Photo play, experimentation & thought process

    This image for Image Layouts addon

    Ok, so you've gone out to take pics, and you snap a shot off...

    For many people just starting out, this is where they might think "Now what?"

    Obviously this is just a shot, with potential to be sure, but that potential is certainly not realised. It has distracting elements like signs, a house, & street lights, so I'll probably change the composition and keep going.

    There are many ways to photograph a scene, and I'd like to show you how "playing", "thinking", "tinkering" and "experimentation" can help you get closer to a shot you'll like.

    The technical side of photography helps, but can only get you so far...

    Obviously, if you don't know how to drive a car, you can't make it go where you want. The same is true for cameras. Knowing how to adjust each setting (or at least knowing that those settings exist for you to adjust) gives you more flexibility and control in the way you shoot a scene. Lets face it, you paid for all the features in the camera, so why not use them?

    I've said before, but it bears repeating. Get off Auto. Take control, and play with as many settings as you can (just not at once until you understand what each does).

    Here is a series of photos, all taken of the same scene, just done in different ways. Now please note, that I have NOT edited the photos in any way. Exept to reduce the resolution (for faster web loading)... so the signs and street lights are all still visible.

    This is not a lesson in post processing. It's to show you the thought process I went through when I was actually on scene with the camera. Because getting as much right in camera saves you so much time when post processing.
    Zooming in a bit more, to frame the tree according to the

    Zooming in a bit more, to frame the tree according to the "rule of thirds"

    So zooming in a little, and recomposing the shot means that the tree is well positioned, even if the sign and street lights are visible. I guess you could say that I was keeping my options open, all with the intent to remove the distractions in software later.

    I have to be careful though, the light is fading fast, so I don't have long to refine this shot. Hmmm... what if I get some more clouds so I can see how the colour shifts?
    Trying the portrait orientation to get more pretty clouds

    Trying differing orientations

    Shifting between orientations is an easy thing to try. Don't always assume that the composition has to have a level horizon (although, in many cases it does improve the look of the shot.. particularly when you know that the horizon should be level).

    Here I was going for more sky real estate to:
    1. Get more pretty clouds
    2. To show the transition of colours
    3. Provide a wider perspective, emphasizing how the sky really does dwarf the tree.
    However, it may just make the tree look like an afterthought, or perhaps that it's fundamentally less important in the scene compared to the sky, so this needs to be done with the considerations of what you're trying to say. By making images take up more room in the image, you are saying it's more important. If it takes less room in the image, then it's generally either less important, or to show the relative size (scale) of the object in the image.

    In this shot, I wanted to emphasize the sense of space around the tree, and simplify the image from most distractions. Obviously, the sign is still there... so if I were doing this in a "one shot", deal... I'd take the shot with the intent to remove the sign in post editing.
    Zooming in and out can help composition.

    Back to landscape, try zooming in or out....

    It's important to keep trying things as the scene changes. Here I zoomed in to cut out the sign on the right. The catch is that now the tree is much closer to the right edge than is usually recommended. However, I don't mind it. I'm trying to show you that the "rules" don't always guarantee an ideal shot, and that you can break the rules with any image... even if it's just to see what it looks like.

    Zooming in has several implications. It narrows the field considerably, increases the relative size of impact of the subject (the tree?), and makes anything behind the subject (the clouds in this case) seem much closer than they would with wider angles.

    Never forget to try changing your perspective (get low, or shoot from on high), or that you can "zoom" by actually moving closer or further away. Just remember that walking backwards is not the safest way to do things.
    Let the magic happen...

    Let the magic happen!

    Ok, so you've set up, you've refined your angles, zoom, and composed your shot beautifully? Now let the magic happen, and stay alert!

    The "magic" can take many forms, such as gorgeous pink fluffy clouds, transitioning into a deep orange, or even blue. If you've got an interesting doorway, you might wait until someone moves into the perfect spot to be framed by it. You might be in a hide waiting for mountain lions to walk by. Stay alert for opportunities, take test shots so your settings are at least close to what you're looking for (given that light may be shifting), and keep shooting.
    Adjusting orientation AND white balance

    Keep playing, tweaking, and experimenting.

    Here I loved the colour of the clouds, so I switched back to portrait orientation. However, this time I decided to emphasize the pinks by choosing the "shade" setting in my white balance.

    Now you can do this in camera, or if you shoot in raw format, you can change this at any time after shooting. The difference between my in camera "shade" jpeg file and the post-adjusted raw file to the same image is nigh on identical. However, this isn't always the case. Try both and see which one you prefer with your own photos.

    Now doing this has had some obvious drawbacks. The lack of dynamic range (bright-dark contrast) means the tree is now harder to see against the background. However, while this might encourage some viewers to miss the tree entirely at a cursory glance, it may make others pause longer to see what it is.
    Don't stop just yet.... there's often ways to get different shots when the situation changes

    Don't stop just yet.... there's often ways to get different shots when the situation changes

    The truth is that most pro photographers, for all their research and preparation, can anticipate some "likely" events, but the real world often surprises everyone. Only the most prepared photographers can snap off those amazing no-warning moments.

    It helps to have your custom modes on your camera calibrated to different scenarios. I have my C1 dial set for birds in flight and fast moving subjects. My C2 for portraits and short-range focus shots in low light. C3 for hand-held macro shots. If it's not time sensitive, I'll use one of the semi-automatic modes (Aperture or Shutter Priority) and if I have time to burn, then I'll probably use manual.

    A lot of people would look at this image, and seeing the reduced colourful clouds, pack up. But hold up, what if we try to keep going, going for a different look?
    Recompose to show more sky, and slowing the shutter speed down for the moving clouds

    Recomposing to sky coverage, then slowing the shutter down to show the movement in the clouds.

    There's no real right or wrong way to "mix it up". In my case, I wanted to emphasize the movement in the clouds, now that the scene was getting darker, I could do that... at least to some degree by dropping my ISO to 50, maxed out my aperture to F22. Unfotunately, it STILL barely allowed me to slow that shutter down enough to blur the clouds. I needed a longer shutter speed, so I had three choices:

    1. Wait until the scene got darker, allowing me to slow the shutter more without over exposing.
    2. Adding filters to the lens to darken the scene. I could have used a polarizer, which would enable me to double the time the shutter stayed open. (Halve the speed). Polarizers also emphasize colour saturation.. but I wanted to see what happened with a different filter.
    3. Use a neutral density (ND) filter. These basically dim the shot WITHOUT affecting colour (neutral). Lighter "density" filters will double the time the shutter can stay  open without over exposing. Modest ones (like the ND8 I used here) allow me to multiply the shutter opening time by 8 times! Of course, there are extreme filters that have multiples of 1024 times... but that's not what I was looking for here, and makes focusing very difficult.. unless you focus BEFORE putting them on, and then switch to manual focus... otherwise autofocus will undo your work, and probably not find any focus point at all in this situation.
    Even with 8 times the normal exposure period, this shot (while an improvement) wasn't what I was hoping for, but it was all I had at the time.

    So how can I improve this shot with no more filters?
    Here I played with the white balance again...

    Ok, letting your setup improve, and tweaking it one more time.

    So all of the settings were aimed at getting the maximum exposure time, and while last shot it wasn't enough even with the ND8 filter, that light level continued to drop. Allowing me to extend my exposure times further.

    Unfortunately, my camera (like most cameras) doesn't go any slower than 30 seconds, so I attached a remote trigger, switched my camera mode from Aperture Priority to "Bulb" which basically means "keep the shutter open as long as the shutter is pressed". This is a misnomer though, as my remote trigger has inbuilt clock functions, so I can set it to a specific duration without the "guesswork" of manual control. That said, I forgot to note this down, and when I converted this to web-friendly formats, the camera settings were stripped from the image.

    This was an exposure somewhere between 45 and 90 seconds. As you can see the clouds have moved a lot more during the exposure, so they now look like they're moving faster. Even though their real-world speed was relatively unchanged.

    While I'm here.. notice how the clouds near the horizon look like they're barely moving, yet the clouds up high, are moving more quickly, this effect is common, and can be used to great effect. Shots pointing more of an "upward" direction will typically emphasize the movement of clouds, than those that incorporate the horizon.

    Of course, I felt the grey of the last shot was a bit boring, so I switched the white balance up again to shade, to "warm" the image up with a pleasing orange tone that really wasn't that different from what I saw.

    That said, is this the best image ever? Of course not. But my point is that you don't know what works best until you try it. Some of these may be improved upon in post processing, or you might just happen to find an amazing shot in your tinkering.

    Ultimately, this article is about getting better raw materials for great images, not polished shots. Tinkering teaches you technical skills, and gives you real world experience with each adjustment you make.

    There are thousands of things you can try. A few examples include:

    • Changing lenses, try primes, zooms, wide angles, telephotos, macro, even fish eye to creative effect.
    • Try experimenting with lens filters. Polarizers, ND filters, warming filters, and others. Learn how they impact things like depth of field, shutter speed, and colour.
    • Try different perspectives, close, far, on the ground looking up, top down, from weird angles, try it all!
    • Try black and white for textures, hard (direct) light for sharp shadows, silhouettes, and a basic "retro" look.
    • Try using jpegs over RAW, the difference for HDR shots is noticeable.
    • In camera colour settings, contrast, sharpneess, saturation... most people adjust these in post when shooting raw, but the defaults (or preset options) are not always the best way to go when shooting in compressed formats like JPEG.
    • Try adding flash, or using external lighting creatively,
      • add coloured "gels" (cellophane like sheets that colour the flash light).
      • Get the flash off the camera, and change the angle the light comes from and hits your subject.
      • If you combine slow shutters with off camera flash, you can do things like "Light painting" (selectively illuminating parts of your scene). You don't even have to use flashes, try sparklers, or torches, or even flaming fire-twirling batons, lasers, toy light sabers, party lights, glow sticks.
    • Try different exposure techniques:
      • really fast shutters, really slow shutters,
      • try blurring the background with low aperture settings, or getting really close to your subjects.
      • Try intentional over exposure techniques ("High key") or intentional under-exposure ("Low key") shots.

    Technical play aside, we really haven't talked about the key to amazing photos.

    Ok, so in this example, we've taken a pretty average scene (in fact, it's a tree we drive past every day to and from work). We turned up in a time where the light might be interesting, and the clouds had enough gaps in them to let the sun through. These clouds would not have been as colourful in the middle of the day.

    So what settings have I played with here?

    I started by taking the scene "as is", a wide field to see how it all looks in the frame. I then played with orientation, zoom, "white balance" (but intentionally used it to impact colour), and shutter speed. I think I ran with an aperture of F8-F11 initially, just to ensure that the scene (and clouds) were in focus.

    When the pretty clouds were disappearing, I shifted my goals from capturing pretty colours in the sky, to capturing the movement of the clouds. This needed a long exposure time, and dim conditions with the gear that I had. At this point the tree became less of a concern, and some of the photos reflect that.

    To extend the shutter speed even more, I pushed the aperture to the dimmest possible setting, I dropped ISO to the absolute bottom setting my camera could do, I then added filters to dim it substantially more.

    To do this sort of long exposure, you have to eliminate camera shake... so a tripod, sturdy rock, bean bag, etc is required.

    I also used a camera release (also known as a remote, or intervalometer), mirror lockup, ensured that my lens "image stabilization" was turned OFF (you do this when using a tripod).

    The release has a clock inside for specific long shutter exposures. So I had to play with the settings in that, and know how to drive it. That was tougher than I expected, since I had never used this brand new one before. However, I've had similar ones before, and they all have near-identical features.

    So we've used a lot of technical stuff to improve the image, and explored ways to take the shot creatively. Great... but....


    It's still just a tree, on a hill, in sunset. There's not a lot going on, it doesn't say anything about where we are, why we're there, nor does it say why the audience should care.

    This is where all too many photos end up. They've got good light, good composition, but the "something interesting" isn't there. The best camera in the world, can't make an image interesting, despite what the marketing gurus might tell you.

    I've been to exhibitions by professional photographers, sometimes famous photographers of world-wide renown... and walked away feeling absolutely nothing. Sure, the photos are technically immaculate pieces of work, but subject... is boring, or worse yet, completely unrelatable to me.

    If you're shooting a scene, highlight what's interesting about it, and remove distractions. If the scene lacks "something interesting" try putting something there. (In real life, not just in post).

    There are two ways to do this, setup and wait for something to happen. Or contrive a way to make the scene more interesting yourself. Get someone to stand in the scene to show the scale of the tree. Have a bunch of Santas doing a fun run coming down the track on the hill. Trust me, uni students will do lots of fun, harmless, but ridiculous things for free pizza. They're also much cheaper than models.

    If the subject is a person, show the things that makes them... them. A potter at a pottery wheel, a social butterfly laughing amongst friends, a book worm in a library. Set the scene so it all works together and tells a story. A book worm standing awkwardly in front of a camera with no indication about what sort of person they are is completely... pointless for all involved.

    It's often surprising to people when you show them how they appear to others. Whatever it is, get them doing something, even it's something simple. It also puts them at ease if they're holding or doing something, reducing awkward looks and poses.

    Now you're using the imagery of photography to tell stories, outlining something about what, who, where, and why you're taking the photograph in the first place. It might surprise you that a part of you as the photographer comes through in the way you do it. This is what is called a personal photographic "style". You just end up taking more photos that you like... and you get it through experience. No one can teach you that.

    So have a look at famous photographers work, incorporate similar styles into your photography and then play. Research your subjects, ask them to talk about themselves. A wedding photographer who takes images of a bride with her 5 foster dogs and husband takes a more meaningful photo than if she's just posing with her husband... It also makes the photo far more challening... you're probably going to need to enlist help of family members (a.k.a: "Free invested labourers").

    Express yourself, and make it clear... sounds like a mix of Madonna and John Farnham songs... but whatever you do, think about your shots, have fun, and you will improve substantially as a photographer.

    You might be wondering: Why no photos of people here then?

    Several reasons. I don't have permission to share their photos on the Internet. my job is of a technical nature, done remotely. Face masks don't make good portraits, and people are scared when I bring out my camera.


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