, lens and settings.  Only relative comparisons can be made between different cameras and lenses.  This aperture ratio is simply the focal length of your lens divided by the diameter of the aperture (the opening that lets light into your camera).  All right, had enough?  Here are the things you need to know:

  • f/4 = f4 = F4 (same thing, written three different ways)
  • Lower f values = larger openings = more light (and “shallower” depth of field)
  • Higher f values = smaller openings = less light (and “deeper” depth of field)

Simple, isn’t it?  Here’s are two examples showing a page in an old (1936) Webster’s dictionary.  These shots were taken with a P&S, using macro mode and no zoom.  I focused on the phrase “To misconduct oneself” at the bottom of the page.  The photos capture about 7″ of the page, from bottom to top.   I set the aperture at two different values and let the camera choose a shutter speed.  Nothing else was changed between the two shots.

Can you see the differences?  First, compare the hinges (upper left corner).  Notice how the f/2.8 shot is kind of soft, while the f/8.0 shot is better defined.  Next check out some individual words.  In the f/2.8 shot, the word farthest up the page (in the middle column) that can be read is “mis-comfort,” and that’s about 1-1/2″ up from the focal point.  The f/8.0 shot gives us an image that can be read all the way up to the word “mischief-making,” about 3-1/2″ up.  That’s quite a difference!  So which one is better?  Neither!  That’s right, it just depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.  But now that you see the kind of impact a simple change in aperture can have, let’s talk a little about how to make it work for you.

First, check out your camera to see if it has an “aperture priority” mode (or “A” or “Ap” or “Av” mode or something like that).  If it does, lucky you!  Now, find your user manual and learn how to use it.  It’s really quite easy.  Experiment a little bit, do some tests like I did above, and see what works best for your product and the type of image you’re trying to produce.  Along the way (just for fun), pay attention to the relationship between aperture and shutter speed.

So why would you want an image with a shallow depth of field?  Well, if done properly, it can certainly give the photo a more “artistic” look.  It can also be helpful if you’re trying to highlight one particular item, or even part of an item, in the composition.  Or maybe your background is just plain ugly and you want to hide it!  Whatever the reason, a shallow depth of field can make your photos a bit more special.  See for yourself — here are two pretty cool examples from Etsy shops erinf115 and KaelinDesign.

But what if your camera doesn’t have the aperture priority option and you want an image with a shallow depth of field?  Don’t worry, all hope is not lost.  Regardless of what you’re shooting, you can trick your camera into selecting a low aperture value by putting it in “Sports” or “Action” or “Kids&Pets” mode (whatever mode your camera has that’s supposed to be for moving subjects).

Besides varying the aperture, there are a number of other shooting tricks that allow you to control depth of field, but that’s an entirely different discussion best left for another day.  Meanwhile, see what you can do with your aperture adjustments.  I’d love to see some of your results!

Until next time … Happy Shooting!