Lesson 63: Photo Makeover

As I’ve mentioned, my best friend Gina is the inspiration for this blog.  Today, she sent me a picture at just didn’t work for her.  I thought this would be a good opportunity to pull together several earlier lessons in the context of one photo.

Here’s the photo Gina sent me:


She and her husband were recently on vacation with another couple and Gina wanted a shot of her friends standing in front of the lake they were staying at.  Unfortunately, it was extremely windy, making it difficult to hold the phone still.  Although the photo was shot at 7:58PM during the golden hour, the lake and sky were far brighter than the light on Gina’s friends.

The first thing I did was try using Snapseed to see if the photo was fixable.  Had I had my glasses on and realized the severity of the focus problem, I might not have tried–focus is something you really can’t change much in software.  However, ignoring the focus problem for a moment, let’s look at what can be achieved through editing:

To some degree, the lighting on the people can be helped.  I edited in Snapseed using the Selective Adjustment tool to brighten the people.  As a comparison point, I also edited the original in Aperture using several general adjustments rather than selective adjustments.  Both methods work to brighten the subjects.

So what would have prevented the focus problem?

  1. Selecting a face to set focus (see Lesson 4)
  2. A faster shutter speed, which can be partially accomplished by setting exposure separately from focus (see Lesson 8 on using Camera Awesome and Lesson 61 on picking a brighter part of the scene to get a faster shutter speed).

But how could Gina have gotten more light on her subjects’ faces?  Given that this was shot right after sunset, it might have been a good time to have her subjects facing the fading light.  They might have been lit in the last glow of the golden hour–or, they might have gotten some light bounced off the lake.  In either case, they would at least have been brighter.

The other choice, if having the lake in the background was important, would have been to apply two previous lessons:  Lesson 22 on placing people in front of landscape scenes and Lesson 31 on using the flash to fill.  The combination of these two might have allowed the flash to brighten up the people.

Since none of these things may have been possible (I wasn’t there and every situation is different), a couple other thoughts on how to prevent the motion blur:

  1. Turn on image stabilization (see Lesson 34)
  2. Prop yourself against something stable or set the phone on something stable (see Lesson 34)

And, finally, for exposures that are so disparate, this might be a good time to use Pro HDR, see Lesson 9 and Lesson 18.  It’s kind of a toss up–with a high wind, the movement might have been too much.  But, if Gina’s friends were willing to hold still for 30 seconds or so, Pro HDR might have solved the exposure problem and still achieved focus (although the blowing hair would have been a problem).

Your Assignment:  Pull up a “photo failure.”  Can you fix it using Snapseed?  If not, what is causing it to “fail”?  Do you know what to do differently the next time around?  Now, test yourself.  Pick a subject with similar challenges to your “photo failure.”  Shoot the subject every way you can think of.  Use every app you know how to use.  Shoot vertically, shoot horizontally.  Use the rule of thirds, the rule of symmetry, the rule of telling a story.  Try different angles and think about position for light.  Try with and without flash.  Try to get at least 20 different photos of that subject.  Did you get anything that surprised you in a good way?

Lesson 62: The Rule of Telling a Story

“Every Picture Tells a Story” isn’t just a Rod Stewart song and album, it’s a rule that many photographers live by.  We’ve all heard the expression, “a picture speaks a thousand words.”  That said, sometimes, the story isn’t so obvious.  Sometimes, you could make up a lot of stories and they would all work and yet the photo is still compelling and/or beautiful.  But sometimes a photo works only because it tells a story.

Here’s an over-simplified example using my favorite chair.  Compare these two photos:

What story would you tell about the first one?  Is it a story about someone wasting electricity by leaving the light on for no apparent reason?  Is it just someone who wants to show a friend what their favorite chair looks like?  There’s not really any hint about what the photo is about besides that I seem to think the chair is interesting.

Now look at the second one.  What story would you tell about that?  The presence of the book and glasses suddenly explains why the light is on.  It implies someone has just walked away.  Do the old-fashioned paper book and old-fashioned glasses sitting on the modern lines of the chair give you a sense of irony?  Does it make you wonder what the book is about and where the person reading it has gone?

To me, the second photo is more of a cliff-hanger.  It asks us to wonder why the book and glasses have been left at the ready.  While, perhaps it’s not as exciting a story as, say, a hardcore photojournalist’s shots from the frontline of a war, it leaves more to the imagination.

Sometimes we catch a facial expression that says it all.  Here are a couple of recent dog photos that I think express what my dog is thinking pretty clearly:

Sports photos are compelling largely because of their elegance in expressing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.  Sometimes, the story a photo tells is simply, “the world is beautiful.”  So much for a thousand words.

When it comes to photos of people, my personal opinion is that it’s best to avoid photos that say, “I posed these people uncomfortably so I could get a photo.”  I prefer awkward moments, ridiculous faces, raw emotion, all-out belly laughs, and loving looks given in moments when the subject thinks you’re not looking.  This explains why I’m not a portrait photographer–most people don’t want to see what they look like frozen in time with contorted expressions.

Your Assignment:  What’s your story?  Can you take a photo that says a thousand words?  How about 10 or 20?  Can you include everyday objects in a photo that changes it from a “record of what something looks like” to a story that draws people in?  Do you find these photos more interesting?

Lesson 61: The Rule of Light

In yesterday’s post, I compared the iPhone 4S and 5S flash photos.  Today, I want to switch gear’s and revisit the rule of light.  This is a rule of photography that cannot be broken, although it can be bent, manipulated, and worked around.  But no matter what you do, you have to have light and enough of it to get a photograph–after all, that’s what photography is: a recording of light.

In Lessons 16, 17, and 18 we talked about how time of day affects outdoor lighting, how you can choose the direction you shoot from based on the lighting, and how to use Pro HDR to help combat big differences in light and dark areas in your photos.

What we didn’t talk about is indoor lighting.  The iPhone has traditionally struggled with low-light situations and most rooms create a low-light situation–especially at night.

And what happens when you shoot in a low-light situation?  Well, if you might remember from Lesson 31, when you don’t have enough light you get more blur.  In Lesson 31, I didn’t explain this because my best friend Gina, the inspiration for this blog, doesn’t want to know.  However, today I have decided to risk upsetting Gina by explaining that it’s because the less light you have, the slower the shutter speed will be on the camera and the slower the shutter speed, the more blur you’ll get.

The best way to combat this indoors is to add light.  Add light by turning on every light in the room.  Move a lamp over to your subject.  Move your subject over to a lamp.  Position the lamp to light your subject as best as possible.  Do all of these things if you can.  For example, you may remember this example of flowers from Lesson 50:


Still flowers under bright light = sharp photo
Still flowers under bright light = sharp photo

By putting the bouquet of flowers directly under a lamp, I was able to get a sharp photo because both I and the flowers were holding still.  The more light you have, the faster the shutter will open and shut.  The faster the shutter opens and shuts, the less blur you’ll get.

In this photo, the shutter opened and shut at the exact same speed as in the photo above.  However, because Twiggy, the dog in the foreground, was moving, her face blurred:


If you can’t add any more ambient light, you can always turn on the flash.  But there’s another option we haven’t talked about in past blogs:  set the exposure based on a lightest part of the photo.  For example, in this photo of my dog, I chose to expose on the white side of his face:


This got me a slightly faster shutter speed than in similar photos where I set the exposure on a darker part of the subject.  It’s probably not a big enough difference to stop my dog’s motion if he were to, say, jump up from the couch.  But, it is enough of a difference to help with more subtle movement.  Because white reflects more light than black, when you select a white area for exposure, you get a faster shutter speed.  If you need a reminder on how to set the exposure separately from the focus, check out Lesson 8 on how to do this in the Camera Awesome app.

Your Assignment:  Try taking some pictures indoors.  Try taking a picture of your living room for example.  In one photo, choose a dark object for the exposure.  Take a second photo with the same composition but pick a light object for the exposure.  Can you see the difference in the exposure of the two photos based on what you selected?  Now, try including a subject with a tiny bit of slow motion like a relaxed dog or a person who will move slowly for you.  Does choosing light vs dark areas for exposure make a difference in stopping the motion of the moving subject?  How slowly do they have to move before it makes a difference?

Lesson 60: The iPhone 5S

My iPhone 5S arrived!  This means 2 things at my house:

  1. I’m geeking out,
  2. My dog is scared.

In the first case, I am having a ball with the fingerprint unlock feature.  I can’t tell you how excited I am about that feature!  I feel like a safer driver already and I haven’t driven anywhere yet.  I’ve had my husband and my dog try to unlock my phone with their prints and so far, I’m the only one it recognizes.  😉

I’m also geeking out on the new flash feature.  This is what has led to case 2.  My dog has been hiding out in a totally dark room, trying to avoid me.  I managed to sneak up on him and grab a couple of shots with the 5S and with the 4S so we could compare how the flash looks.  I used the default iPhone Camera app just in case the 3rd party apps are not optimized for the new flash yet.  Here are the results:

I ran into a glitch (already) with the 5S flash, however.  I set the flash to “on,” but out of 5 shots, the flash only fired 2 times.  I’m not sure what’s going on there, but hoping that will sort itself out quickly–like by the time I finish downloading the first update to iOS7.

What I want to focus on in the meantime is how much of an improvement the 5S is over the 4S.  Let’s talk about the circumstances I was shooting in:

  1. Dark room with almost no ambient light
  2. Black and White dog on a dark couch who wouldn’t hold still (except in my favorite of the four photos above)
  3. Hand-holding and guessing at exactly where my dog was because the room was that dark.

These are pretty challenging circumstances.  Let’s compare these two photos since my dog was moving around about equally and I got the white side of his face in both images:

First, let’s talk about why the 5S photo is so much sharper.  This could, in part, be due to the fact that I was closer with the 4S and, therefore, had less depth of field.  However, under magnification, the 4S photo has no sharp areas at all, which implies it had a hard time finding focus.

Now, I can’t say for certain that I was holding both phones with identically steadiness nor that my dog was moving the same amount, but, the 5S introduces some really cool technology that takes 4 images and combines them to get the sharpest image possible.  That’s pretty cool.  Although, I would appreciate being able to turn it off.

Second, take a look at the quality of the light in each image.  Again, virtually all of the light on my dog is from the tiny little LED flash on each iPhone.  Both did a pretty good job of lighting my dog (I was only about 2-3 feet away), but notice how much warmer the light in the 5S shot looks?

Finally, also on the subject of the light, notice how my dog’s eye is glowing a lot more in the 4S version in spite of the fact that his eye is turned further from the camera than in the 5S version?  This is a nice improvement.  My poor dog has looked possessed in far too many iPhone photos.

I took a very close-up look at both photos (I told you I was geeking) and the difference is even more impressive under magnification.  I can’t wait to get my dog into some better light so I can see what it looks like without the flash!

Your Assignment:  Pay attention to how much you use flash and how often you’re getting shots with blur.  Since these are two things that make the 5S attractive, it’s a good time to notice whether these features would make a difference to you or not.

Lesson 59: Quick iPhone Photo Sharing Tip

You’ve probably figured out how to send someone a photo from your iPhone.  Hopefully, you’ve figured out how to send several photos, too.  But there is a less-known tip for attaching photos to an existing email.

I often found myself replying to an email, writing a fairly long response (for an iPhone keyboard), and then deciding to attach a photo, which usually led to a lot of cursing.  I confess, it took me until I was on my iPhone 4S before I figured out how to do it–and boy was I excited when I did!

Here’s what you do.  You’re in your email, writing away.  Then, you decide to attach a bunch of photos.  So, double-click the home button to get to your open apps or single click to return to your home screen if your Photos app isn’t already open.  Next, choose the album where your photos are and click the “Select” option in the upper right corner:

Tap on each photo you want to attach; a check mark appears when it’s selected:

Now, tap the little box with the arrow in the lower-left corner.  A bunch of choices appear.  Normally, you would select “Mail,” but if you do that, it will create a brand new email instead of adding the photos to the email you just wrote.  Instead, pick the “copy” button

Double-click the home button to go back to the email you were writing.  Place your finger on the email until you get a pop-up that includes the “Paste” option and touch “Paste.”  The iPhone pastes all the photos you selected into the email you were writing.

The photos you selected will be attached to the email you were writing:

Finally, when you send the email, you’ll be prompted to pick what size photos you want to send.  You can choose what size makes sense based on who you’re sending to, why you’re sending it, and whether space and/or bandwidth is a consideration or not:

Your Assignment:  Write an email to yourself, but before you send it, attach several photos to it.  Send it to make sure you get the photos.  Will this come in handy?

Lesson 58: The Rule of Getting Close

In Lesson 53, I talked about what “filling the frame” means when you’e shooting a landscape.  In Lesson 3, I talked about filling the frame when you’re shooting a person (or dog).  In Lesson 3 (and a few other times), I’ve mentioned not to use the zoom function on the iPhone but to use your feet instead.

There are two times when using your feet might not be a good idea.  First, sometimes getting physically closer to your subject is not possible without peril (like Capa, who, as I mentioned in Lesson 53, was killed stepping on a land mine).  There can be physical obstacles or social ones to getting close to your subject sometimes.  Second, as I mentioned in Lesson 41, getting too close can cause unattractive distortion in the your subject’s face.

So, if you’re not supposed to use the digital zoom feature on the iPhone (the only “zoom” capability the iPhone offers) and you can’t get physically closer to your subject, what are you supposed to do?  Well, the only other option is cropping your photo.  I showed you how to crop a photo using Snapseed in Lesson 41, but I thought I would show you today how cropping compares to using digital zoom.

Compare the following 3 photos:

The first one is taken with no zoom and I didn’t crop it.  The second one is zoomed in all the way using the digital zoom capability.  The third one is actually the first photo cropped to approximately the same “zoom” amount as the second photo.

Notice that the digitally zoomed photo is blurry and very grainy compared to the cropped photo.  In theory, this should not be the case.  In theory, taking a photo and cropping it after you take it should result in the exact same quality photo as digitally zooming while you’re taking it.

Since my dog doesn’t usually hold perfectly still, it’s possible the increased blur is due to him moving rather than the difference in zoom vs crop.  To test that, I did the same exercise using a wooden bear carving since, so far, it has never turned its head in the middle of a photo:

Interestingly, I got the exact opposite results.  The digital zoom yielded a slightly sharper image than cropping a non-zoomed photo.

This is not exactly a scientific process, but my experience in the field is that I have consistently gotten better results by taking the photo without zooming and cropping to the degree the photo can tolerate before it gets too grainy and blurred over trying to zoom in while I’m shooting.  the main advantage to not digitally zooming while shooting is that you can decide later how much cropping your photo can stand without creating graininess and reducing sharpness.  If you shoot the photo already zoomed in, you cannot go back–the only photo that got recorded has the noise and blur recorded, too.

As a side note, in case you’re curious, I also got out an old 10 megapixel DSLR (to make it somewhat more comparable to the 8 megapixel iPhone–although it’s still apples and oranges) to demonstrate what optical zoom looks like.  Optical zoom is always better than cropping (assuming all other variables remain the same).  You get closer to the subject using a lens rather than degrading the quality of the image by spreading out the remaining megapixels when you crop (or digitally zoom).  Here’s a comparison for you:

Your Assignment:  Try the digital zoom function.  Do a similar exercise to the one I did–take the picture both zoomed in digitally and without zooming and cropping later.  Are you able to get better photos with the digital zoom or by not zooming and then cropping?  How about with a subject that doesn’t necessarily hold still all the time?  Do you get the same results?


Lesson 57: The Rule of Going Vertical

Here’s a simple tip that we haven’t talked much about:  when you find yourself struggling to get a photo you like, try shooting vertically.  I was once told by a photography instructor that roughly 85% of all photos taken around the world are taken horizontally.  By this, I mean the widest side goes left to right and the narrower side goes up and down, like this:


Shot horizontally (also called Landscape, even when the subject is not a landscape)
Shot horizontally (also called Landscape, even when the subject is not a landscape)

I can’t verify the statistic (I don’t even know how anyone would know that), but it is definitely true that the majority of the time, photos you see posted were shot in the horizontal (or landscape) camera position.  It’s pretty fascinating to take the same scene and look at it through a vertical frame.  Let’s compare these two photos:

These were both shot using the iPhone 4S with the Pro HDR app.  Notice how different the two photos look.  The horizontal framing cuts out the rocks in the foreground and puts the emphasis on the sky and the reflection of the sky in the water, putting the bridge mostly into silhouette.  By going vertical (and shooting from a slightly different position), I was able to include the rocks in the foreground and expose for them, which also allows the details of the bridge to show.

Each photo has its own merits and each has its own deficits.  Which one you like better is a matter of taste.  But the point is that, in spite of these being of the same subject about 2 minutes apart, they look completely different.  That’s the beauty of changing the shape of the lens you look through–it gives you a whole new way of seeing.

In addition to giving you an option on how to look at the world, sometimes subjects just work better vertically.  For example, most portraits of one person work better shot vertically if you just want the person in the frame.  Dogs also often look better vertically when you want a photo of just their face.  (Check out Lesson 3 for an example of how shooting vertically let’s you get tight on a canine subject.)  And, of course, shooting tall, narrow subjects vertically allow you to eliminate empty background space.

Your Assignment:  For the next few days, every time you pull out your iPhone to take a picture, take one vertically, too.  Compare the horizontal and vertical framing to get a sense for what works well vertically.  Many subjects work equally well horizontally and vertically, but give you completely different looks.  Did you get anything you really like?

Lesson 56: The Rule of Opportunity

OK, I made this one up.  But, as someone who has missed many, many moments when I saw a great photo op, I think it’s worth talking about.  The rule of opportunity is:  Get the shot!  (within reason–I do no advocate harming others, wildlife, natural habitat, property, your iPhone, or yourself.)

I am personally haunted by many missed moments.  One of the realities of photography you must accept is that each moment is its own.  It doesn’t happen twice.  If you think you’ve recreated the same moment, you probably aren’t paying attention to details.

There’s an old adage of photography that “the best camera is the one you have with you,” which is a paraphrase of the original quote from Barry Staver, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer.

That is the power of the iPhone–you have it with you.  But having your iPhone with you is only the first step in getting those moments that happen unplanned.  As someone who has a long, complicated password on my iPhone, I have frequently missed shots trying to unlock my phone so I could get to the app I wanted.

The first strategy for making sure you can capture moments is to know ahead of time what to do.  If you, like me, cannot unlock your iPhone in fewer than 3 attempts, repeat this mantra:  “ The default app is the best choice when an opportunity presents itself.”  I say this because it’s the only camera app that can be launched while the phone is locked (which is something I would love Apple to fix).

With the advent of iOS7, if you upgraded this week like I did, this is a good time to re-familiarize yourself with the Apple camera app.  It looks quite different!

I suggest turning off the HDR setting if it’s on so that, if you’re in a hurry, you will be ready to shoot.  The point is to know how you are going to capture a moment that presents itself before it disappears.

Here are some moments that I barely caught (all of which I can list a bunch of things I wish were better about them) because I had a camera ready:

Sometimes a moment presents itself that lasts longer than a moment.  For example, dogs present endless passing moments (many which I’ve missed), but they also do cute stuff when they’re relaxing.  Here are some examples of dog silliness:

One of the important lessons of being a better photographer is to think like a professional photographer.  Recognizing an opportunity to grab a shot is an important step.  Ironically, if you don’t recognize the opportunity, you will never kick yourself for having missed it.  But once you start looking at the world as a series of photo ops, you’ll want to be a quick-draw with your phone so you don’t miss them.

Your Assignment:  Practice swiping upward on the camera icon on your iPhone lock screen to open your camera app.  This may seem silly, but the way you access it changed a few updates ago from tapping the icon to swiping it upward, so you’ll want to make sure you have the feel of it.  Take a few photos with the default app.

Remember that you can only set focus and exposure together in this app (unlike Camera Awesome, which we’ve been using for many lessons).  Remind yourself that you’re going to have to make more compromises between the focus you want and the exposure you want if you need to capture a moment quickly and don’t have time to unlock your phone.

Experiment with choosing different focus/exposure points to get a sense of how much you can keep in focus and how much you can have exposed correctly using this app.  The only thing more depressing than not getting a photo at all is getting one that fails to capture the subject–something in human nature prevents us from deleting that one bad photo of that one incredible moment and leaves us to torture ourselves with our failure every time we see it.

Lesson 55: The Rule of Leading Lines

This is a “rule” of photography that we haven’t really talked much about.  When you’re composing your photo (meaning deciding what angle to shoot from, what to include in the frame, how close to get, etc.) one of the considerations should be whether there are leading lines in the subject or scene you’re shooting.

Leading lines refer to lines (they don’t have to be straight) that lead the eye into or through the photo, usually helping to draw the eye to a point of interest or main subject.  I sometimes end up with just lines because I find the 3-dimensional aspect they add to photos interesting.

For examples of leading lines, I could just refer back to yesterday’s lesson on symmetry–many of those examples work because of the leading lines combined with the symmetrical framing.  However, let’s look at some new examples.  First, here’s are a comparison to make this concept obvious :

The photo on the left captures the Tennessee Aquarium across the river.  While the piece of foreground tree branches in the lower right (which are otherwise more of a distraction than a help) and the shadows on the river in front of the aquarium help create some sense of three dimensions, it’s what one might call a “flat” photo.

In comparison, the photo on the right creates a strong line that the eye follows down the gray curb and path to discover the Tennessee Aquarium at the end.  While, if you goal is to show off the Tennessee Aquarium, this perspective might be a bit far away to really achieve that, the strong lines drawing the eye create a different a much “deeper” photo than the previous one and provide an interesting option, at least.

I mentioned the shadows in the previous comparison.  Shadows can create interesting leading lines that add to photos like in the following examples:

Similarly, light can work the same way.  While the light in the following example doesn’t exactly for a “line” per se, the reflection on the water creates a visual path through the image that draws the eye in from the front and then up to the moon above.  To demonstrate this, I removed the reflections on the water from the photo.  Notice the difference on how your eye moves over the photo and the sense of depth in the two versions:

Here are some more examples of photos with leading lines (not all are iPhone photos, as noted in captions).  Notice the variety of ways to create leading lines, including dogs’ legs:

Your Assignment:  If you’re sitting on the couch reading this and your iPhone is in reach, try taking a photo of something at the end of your couch by positing yourself/phone so that your using the back of the couch to form a leading line to your subject.  Or if you have a wood floor, how about getting down close and using the lines formed in the floor boards?  Maybe walk outside and use the sidewalk, street, gutter of your roof.  Leading lines are everywhere.  Sometimes you just have to move around a bit to find them.  Do you like this look?  Can you see how it can help make some photos have more depth and interest?

Lesson 54: Revisiting the Rule of Symmetry

In Lesson 11, we talked about the Rule of Symmetry.  What I said in Lesson 11 was that if something looks symmetrical, don’t mess with it.  Perhaps a better way to state it is that at least try shooting symmetrically along with applying other framing techniques because it might look really cool.

Merriam-Webster offers this as the first definition of symmetry:  “balanced proportions; also :  beauty of form arising from balanced proportions.”  Research bears out that all cultures find people with more symmetrical faces more beautiful; therefore, it seems logical that we might also find symmetrical photos beautiful.  Oddly, this is less true than you might think.  For example, placing a non-symmetrical subject dead-center in the frame does not make it more beautiful.

However, there are many subjects that offer themselves up and beg to be shot symmetrically.  Let’s revisit some of the examples I used in Lesson 11 and compare how they look symmetrically vs using the rule of thirds.  I’ve cropped the originally symmetrical photo into a rule-of-thirds photo to show how the symmetrical version works better.

Moon shot (DSLR photo):

Bridge (iPhone 4S with Hipstamatic D-type film and Helga Viking lens):

Madrid Courtyard (iPhone 4S with Camera Awesome)–as a side note, this is a really bad photo that I should just delete, but it’s come in handy for lessons and it does work better symmetrically:

Now that you hopefully see that sometimes subjects just work better symmetrically, let’s take a look at a bunch of other symmetrical examples.  Unfortunately, most of these were taken with a DSLR, but I’ve noted in the captions if they are iPhone photos.  The point is that many subjects work well symmetrically.  They might also work well using other framing, but symmetry is a great rule to apply as an option.

Your Assignment:  Try cropping copies of your rule-of-thirds (or other) photos into symmetrical photos.  Can you find some subjects that work particularly well in symmetry?  Now go out and shoot.  Look for opportunities to try out this framing technique.  Hint:  using the level in Camera Awesome can help you get better symmetry, particularly when shooting architectural subjects.