Category Archives: Tutorial

Photographic Composition: Understanding the Golden Mean

Improving your photographic composition skills can be a long and arduous task, yet there is one technique, developed thousands of years ago that can be put into effect in a matter of minutes, that can give you a dramatic improvement in the artistic value of your work almost instantly.


What is the Golden Mean?


The ancient Greeks were clever people who were extremely adept at seeing the relationships between different things.

The golden ratio (phi) represented as a line d...

For instance, they are the ones who discovered the relationship between different sides of a triangle and thus developed the Pythagorean Theorem. They also found the relationship between a circle’s radius and its circumference (π.) In the arts they noticed a similar relationship between great works of art and a particular mathematical formula: (a+b::a≈a::b) This formula actually derives at number, or more accurately, an approximation: 1.61803… or phi (φ)


Over the thousands of years since the Greeks developed this theory, there has been a great deal of evidence to support it. What does this mean to you as a photographer? It means that there are certain areas within the frame where your subject is likely to draw the most attention. Photographers commonly call this the “Rule of Thirds” but it has its roots in ancient Greek mathematics.


 How do I use the Golden Ratio?


Take a blank piece of paper and imagine it is one of your photographs. Draw two vertical lines dividing the page into three equal parts. The draw two more lines horizontally dividing the page into that direction. When you take pictures, the objects that fall along these lines tend to be the most interesting. Objects that are placed along the intersection of two lines tend to be even more interesting. Therefore, if you want to draw attention to an object in your frame, you would be wise to try to place interesting features in your images along these lines and intersections.


Rule of 3*3 composition : Art photography

Rule of 3*3 composition : Art photography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can confirm this for yourself but looking at some of your favorite images. Do you see how the best images nearly always take advantage of this strategy? Research has shown that a vast majority of the world’s great works of art employ this tool. However, that doesn’t mean you should become a slave to this system and never place important items elsewhere. There are times to avoid these lines, but that will take time and experience to master.


Why does the golden ratio work so well for photographers?


One of the important things about using the golden ratio, or rule of thirds, is that it forces you to move things out of the center of the frame. Every beginner places things in the middle of the frame, it is our natural tendency. Also, in most cases, an item in the middle creates no dynamic tension or visual movement. Moving, say a person, to one of the thirds means you have to find ways to relate them to other things in their surroundings, thereby creating interest.


Animated image demonstrating the rule of thirds

Animated image demonstrating the rule of thirds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, before you buy another piece of expensive equipment, try mastering this simple and very effective technique. You will be surprised at how simple it is to do and how effective it is in improving your images. It won’t get you into the Louvre, but it will get you on your way to some stunning images.










Light modifiers for flash

Rogue FlashBender Positionable Reflectors review

You don’t have to use a flash on your camera for long to realize the results can be anything but natural with overexposed noses on your subjects and dark “halos” around their heads. The Lumiquest system is like carrying your own low ceiling with you so you can bounce anywhere, even outdoors. It’s not a perfect solution, you may still get some shadows behind your subject if you are near a wall, but the shadows will be more diffuse and a good deal more natural looking. Years ago I used to shoot weddings with a small umbrella attached to my flash. The light was fabulous but the rig was heavy and I got a lot of ribbing about the lack of rain indoors. I personally have not used the Gary Fong system but have watched the videos and they seem to have a lot to recommend them. I would also suggest you use experiment with some household items. I have seen homemade rigs made from bubble wrap, old milk bottles and paper plates that produced some fabulous results. You may find that even if you get a commercial system a bit of tweaking will make it even better; kind of like having the umbrella without all the jokes.

Gary Fong
Print your own free bounce card
Home made Demb diffusor
David Honl system

Simple (and cheap) Variable Neutral Density Filter

Photo enthusiast and PhD candidate Richard Wheeler has come up with the following inexpensive way of making your own variable neutral density filter. You can find a link to his website below.

Simple Variable Neutral Density Filter
What is a variable neutral density filter? The neutral density bit means it is a filter simply designed to block some of the light getting into a camera. The variable bit means it is variable – you can control the darkness of the filter just by twisting one part of it. A proper variable neutral density filter can cost £100 or more!

Why would you want to block light getting into the camera? In short; control. A fully manual camera can be controlled via exposure time, aperture size and film speed. Adding a variable neutral density filter adds control of the amount of light entering the lens too. This lets you increase the exposure time and/or aperture while using the neutral density filter to prevent overexposure.

What effects are possible? The main tricks with a neutral density filter are to get shallow depth of field (a wide aperture) or long motion blur (a long exposure) under bright lighting conditions. This makes it very handy for taking portraits or nature shots, where you have bright lighting but want a shallow depth of field, or capturing the feel of a public event while bluring out individual people as they move.

How does it work? This method uses the properties of polarised light, specifically that two parallel polarisers will block very little light but two at 90 to each other will block nearly all light travelling through them. Find out more about polarisation, including in photography, here. This variable neutral density filter is far from perfect, but great if you want to make one cheaply!

Simple Variable Neutral Density Filter

The finished and assembled filters…

Step 1: Raw Materials
All you need is two circular polariser filters (of the correct size for your lens of course!). There is no point spending too much on these, I used an old slightly broken one and one I picked up for about £5 on Ebay.

This is the slightly broken filter which I will disassemble in the next step.

Step 2: Dissasemble One Filter
Pick one filter and disassemble it. Filters are normally easy to take apart; just unscrew the retaining ring from the front size of the filter. Most have a couple of small notches in the retaining ring which you can push round with a small screwdriver. Remember righty tighty, lefty loosey…

Be careful with this step – it is very easy to slip and scratch the filter. Make sure you don’t do this with a polariser you care about!

Don’t push too hard and scratch the filter! You can also damage the threads if you are really clumsy… (which I may have done!)

Step 3: Flip the Filter and Reassemble
Flip the polarising filter and then reassemble the lens by screwing the retaining ring back in.

It is easy to check the correct orientation of a circular polarizer if you get confused. Find a polarizing light source, most LCD screens should work, and look through the filter while twisting it. For the normal orientation of a circular polarizer if the filter gets darker and lighter then you are looking through the camera-facing side of the filter. If filter stays the same lightness but changes color slightly (normally yellow to blue) then you are looking from the other side of the filter. For the reversed orientation of the circular polarizer (for this step) the opposite applies.

Make sure you mark which filter has been flipped so you don’t get confused!

Remember to flip the filter!

Step 4: Final Assembly
Screw the two polarizing lenses together making sure the normal filter is on the camera side and the flipped lens is on the other side.

If you don’t plan on using the unmodified filter as a polarising filter on it’s own then you can glue the two together to make sure you don’t get confused. If you do want to glue the filters together be careful; to use the filter you have to be able to twist the front filter while the back filter remains stationary – don’t jam the twisting mechanism with glue! Also avoid using cyanoacrylate-based glues (eg. superglue and krazy glue), their vapours can fog the glass.

Step 5: Usage
To change the darkness of the filter just twist the front polarizer while keeping the back filter stationary. A twist of 90° will take you from maximum darkness to maximum clearness. My filters gave me about a 10 f-stop range, from ~4 f-stops darker to ~14 f-stops darker.

The light from the filters entering the camera is circularly polarized so should work with all digital camera autofocus and metering mechanisms. Unfortunately, because this method is based on polarizers, you will see some of the normal effects of polarising lenses – bear this in mind if you are photographing reflective objects such as glass or water. The filter construction is also quite thick so you might get more vignetting, especially at short focal lengths on zoom lenses.

Depending on the quality of the filters you might see some colour changes depending on the orientation of the filters, blue in one direction and yellow in the other. The blue tint can normally be countered with a fluorescent light white balance setting.

Step 6: Usage

This filter is useful any time you want to capture shallow depth of field or motion under bright lighting conditions, things you might want to try are:

A flower under bright sunlight – use a wide aperture and a dark neutral density filter to capture the flower, without overexposure, with a nicely blurred background.
People in movement – use an extremely long exposure time and a very dark neutral density filter to blur the movement of people through a public space.

Note: Check out Richard’s website here.

Photography software: where do I get started?

One of the first things photographers look for after purchasing a new digital camera is a good software to manage their images. These programs can do a lot more than make your images look better, though they do that very well. They will also help you organize the images so you can find them later, email them to friends and family and even have them printed. Most of the programs can be divided into two categories; free and not free, but all of them are, sooner or later, compared to the granddaddy of them all: Photoshop.

Adobe Photoshop (PS) is a remarkable tool that is the standard of the industry for artists, designers and photographers the world over. It has a dizzying array of features and adjustments that allow you to create breathtaking images and use them in a variety of settings. However, this great power comes with a steep learning curve and an even steeper price tag. While other programs on the market work hard to offer the most useful tools in PS, they all are variations of the original with adjustments made to features and price.

Adobe’s own theme-in-variation is Photoshop Elements (PSE). It contains many of the same features as its big brother but at a fraction of the price. This is a great choice if you think you may one day choose to upgrade to PS as the tools work the same in both programs. As a matter of fact, newer version of PSE are essentially old version of PS with a few less tools.

Paint Shop Pro claims to have most of the features of Photoshop at a fraction of the price. It certainly has more features than PSE at a similar price but does lack many of PS’s more esoteric flexibility (3D imaging, for instance.) Some feel it is a bit easier to use and is set up to appeal more to traditional artists. However, it handles many tasks differently and is therefore not good training for future PS users.

In the world of free imaging software, GIMP is king. Originally designed for Linus systems, it will now run on any popular system with much of PS flexibility. I find it cumbersome and complicated, but that’s because I went the PSE/PS route. Those who started with GIMP feel it is a fabulous program with no monetary investment.

Picasa is free software from Google and will allow you space to keep your images (much like flickr) and some rudimentary tools for adjusting your images. It’s a great place for beginners to get started to learn some of the capabilities of similar programs though it lacks many of the features of more complex programs.

A new addition to photo imaging software is web-based programs. All of these programs are initially free though most will charge you once your memory requirements exceed a certain threshold. Photoshop has their own version called “Photoshop Express” though it has very limited features, more closely resembling Picasa. Better choices include Picnik, Splashup and Phoenix. Picnik is nice because it is integrated with flickr; Splashup and Phoenix have many of PS’s more useful tools, like layers and compositing.

There has never been a better time to get started in photography. With so many free options it is easy and inexpensive to get started and learn exactly which features mean the most to you. Then you will have a much better idea whether or not the paid features in the bigger programs are worth the extra money.

Getting started in RAW processing

With all the people I hear talking about RAW processing and the many that have come away from their first attempts at RAW rather disillusioned, I thought it only natural to produce a tutorial with a bit of advice for beginners. This will be elementary advice for those relatively new to RAW and should help you produce images that are significantly better than what you get by shooting jpg. However, this is only a beginning, we aren’t even going to get past the first tab, but my hope is that if you can build a little confidence with these tools that you will seek out the advice you need to take this even further. I am going to be talking about Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) that some prepackaged with Photoshop CS, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom. If you use GIMP you may want to download the free processor from UFRAW that will allow you to work on RAW files and then export them directly to GIMP. UFRAW does not work exactly like ACR but you may learn some things from this tutorial that will be helpful. Please forgive me if I skip past some important things you might see in a book, like a description of the interface and the tools found there, I am trying to be brief so I’ll be getting right to the good stuff.

One brief note before we proceed; Adobe has tried to set up the RAW processor in a logical manner. For that reason, the tools you see on the right are arranged roughly in the order you should use them, starting with white balance and ending with saturation. You don’t have to do them in this order, but it is a logical method.

White Balance
One of the very first things you will want to do in RAW is adjust the white balance. This is done with two different tools. The first is the plain eyedropper. You will notice the eyedropper is filled with gray liquid. This is because they do not want you to click it on something pure white, but on something neutral. I usually choose something just off the whitest part of the image, or a shaded white, like the bottom of a cloud or a shadow on a white shirt. Clicking on one of these areas will make an instant change and if you look to the left you will notice that the first two sliders have moved from zero to a new value.

These two sliders control the white balance. One for the warm/cool aspect of the white balance and the other for the green/magenta. When you clicked on the part of the image with the eyedropper, both of these values were adjusted so that the light would be chromatically neutral. However, there is nothing that says you have to stay with this setting. You may find that warming or cooling the image a bit makes an improvement and that is certainly your prerogative. I will tell you that I usually make big adjustments with the warm/cool and very tiny ones with the green/magenta.


Above the sliders at the top/left you will see the images histogram. This is a graphical representation of the tonal values in the image. Each value is measured on a scale of 0 to 255 with 0 being pure black and 255 being pure white. Each channel (red, blue, green) is represented separately and overlapped. What we want to do with the exposure slider is move this graph so that the bottom of the curve just touches the right hand side. If most of your graph is to the left, you may have to push the slider a good deal to the right. If the graph is clipped on the right, try pushing the slider to the left; you may be surprised at the results. Often there is a great deal of image that can be rescued to the right; rarely is that so on the left. Don’t worry about where the left side of the graph ends up. We want to extend it all the way to the left but we will be using a different slider for that.

The next slider is marked “Recovery.” Its purpose is to try to help salvage blown out highlights. If your graph is roughly where you want it and yet you still have some blown out highlights, you may find that pushing this slider to the right will rescue some of that highlight detail. I have had limited success with this slider, but there are times when it will absolutely save and image.

Fill Light
Fill is a wonder. Often when you adjust your graph parts of the image end up being darker than you wanted. The Fill slider will gently brighten these darker tones much as a fill light would but with a great deal more flexibility. Wonderful tool.

I told you earlier that we would be adjusting the bottom of the graph with a different slider and this is the tool. We will be setting the black point by pushing this to the right. I also told you that we usually want to do these things in the order Adobe has given them to us, but this is an exception. Why would we want to adjust Recovery and Fill before setting the bottom of the graph? We wouldn’t; so just this once, skip their recommendation and fix this before continuing on.

RAW Processed Image

Why do you need a brightness slider when you can brighten the image with the exposure slider? Because they work a bit differently. The brightness slider allows you to compress things at the light side of the image with pushing them into the blown out territory, at least not as much as using the exposure slider. If your graph looks good but your image looks a bit dingy try adjusting this.

I recommend you leave this slider alone. It will adjust the overall image contrast and there may be times when that is called for, but most of the time our next slider does a much better job.

The Clarity slider works by increasing mid tone contrast.You will find you can push it nearly all the way to the left and just keeps looking better all the way. Wonderful tool. When used in conjunction with the next two sliders it can really add some punch to your images.

Vibrance and Saturation
Vibrance and Saturation essentially do the same thing with one significant difference; Vibrance has built-in protection for skin tones; make that Caucasian skin tones. This allows you to boost the saturation in an image without making the skin tones look unnatural. Why only white skin tones? Is Adobe racist? No, you’ll find you can boost darker skin tones a lot more without getting that funny orange color so it isn’t really necessary, but for lighter skin tones it can be very helpful.

Personally, I love bright colors and I play with these tools a lot. I feel like I’m shooting Kodachrome again and I’m getting those bright saturated colors I’ve always loved. However, I have also taken Ansel Adams advice to “push it until it looks good, then back off a bit.” (He was talking about his polarizing filter, but the principle is the same.)

By this time you may be exhausted from reading but you should also have a darned good looking image. There is more that can be done in RAW, but these are where the biggest changes are made and where, as I promised, you should be able to make an image that looks a whole lot better than the jpg your camera produces.

RAW Finished Image
(Not my favorite image but it does a great job of illustrating the rather dramatic results possible with RAW processing.)

Notes on “Exposing to the right”

I have been in some interesting debates lately on the concept of “Exposing to the right.” The idea is that digital images operate much different from film. Fully half of the information in a digital image is in the top 25% of the histogram. For that reason it makes sense to expose your images as close to the right hand side where the maximum amount of information can be captured. This is counter-intuitive for those of us who shot a lot of film and are used to the old adage to “expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.” However, the numbers are inescapable and careful photographers everywhere are heading the new advice.

More recently I have learned another benefit to adopting this strategy. Let me show you what I am talking about. This is an image I recently shot at a botanical garden. It’s a bit underexposed, though the bulk of the histogram is in the middle. I know I can fix this up a bit by bringing the exposure up and setting the black point to to spread the tonality. Check out the way it looks after adjustments:

Now I’m liking this. It’s not the most complex composition I have done, but the color harmonies are really interesting and the white on the top of the flower is light and velvety soft. (I could go on, but I’ll spare you the details.) However, here is the part I’m getting to; a problem is beginning to show it’s ugly head. Since I am pulling the image up the histogram, from the area where there is very little information to an area where there is loads of info. So what is created in the absence of meaningful detail? You guessed it: noise! Look closely at this image, especially in the shadows where noise is usually a problem.

Ouch, that hurts. I want to work on sharpening this image especially where white flower meets dark background but efforts to increase sharpness are likely to make the noise even more noticeable. Oh, don’t worry, I have a whole bag of tricks for dealing with this situation, but the aggravating thing is that if I had exposed this correctly in the first place I would not be having to deal with this. You can argue against the “Expose to the right” strategy if you like, but I hate dealing with noise.

Learning Photoshop Curves

I doubt there is a single tool in all of digital post processing that is more powerful than curves; yet with that power comes a rather daunting interface that causes many to shy away. That’s unfortunate, because a photographer with a firm grasp of curves can make some wonderful things happen. Let’s see if we can’t make this tool a bit less intimidating.

I am going to start with an image my wife took on a recent trip to Cambodia. What can we tell about this image? First, it looks a bit overexposed and the blacks aren’t truly black. Much of the flowers appear to be blown out and the overall coloring looks faded. Let’s apply some classic curves and see what happens.

Curves sans adjust

The first is a darkening curve. Simply grab the middle of the curve and pull down; the entire image will darken. We could have done the opposite and lightened the image by pushing the curve up but in this case the darkening appears to be an improvement.

Darken curve

Next we are going to apply a classic contrast curve. Click on the very middle of the graph where the vertical, horizontal and angled lines intersect, but don’t move it. By doing this we freeze this point where it is as we make other adjustments though we can still return and adjust this whenever we wish. Now, choose a point halfway between the middle point and the top right hand corner and push up. Then choose a point halfway between the middle and the bottom left hand corner and pull down a bit. The net effect should be that the lights get lighter and the darks get darker, therefore increasing contrast. We could have done reduced contrast by doing the opposite and perhaps that would have been a better choice as this image clearly does not need more contrast.

Contrast curve

These adjustments alone would make curves a powerful tool, but we can go much further. We go to the Channels selector, which is reading RGB right now, and select just one of the channels to make adjustments. Below I have gone through and made adjustments to each of the channels. Look at how each is represented on the graph and how each channel has a separate and distinct curve.

Mixed channels

OK, I overdid it, but I was trying to make a point here. Curves offers the power to make very significant adjustments to your images. Is it easy to go too far? Absolutely, but don’t let that scare you away from one of digital imagings ‘Power Tools.”

Finally, go back and compare the before and after. Parts are still slightly overexposed, but we have made significant improvements in overall color depth and tonality. Would we benefit from reducing the curves just a bit? Yes, but now that we have an understanding of the tools, that should be an easy fix. Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention that curves is a “destructive” process: pixels are being moved and changed, so always be sure you do this on an adjustment layer so you can return to your original if need be.

Trust me when I tell you this is only scratching the surface of what is possible in curves. There is lots more that could be done but will have to be left for another tutorial. My only hope is that you will have the courage to dive in at the deep end and try the possibilities for yourself.

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