4 More Photo Tips Gleaned from the 365 Full Frame Project

We are in the final week of the 365 Full Frame Project, and it seems fitting to share four more photo tips I have picked up over the past year. You can read the first six tips here, which include framing, the rule of thirds, minimalism and sunrises/sunsets.

And with that, let’s begin.

1) If It’s Not Sharp, then Don’t Post It (Unless)

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It’s tempting to post a good capture with a subject that you like even though it’s a little fuzzy. Don’t do it. You need the subject to be in focus. Yes, there are photos that have fuzzy continuation or depth of field and bokeh, which make for a great image. But those photos have a subject that is clearly in focus.

A fuzzy pic is not a good pic, no matter how strong the subject and composition is. The only reason to keep it is for sentimental value. If that’s the case, cool. Memories are precious.

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There is another exception, which is if you are intentionally blurring or distorting a photograph. In that case, go for it. Art is art.

2) Rich Vibrant Color Is a Technique

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People remark on the color I get in my photos, particularly in the skies. They often assume the shots are HDR. Probably one in every 25 photos I post uses HDR processing. In reality, a good part of rich coloring is the way the photo is shot and edited.

One critical aspect of color is exposing for it. When you shoot manually, you can choose what you expose in your photo. So when I take a sunset or sunrise pic, I expose for the sun or the most colorful part of the sky.

Remember, a camera is just a computer that interprets light. Most cameras offer several interpretations (e.g. Standard, Flat, Portrait, Vivid, Landscape) for the same shot. When you manually expose a shot, you are helping the computer by directing its function rather than letting it make a best guess.

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On the editing, HDR lets you expose for the sky and then take a second or third photo and expose other aspects in the scene and then blend. This produces rich color and detail throughout the photo. But not everyone likes HDR, nor does every photographer have the patience to blend the images.

When I expose a single shot for the sky, I open the highlights to reduce glare and pull out the rich color. I adjust whites and blacks accordingly. From there, normal edits on vibrance and contrast finish the job.

I also open the shadows in Lightroom to expose the foreground or the dark parts. But that’s not a universal approach for me. Sometimes I leave the image silhouetted like I did in this pic.

3) Use Filters Mindfully

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Whether you create presets of your workflow, buy presets or use a tool like Intensify, you are using filters. I have heard the no filter argument, and I know what classic photographers used to do. They altered their photos in the darkroom.

When you edit photos using presets others filters, it’s an attempt to make it better. Generally, people like the photos more.

The above photo of the Ngorongoro Crater was very difficult to produce. The crater had some intense light elements with diverse shadows and light. There were cloud walls on the rim and to the left, somewhat filtering the sunset. The final production involved merging three different photos (one to the left, one in the middle and one to the right, but not an HDR overlay) in Photoshop to get the right exposure across the crater, significant Lightroom time, and about three different brushed Intensify filters in parts of the photo.

The real issue that happens with filters is when people mindlessly filter images without thinking about what they are communicating. While the haphazard filtered movement produces a few diamonds, the real product is rarely photography. However, it’s what makes people happy when they Instagram or Facebook or whatever. This also gives a real photographer an opportunity to distinguish themselves with strong unique images.

I believe a photo is a person’s interpretation of something they witnessed, realistic or abstract. Each photo is a unique experience. I never use the exact same edit or a universal filter for touch-ups.

4) Black and White Works

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A good color photograph almost always makes for a good black and white photo. But so does a photo with blown out highlights, bad light (for example, your atypical middle of the day shot) or muted tones. I try not to produce photos that are shot in mid-day, but sometimes you don’t have a choice.

Often I produce these shots as black and white works. The above shot is the el train in Chicago, and it was shot in the morning blue hour before dawn. However, it came out looking dusty and blue. So I went black and white.

The editing was done as an HDR edit in Photomatix using three exposures merged on top of each other. I significantly boosted the contrast further and gave the photo a vignette to make it even more brooding. As Serge Ramelli notes, going over the top in black and white seems to work.

What tips would you add?

6 Photo Tips Gleaned from the 365 Full Frame Project

It has been five months since I started the 365 Full Frame project. Here are six lessons learned from my immersive photography experience to date:

1) Framing is Everything

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You can edit a photo all you want, but it’s much easier to produce a good photo when your original capture is solid. Find your story and focus on it.

In some settings there can be many eye catching things to include in your photograph, but these can distract the viewer away from your message. Whenever possible try to frame your photo so that it focuses on your subject. Leave out as many distractions as you can. If you cannot frame the photo while capturing it, crop and if necessary (or possible), edit out distractions.

2) Don’t Take the Rule of Thirds Literally

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The rule of thirds is very helpful to new photographers. For those that don’t know, the rule of thirds suggests framing your picture by dividing the frame in thirds vertically and horizontally. You then frame your subject in the middle square and capture the shot.

At the same time if taken literally, the rule of thirds can create formulaic photos with every subject in the dead center of the image. Over the past couple of months I have tried to break away from perfectly centered images. So long as my subject touches the primary center — even if it just grazes the rectangle — then I am good.

3) Edit Your Photos

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There are purists who say photos shouldn’t be “photoshopped” or edited. They are wrong. Some of the most iconic film photos of yesterday were significantly altered in the darkroom. If the no filter crowd likes bad photos then God bless them, but the more time you invest in processing quality shots, the better they will look.

4) A Take-Away from the Minimalist Crowd

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That being said, some photos can be overproduced. And God knows sometimes I intentionally create light intense photos because that’s the look I want. This Capitol Building shot is one where I did that to emphasize the scaffolding and the lighting.

Minimalists like images that are edited as a touch up only, instead focusing on the capture. They edit in LightRoom, but just enough to make clean, crisp photographs. My thoughts are make a great image, and when possible, do so with as little editing as possible.

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This dawn image features very little editing. Per the minimalist link, 80% of the work was in the Basic Light Room panel. I opened the shadows and reduced the highlights. I sharpened the image and punched up the color contrast. Then I enabled lens correction. And that was it. The same is true of the Frosty, the Snowman image that opens this post.

Do only what you think is necessary to create a good image. Follow your heart. Every photo doesn’t have to be an over-wrought 500 Pixels gem.

5) Sunsets and Sunrises are Like Bait

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I stopped taking as many sunset and sunrise shots recently. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I have found them to be less challenging as of late, in large part because I have shot all the local vistas in my immediate neighborhood. While sunrises and sunsets are photo bait for likes and what most people seem to enjoy, it’s not necessarily the most challenging subject.

There are a couple of short trips that may yield an opportunity this month. But I will likely revisit sunrise and sunset pictures in earnest this January when the earth’s tones are muted by the dead of winter. The harshness of the land in this light interests me and presents a challenge. The soft oranges, pinks and reds are less of a challenge these days.

6) People Are Difficult Subjects

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Photographing people is hard. I am not talking abut the smiley pics you see on Facebook. In many ways those are easy, but they don’t strike me as good or sincere. In fact, I see most smiling pics as fake, unless they are in the moment.

Capturing people’s spirit, their true essence, is the challenge, and it’s one that I fail at often. Every month, I rent some studio time and photograph someone, usually a friend who volunteers. There is much to learn with retouching here, but I hope to get better at photographing people over the next seven months.

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What tips would you add? Or, what are your thoughts on the 365 Full Frame Project to date?

Building Visual Narratives with Photographs

Melissa Farlow and Ami Vitale taught a National Geographic Traveler Seminar on storytelling through photography this past Sunday here in Washington, DC. It was a wide ranging seminar that covered basic tips on photography, storytelling, editing, photographing people, and gear.

Creating stories through photographs requires more than the rule of thirds, or f-stop, ISO, and shutter speed balance. For most of us, photographs are personal, capturing a moment in that we can’t ever recapture. When we show people the beauty of the world, we may care about it more. That being said, technical things do matter in telling a visual story.

Here are my notes from the event. Wherever possible, I tried to illustrate certain points by following them with some of my own photographs.

Basic Tips

Mid-day light is a photographers bane. But avoiding the sunlight can be a good rule to break, too. Shooting into the light can offer fantastic contrasts. High noon offers fantastic light inside, it streams inside. Take advantage of window light.

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Flash can be great, but avoid metering the whole photograph. While this is standard procedure for a pro portrait, telling a story can often best be told using highlights.

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Digital cameras today can pick up the subtlety of gentle light. A singular remote flash and reflector can do more than you might think. Less is more. Take your flash off the camera, it destroys the mood (and trust) with your subject. A remote flash creates much more drama.

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Light creates mood with landscapes. We shoot based on where the sun is. Light drives what the primary subject is, so pay attention. Dusk is a great time to shoot, creating dramatic nightscapes. At night you can use a slow capture on a tripod and the. One cool tip is to use a flashlight to illuminate a subject as you take the slow capture.

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Bad weather and clouds create drama. Embrace it as an opportunity. You can get a rain jacket for your camera, and also bring a shammy. Morning shots allow for additional drama with fog, mist, frozen breath, and the light quality.

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Motion with people may actually work with slower shutter speeds, particular when there is fire, water and smoke present. Panning works and creates a different take on action. Blurs add motion if it is done right. Take some time and shoot for a while. Experiment. This is true for long exposures, too.

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Look for layers: Back drops, foreground, people, buildings, trees, light can all add layers. Water creates mirroring and mood. Think about the rule of thirds differently. Are there layers in the thirds? Change your perspective, get high, get low on the ground.

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Don’t shoot constantly. Give people time to stop posing, and take more natural images. Be there for a while and become a part of the scene. Allow people to come to their natural rhythm and be themselves.

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Moments matter. Try to capture people together because relationships make for great contrast on camera. Animals and people together can show you some great natural shots. If you are aware you can capture moments as they happen.

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Telling Simple Stories

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With photographs you can tell a complete story. Photograph one person, and show their life. By taking photos over time, you can tell a complete story. This applies to any subject, even a forest or a landscape. Seasons and time show different aspects of a person or a place. That tells a simple complete story.

Elements include a story opener, sense of place, portraits, moments, details for context, and a mystery or a surprise. You want closure to end the story.

Putting photographs together to tell a narrative is extremely difficult. Singular shots are easy, but a visual story is very difficult. This is what separates great photographers. Photo journalists help people imagine how important a story is.

When you read a story in a newspaper you only get one angle. A photo journalist goes further to show more elements.

You provide a sense of place, a picture a landscape that opens up the whole scene. You can provide a sweeping view or be in the middle of it.

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Portraits can be tight and up close, or you can provide context with a sense of place. That helps tell the story. Portraits can be more. They help us relate to people.

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Pay attention to little details, they make a huge difference. Showing a bunch of hands together can show more unity than a group of people. Feet and hands can tell a lot.

Storytelling moments are probably the most important part of a story. You have to show people’s moods. Capture emotion. For example, joy in dire straits is powerful. Humor is so important, because it allows people seeing the story relate to the people no matter what the situation.

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Quiet images make as much of an impact as a busy one. There are always quiet moments that contrast action. Together you have a powerful story.

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Ending your story has a traditional cliche, people walking away or leaving. But it can also be a moment. If you go early and stay late, you capture moments that can serve the end of a story; the closing of a door, the room emptying (or just beginning to fill) or a nicely layered image. The classic window shot can work well as a closure. Dusk also offers a great opportunity to take shots that empty stories.

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If you would like an example of a complete story told in this fashion, I applied the National Geographic story rubric to my xPotomac post on Monday.

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