Lesson 72: 4S-5S HDR Showdown

While I was out shooting the sunrise yesterday, I also decided to give the 4S and 5S a test drive with their HDR setting.  As we discussed in Lesson 9, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is achieved by combining multiple images with different exposures into a single image, using the best exposure for each part of the image.  As I also mentioned, I did not have much success with the 4S Apple Camera app’s version of HDR.  One of the things I was hoping to see in the 5S was an improvement in the capture of details in bright and dark areas using the Apple Camera app with HDR.

That said, let’s compare the 4S to the 5S with the HDR on:

The major difference between the two (and I spent some time looking at these side-by-side at 200% magnification) is in the light areas around the sun.  Surprisingly, it’s the 4S that has more details in the clouds surrounding the sun, all the way down to the water.  On the flip side, the 4S produced an oddly shaped sun and the color in the sky looks mostly gray while the 5S seems to have smoothed out the sun a bit and captured more blues in the sky.

The bottom line:  if you’re thinking about upgrading to the 5S purely for improved HDR photos, you’ll probably be disappointed.

For grins, one more comparison–yesterday’s photos without HDR next to today’s photos with HDR:

Your Assignment:  If you haven’t checked out the Pro HDR app yet, review Lesson 9.  Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about HDR.

Lesson 65: Sunset Makeover

OK, this is the 3rd and final makeover post of Gina’s vacation photos (at least for now).  This time, we’re going to take a look at my favorite photo of the 3 Gina sent me.   I love this photo.  I love dramatic contrasts and I never tire of sunsets.  This one has lots of appeal with the way the light is reflected on the lake.  The exposure is great and the focus is perfect.

Here is the original photo Gina sent me:

Original Photo from Gina
Original Photo from Gina

She felt it was too dark.  Specifically, the foreground.  Without understanding what Gina was shooting for (sorry for another pun), I looked at it and said, “Oh, this would be great shot symmetrically.”  To simulate what that would look like, I used Snapseed to crop the photo a lot (and to turn up the contrast a touch and did a slight straighten) to get this:

Cropped to simulate a vertical, symmetrical version
Cropped to simulate a vertical, symmetrical version

Gina liked it, but she said she had liked the curved beach in the foreground of the scene–that was the part that was too dark.  Realizing I had missed the beach entirely, I went back and tried again.  This time, I used the Brightness Selective Adjustment in Snapseed to brighten up the beach along with a very slight contrast and straighten adjustment.  This is what I got:

Beach brightened just enough to show itself in the foreground
Beach brightened just enough to show itself in the foreground

Gina liked both versions.  Her comment was that it was cool to see the same thing two different ways.  I agree.  I often shoot a subject vertically, horizontally, using the rule of thirds, using symmetry, standing up, laying down, and anyway else I can think of.  Sometimes I get nothing.  Sometimes I get several shots I love.  But what I hate is when I get home and look at my photos and think, “Oh, if only I would have shot  _____ way.”

One final comment:  it’s pretty tough to get an exposure that works for the beach, the water, and the sky.  The only option is the Pro HDR app, which isn’t necessarily going to work that well for a sunset (depends on how fast things are moving and how well you can hold still).   Plus, Pro HDR probably wouldn’t have created the dramatic contrast between the sunlight and dark water.  Using apps like Snapseed to adjust after you shoot lets you decide how you want different parts of the photo to look–something the camera just doesn’t always predict well.  They’re still working on the mind reading camera.

Your Assignment:  Try this checklist the next time you’re taking photos of something (of course, not all of these work for all subjects):

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 8.29.10 PM

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 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 53: The Rule of Filling the Frame

One of the oft-cited quotes of famous photographers is:  “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough” (Robert Capa).  Given that Capa (famous for his images from wars as a photojournalist) reportedly died when he stepped on a land mine, it’s probably best to bear in mind that there is such a thing as too close.

There is an important message to consider in the context of our earlier lesson on filling the frame, however.  As I said before, your frame will be full of something.  Make sure it’s the something you wanted.  In Lesson 3, I used the example of taking a picture of my dog and how I would caption each example based on what was included in the frame and what wasn’t.

But what about when you’re shooting large landscapes?  Landscapes don’t often present themselves with logical end points.  And part of the impact of a landscape is expansiveness and scale.  There absolutely is such a thing as being too close when the story you want to tell is about vastness.  (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Pro HDR app.)

You have to make choices about what will fit in your frame and what won’t when you’re shooting a landscape.  One of the things I love about landscape photography is that there is usually time to figure this out.  Granted, changing light, weather, or a rising moon may make me feel rushed, but even then, a little bit of planning gives me lots of time to choose what I want in my frame.

There are many details to consider.  One of the things I look at are the edges of my frame.  Am I cutting off a city scape smack dab in the middle of a building?  Could I change my angle slightly or take a step back to hit between two buildings instead? (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Camera Awesome App.)

Similarly for a wilderness scene, I’m often shooting through tree branches.  I want those foreground branches to create a frame for the distant view.  I also want those tree branches to be in focus because I find blurry branches distracting.  Sometimes, I have to pick one, no matter how much I love pick-two menus.  (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Camera Awesome app.)

Your Assignment:  You’re frame is full every time you point your camera at something.  The key is to decide what you fill it with.  Get closer when your subject warrants being close–like people or subjects where the details make the difference.  Get further away when your subject needs distance–like vast landscapes.  Then look for what else is in your frame that you didn’t pick.  Do you want it there?  Can you do something differently to exclude it if not?

Lesson 52: The Rule of Thirds Revisited

We talked about the Rule of Thirds very early on in Lesson 2.  In that lesson, we talked about framing a dog or a person and placing the intersection of the rule of thirds grid on the subject’s eye.  However, there are lots of ways to apply the rule of thirds.

Today, let’s talk about landscape scenes.  Landscapes are usually divided between sky and ground or sky and water.  To apply the rule of thirds to big sweeping scenes, you can make a simple choice:  is the scene more about the sky or the stuff below it?

If it’s about the sky, make two-thirds of the frame sky.  If it’s about what’s below it, make the sky one-third of the frame.

Here is an example of a landscape photo where I split the sky and sea about down the middle of the frame. I did this on purpose.  I wanted both rocks, the bird, and the water washing back to sea over the sand.  There was no way to apply the rule of thirds and get all of these elements into the frame the way I wanted them.  I happen to like this photo (sorry, it’s not an iPhone photo, but it makes the point).  I’ve also included two cropped versions that put the line between the sea and sky at the lower ⅓ of the frame.  In this case, I prefer to break the rule of thirds.

On the same beach, I took the following shot of a bunch of seagulls rising off the beach.  I was pretty far away when this happened, but I liked the breadth of the flock of seagulls (for all you old enough to remember, no, I’m not referring to the band).  I also like the expanse of beach underneath them with an almost equal expanse of sky.  However, I thought we should try this with the rule of thirds applied, so I cropped with ⅔ of the frame beach and another with ⅔ of the frame sky.  I think the one with ⅔ of the frame sky works rather nicely with the gulls taking off.

The next example splits the sky and land about ½ way.  This one is an iPhone photo, by the way.  I’ve cropped the photo to show ⅔ sky and again to show ⅔ land.  I prefer the one with ⅔ land in this case.  The sky is not particularly interesting or well exposed.  The land is a bit dark, but the bridge in the foreground adds more interest to my eye than the sky in the previous version.

My final example, another iPhone photo, is one where the rule of thirds was perhaps over-applied in the original photo.  The foreground rock starts at the ⅓ point on the left.  The mountains in the middle of the frame end at the ⅔ point on the right.  It’s almost too stripe-y.  I cropped this one very slightly to put the mountains at the ⅔ point on the left side of the frame.  To me, the first version confuses my eye as to which element the photo is supposed to be about.  The second version makes it obvious to me that the photo is about the river valley and surrounding mountains.  I would prefer if the barge were further in the frame, but somethings can’t be fixed.

Your Assignment:  Take a look at any landscape photos you’ve taken with a strong horizontal line.  Is that line at ⅓ or ⅔ of the frame?  If not, try cropping the photo just to see if you like it better (Snapseed provides a nice cropping tool–see Lesson 41).  Sometimes you will.  Sometimes you won’t.  Just remember that the rule of thirds can help you emphasize the part of the scene that you most want to draw the eye to.

Lesson 51: The Rule of Focus

In yesterday’s lesson, we talked about holding still.  The reason holding still is important is because of the Rule of Focus.  The Rule of Focus was once stated to me by a photography instructor as:  “If at least one thing isn’t sharp, your image will fail.”

If you’ve been following along since the beginning, you may recall that in Lesson 4, I talked about a photograph where nothing was sharp, yet it is considered by many to be among the most iconic rock and roll photos ever taken.  So, just like all other “rules,” this too can be broken.

That said, most of the time, it’s true that blurry photos don’t work.  In fact, getting sharp pictures is what drives many photographers to spend thousands of dollars on expensive lenses to get the sharpest image possible.

There are multiple parts to achieving focus.  We talked about motion blur caused by a moving camera in yesterday’s lesson.  We also talked about motion blur caused by a moving subject in Lessons 31 and 32.  Today, we’re going to talk about Depth of Field.  Now, I alluded to depth of field in Lesson 30 when we explored using a Hipstamatic lens that puts only a small portion of the photo in focus.  We also talked about depth of field in Lesson 41 when we talked about putting a human subject far from the background to increase background blur.

Today, let’s talk about some of the benefits of depth of field we get automatically when we shoot with an iPhone.  The easiest way to think of depth of field is to think of the scene you’re shooting.  The scene is 3 dimensional even though your photo has only 2 dimensions.  If you were to lay a ruler on the ground from the front of what you can see to the back of what you can see, the distance that remains in focus in your photo is called depth of field.

The point where sharpness begins is usually a bit in front of where you focused.  The point where sharpness ends is usually about ⅔ of the scene back from the point where you focused.  With the iPhone, the depth of field is far greater than with a DSLR camera with comparable settings because the sensor is so small.  This is a weirdness about depth of field–how small the sensor is affects depth of field in ways that are surprising if you don’t go into detailed, technical explanations about how light works to create images.  And, I promise, I won’t.

Here are the things that are important to remember:

  1. If you’re shooting a landscape, you generally want the photo to be sharp all the way from the front to the back.  To achieve this, try to keep objects closer than 10 feet out of the frame.  Then, select the closest object in the frame for focus.  The background will usually remain reasonably sharp.
  2. If you’re shooting a person, you generally want the person to be really sharp, especially the eyes, and you don’t care about the background–in fact, it would be better if the background were out of focus.  Focus on the person’s face or let the camera use facial recognition to achieve focus.
  3. If you’re shooting something up close, like the flowers I used in yesterday’s lesson, remember that you have to be a certain distance away to get sharp focus.  You might notice that the petals in the following photo that are closest to the camera are not sharply focused.  That’s because they were too close.  By backing away, you can get the entire bouquet in focus when you select the closest petals.

Your Assignment:  Choose a subject you’d like to have completely sharp.  Move closer and further away to determine how close you can get before the foremost part of the subject remains blurry.  Experiment with selecting different focus points to see the best place to choose focus to get the entire subject in focus.  Also try taking pictures of your favorite person to see if you can get their face sharp.  Don’t forget about the Rule of Holding Still.  If you have a landscape you can shoot, see what happens when you tilt the phone so the closest object is at least 10 feet away and you focus on that.  Try it again focusing far back in the scene and again focusing very close.  Which images have the most depth of field?  Which ones do you like best?

Lesson 49: The One True Rule

Coming up, we’re going to be looking at more apps and attachments and, soon I hope, I’ll be doing comparisons between the 4S and 5S.  But before we delve into more technology and gadgets, I think this is a good time to recheck on the basics.

First, let’s remember the very first lesson:  There are no rules.  I would like to amend this.  In fact, there is one true rule of photography.  That rule is that you must break all the rules if you want to take better pictures.  However, it only counts if you know you broke them.   The amazing thing that you will find (if you have not already) is that breaking a rule with purpose (even if you don’t realize it until after you’ve taken the shot) rather than out of ignorance results in a whole new level of discovery.

Sometimes, we have happy accidents.  If you ever watched “The Joy of Painting” with the ever-optimistic Bob Ross, you may recall Bob explaining that unexpected splatters of paint were really just “happy accidents” that ultimately resulted in a more interesting painting.

In photography, happy accidents are the moments when you just happen to get something amazing without really working at it too hard.  Sometimes, for example, we take a shot and something flies into the frame at just the right moment.  Sometimes we frame a subject because we like the way it looks without noticing there’s something in the frame that turns out to be the thing that makes the photo great.

Much more often, at least for me, happy accidents come in the form of imagining what we want to get, getting all setup, and then discovering that you can’t possibly get what you imagined because the background won’t work, the light isn’t right, the proportions of the things you’re shooting are different than you remembered, or some other thing that looked completely different in your mind than it does in reality and you come home with a completely different set of images than you imagined.

If you’re not imagining the images you want to create and then going out to shoot, well, don’t worry.  Most people don’t.  Most people think about their iPhone as a handy camera to pull out when an opportunity presents itself.  The thing is, not too many people get better at taking pictures that way.  Just as Bob Ross thought anyone could become a talented artist, he also thought it would take an investment of time and intention.  The same is true for photographs.  After all, good photos don’t grow on trees–not even happy little ones.  The more photos you take, the more likely you are to capture something really cool.  Even better, the more likely you are to recognize it.

Your Assignment:  I’ve placed some photos into the gallery for this post.  Can you identify which “rules” I broke in each example?  Decide if the photo works for you–do you like it?  If not, can you figure out what bothers you about it?

Lesson 42: New and Improved

Way back in Lesson 2, I mentioned there were several things that could be improved about the photo example that I would get to later.  I bet you thought I forgot?

Well, OK, I did, but then I remembered again.  So, here’s the photo from Lesson 2:


What things can you see about this photo that could be better?

Here are the things I don’t like about it:

  1. The bright areas in the background are distracting.
  2. I think my dog would look better if I’d shot lower to the ground.
  3. My dog’s black spots are under exposed.
  4. The lighting is too gray.

So, today, we’re going to do two things.  First, we’re going to try to edit the original photo with Snapseed to see if we can make it look better.  Snapseed will help with items 1, 3, and 4, but it cannot help with the angle of the photo.

Second, I’m going to take a similar photo of my dog and see if I can’t improve upon the original photo by using a different setting that has better light, and using a lower angle.  I am beginning to realize why taking my dog to obedience classes might be useful.

So let’s edit the photo in Snapseed.  Here are the steps I went through to improve the original photo:

And here is the edited version side-by-side with the original:

The other approach is to try to capture the same photograph in a different setting that eliminates the bright areas in the background and allows me to take the photo at a lower angle to the ground.  I was planning to have some examples of a similar pose out on the grass in some lovely evening light.  Unfortunately, my dog was unwilling to cooperate.  Here is a selection of photos I got of my dog while trying to get him to lie in the same position as in the original photo:

But even that has a lesson in it:  if someone or something you love is doing something you want to remember, take the photo.  Sometimes you can’t get rid of distracting background.  Sometimes you can’t get the perfect angle before the subject jumps up and runs away.  But having imperfection is better than having nothing.  And, as we will discover over and over again on our photographic journeys, no two moments are ever exactly the same.

You’re Assignment:  Choose a photo from one of our early assignments you think you might be able to improve upon using Snapseed.  Get a little crazy with it.  See if you can create something that you really like.  Now, try to recreate the same situation with whatever bugged you about the photo fixed.  Is that even in the realm of possibility?

Lesson 40: The Morning After

Or, the afternoon or evening after a shoot . . . whatever the case may be.  It all calls for post-processing.  What is post-processing, you ask?  Well, to put it simply, it’s “gentle” photo editing.

Photo editing can range from creating a completely new picture (like we did in Camera Awesome in Lesson 12) to doing minor adjustments to make your photo look more like reality.  The latter category of editing is usually referred to as “post-processing.”  Post as in “after you’re done shooting” and “processing” as in the digital version of developing a photo.

When you take photos with your iPhone, the iPhone is making a lot of decisions for you.  It decides how saturated to make your colors, how to balance the tones so that white looks white, how bright to make the image, etc.  Sometimes it does a pretty good job.  Sometimes it guesses wrong.

Today, we’re going to download another app.  This time, it’s not a camera, it’s a photo editing tool.  Good news!  It’s free!

Sometimes people are disappointed when they realize that some level of editing is called for to get the most out of their photos.  Using photo editing tools can help  take a ho-hum picture to something much more dramatic.  Often, it’s the drama that gets lost when you take a photo; you’re just putting back what your eyes saw.

We’re going to do a simple edit with Snapseed today.

I’m using an image that has a distracting background I’d like to make less distracting.  To do this, I start by opening the app and then selecting the image I want to edit.  The graphics below will walk you through all the edits I made to this one photo:

I applied a few simple adjustments but left it looking pretty similar to the original–just a little better.  Here they are side-by-side:

Your Assignment:  Download Snapseed (did I mention it’s free?).  Follow the instructions to open a photo that you ilke, but weren’t thrilled with.  Try making the simple post-processing adjustments above.  Do you like it better?  Are there still things you would like to change about it?  What are the things you couldn’t figure out how to do that you’d like to change?