I Like This II

Sometimes, rather than discussing specific photographic techniques, it can be fun and informative to study and comment on a photo that “just looks right.”  If we spend enough time looking (and I mean really looking), we can begin to see all the individual components that add up to a really great shot.

Here’s another of my favorites, this one from Kaelin Design, a shop specializing in beautifully crafted, hand forged jewelry:

Kaelin has an interesting story about what she went through to get this shot (but that’s for her to tell).  As for me, I just get to analyze another great photo.  So, why do I like this shot enough to do an entire post about it?  The answer, I think, is that the photo is just as artistic as the the earrings themselves.  It’s not just a picture of something Kaelin happens to have for sale; rather, it’s an extension of those earrings.  It’s like getting two works of art for the price of one!

But as I described in earlier posts, it’s all the little things that add up to one successful composition.  Here’s what I like:

  • The rotation of the image — Is it necessary?  No, it’s not.  Does it make a difference?  Absolutely.  If you are skeptical, check it out for yourself.  Grab a copy of this image and rotate it about 30 degrees clockwise, which sets the background surface horizontal.  What do you think?  Still a great shot?  Oh yeah, but it’s not nearly as interesting as the original.
  • The color scheme — Look closely, it’s not black and white.  These are the real colors, folks, with just enough tint in the silver to give life to the earrings.  And the black background works perfectly, adding interest without competing with the subject.
  • The background texture — The simplicity of the swirl just begs for a textured background.  Sure, a flat background would work – it just wouldn’t work nearly as well.
  • Depth of field #1 — Remember how I said that I like the textured background?  I wouldn’t like it nearly as much if the entire frame was filled with it.  I don’t think that you would either.
  • Depth of field #2 — Perfect positioning of the earring in the background, along with great utilization of a 60mm macro lens at f/5 provide a really cool look.  The in-focus earring complements its out-of-focus counterpart, and vice versa.
  • The cropping — Due to the 30-degree rotation, this image really has to be cropped in a 1:1 aspect ratio like you see, and the positioning of the earrings in the frame is spot on.  It’s a simple, yet very effective, technique.

I hope that you enjoyed analyzing this photo as much as I have (and maybe even picked up a  few tips along the way).  Next time you see a shot that you really like, take a good, long look and see if you can put your finger on what makes it special.

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

Don’t Make a Rookie Mistake

Have you ever noticed an Etsy listing where, if you clicked on one of the photos to get a better view, the display size of that photo actually gets smaller?  I have — quite a few times.  In fact, I happened across a few forums lately where the author was asking “what’s wrong with my pictures?” or for advice about how to get “crisp, clear photos.”  And of course the nice folks who were trying to help gave the typical advice about using the “little flower setting” on the camera or building a light box or, my favorite, using image editing software.  It turns out the biggest problem was simply that the uploaded photos were just too darn small.  Rookie mistake, nasty consequences.

I wrote in some detail about image size here, but as a reminder, here’s what Etsy tells us:

The minimum size for your photo should be 570 pixels wide. We retain the aspect ratio of your original, so the height is variable.

We recommend using an image that is around 800-1000 pixels wide. Using an original image of this size lets shoppers use the Zoom button to see the larger image.

To illustrate how image size affects viewed image quality, I thought I would demonstrate using some simulations.  I chose examples that are noticeable enough, but not necessarily extreme (although there are a few of those out there).  Below you’ll find four separate sets of images, all set to Etsy’s 570 pixel default width.  The top photo in each set is how your “un-zoomed” Etsy image would look if your upload was 800 pixels wide (when zoomed, these top images would naturally get larger and still look great).  The bottom photo in each set shows the corresponding image if your upload was only 400 pixels wide (when “zoomed,” these images would get smaller but sharper).

So take a look, see what you think, and remember to pay attention to those image sizes!

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

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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 “greenpixmail@gmail.com” 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!