Tag Archives: photography

The Power of Cropping

A 2.35:1 image panned and scanned to 1.33:1. N...

A 2.35:1 image panned and scanned to 1.33:1. Nearly half of the original image has been cropped. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in school we were still developing film and making prints with an enlarger. Those were wonderful days and I learned a lot about the art of photography that has been beneficial in the digital age. Not so much that I would suggest others go back and learn film before venturing into digital photography, but there are times when those around me have a hard time grasping concepts that were made apparent in the days of dark rooms and strong smelling chemicals.

One of the things I find a lot of new photographers struggle with is cropping. They seem to think there is something sacred about the format their images were created in and are resistant to making any changes. In one of my first photography classes, the teacher picked up a couple of cropping ‘L’s’, two L shaped pieces of cardboard that you could place on top of a print and move around to show various crops. He would go through image after image showing how each could have been improved with a bit of cropping.

The astonishing thing was not simply that they improved but how dramatically they improved. Often someone would put up a print that looked plain and unexciting and the teacher would show how with a quick crop the image would suddenly jump to life. Soon we all had our own cropping ‘L’s’ and we were using them on all of our images before we turned them in. However, there was still an important lesson to be learned.

After using the ‘L’s’ for a while, I noticed that when I was taking pictures I would mentally use them in the viewfinder of my camera to see how I would crop the image when I got it back to the lab. It occurred to me that rather then waiting until then it was possible to crop right in the camera, to move around until most of the superfluous stuff had been eliminated. After all, this is one of the keys to great photography, to rid the image of everything that isn’t absolutely essential. Yet I never would have learned this lesson if I hadn’t first had the practice with hands-on cropping.

These days, cropping is quite easily done with your image manipulation software, so I suggest using this tool a lot until you really master the art of removing the unnecessary. There is real power in cropping, but it is a skill that takes some practice. Try cropping in various ways until you find one that really works. Do worry that a crop won’t fit the average frame, you aren’t really trying to make average images, are you? Instead, look for the drama and power that can be created with a bit of cropping.

One of the challenges will happen when you find that there are two very different ways to crop an image, both equally compelling in spite of being very different. What remains will be a question of the feeling or message each image provokes. You will have reached a high level of your artistic development when you can answer these questions intelligently.

So, whatever you do, ignore the fact that your sensor makes perfect 4:3 or 16:9 images. That isn’t nearly as important as creating beautiful, compelling images that evoke emotions from your viewers. How much better to create a wide panorama out of a landscape shot if that is what the image calls for. It’s a simple tool, but you will be amazed at the results if you learn to use it effectively.


5 things you can do to improve your pictures


For most of us, we are mesmerized with our new cameras and the amazing pictures they take… for a while. Then, as we compare them to the works of others, we find that they are somehow lacking and we struggle to find the magic that makes an image truly great. Professionals have talent, great equipment and years of experience on their side, so you are not likely to equal their work without the same, but you can improve your images dramatically and give them a run for their money if you will do the following:





perspectives, not truth

perspectives, not truth (Photo credit: alexdecarvalho)

Change your position. 99.99% of all amateur photos are taken at eye level, which means that if you will simply choose a slightly different angle from which to take your shot you can add a great deal of interest to your images. Try shooting from ground level, from the top of a ladder or any other perch you can find. John Moran, a professional photographer and a favorite in the Central Florida area, wanted to get an image of rowers sculling across a local lake. To get the shot he wanted, he mounted a ladder onto the launch that followed the rowers. It was a risky place to stand, but the shot he got was well worth the effort.







English: Frame from public domain trailer for ...




Frame your image with meaningful props. You would be amazed at how much a simple image can be improved with something as simple as a branch that hangs down from above or equipment or almost anything that gives some perspective, and some clues as to the environment in which you are shooting. I had a friend in college who figured out a way to place a soda can on the front of his lens so he was shooting through the pop-top hole. It made for some interesting shots.
















Seal Photobomb




Pay attention to your backgrounds. Few things will improve your images more than careful attention to what is behind your subject. As a photographer, you are responsible for everything that makes its way into your image, yet many people concentrate so much on the their subject that they lose sight of the rest of the image. (For some humorous examples of this, look up “photobomb” into your favorite search engine.) Train yourself to look in all four corners of the frame before snapping the shutter and look for a shooting angle that will allow you to have a simplified background. The improvement will be well worth the effort.









Orange lily close up cropped, with ant



Don’t be afraid to cut. Not everything you shoot will fit neatly into your camera’s frame, so as a result you will have unneeded space at the top, bottom or sides. Use your favorite photo software to clip these parts off. When I was in college we would use two cardboard “L’s” laid across our images to experiment with different crops. It was amazing to see how a rather mediocre image could be transformed into something impressive with some judicious cropping, yet many people resist the urge to clip. Don’t be that way; experiment with different crops and see if you don’t find one you like better than the original.






film night | self portrait

Take lots of pictures. It used to be that by the time you bought a roll of film and developed it, you had a substantial investment in your images, but modern cameras allow us to shot hundreds of images for a relatively small investment. This is a great advantage for beginners and pros alike because it allows us the luxury of trying many different things to get the best image possible. Consider this an investment in your art because those who work hard to improve their images by doing lots of experimentation are the ones whose skills advance the fastest.




And there you have it, 5 things you can begin right now to improve your images and they won’t cost you a dime. So, before you invest a big wad of money in a new lens, flash or meter, give these a try and see how far they will get you. They truly have the potential to improve your dramatically while you wait for that new lens to come in.




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.









Elements of Design

 The Elements of Design

If you look up the term “Elements of Design” you are likely to find several different descriptions, but the essentials come down to this: Line, Shape, Value, Texture, Size, Space and Color. Of those elements, color is the only one that is not necessary, which is why we have line drawings and black and white photography. All of the other elements are essential in every artistic work, though they are not always featured.

We will talk about these elements in more detail in future posts, but I need to answer a question you may be asking yourself first: Why should I care? I mean, will knowing the ‘elements of design’ make me a better photographer. And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Let me explain. As I have already stated, all of these elements except color are required for a good composition. However, they are not all equally on display in every composition. Very often we can improve our compositions by emphasizing one or more of the elements.

Alexander Calder understood the importance of shapes. As a matter of fact, he was so drawn to them that he spent his entire artistic career building mobiles where he could show them off. His work was original and powerful enough to garner his work a place in many of the world’s most prestigious museums. Here is an example:

With a few simple lines, and some unique shapes, Calder has created a powerful composition. Do the other elements, like texture and space still play a role? Certainly, but they take a back seat to shapes in his work. (I should add that the fact that this is a mobile means he has been able to add movement as another element we would not normally associate with our compositions unless we were shooting video.)

Let’s look at another example from a different artist. In this case the artist is Jasper Johns and this is an iconic image he created back in 1955.

OK, you say, I’ve seen things like this before. So why is this hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s just a flag. That’s true, but I would ask you to look a bit closer to see something you may have missed, the thing that excited the curator when he first saw it.

Johns used tissue paper and paste to building up layers of texture that contribute very subtly to the effect of this piece. It is hard to see from just a photograph (though the detail shot certainly helps) but standing in front of the image, the layers of texture are very apparent and the effect is powerful. With a very simple design that everyone knows, the American flag, Johns has communicated that the flag is more than a two dimensional decoration; it is a symbol with layer upon layer of meaning, much as his composition is layered with texture. In other words, a surprisingly simple design turns out to possess a for more powerful meaning through the masterful use of just one design element: texture.

Very often we are wise to ask ourselves if our compositions will improve if we emphasize one element or another. There will be times when it is not wise to feature one element over others, but then there are times, as in Philip Halsman’s portrait of Salvador Dali, that emphasizing an element, like line, can add tremendously to the power of the composition.

And isn’t that what we are looking for? Honestly, all of our photographs are compositions, some more successful than others. What we are looking for are compositions with meaning and power and the elements of design are among the best tools in our toolbox to make that happen.


Spend some time with each of the design elements. Choose just one element, like texture, and spend some time making sure you emphasize that one element in all your images. Spending time with each of these elements will add to your photographic arsenal without costing you a dime. In time you will be able to take several images of the same subject, each emphasizing a different element of the design. That is the beginning of mastery.

Related articles:

Interest in Camera RAW on the rise

I have been noticing a lot more talk about camera RAW in the forums of late. More and more people are asking about what it is and how they can use it. Camera RAW has experienced a steady growth over the last few years, culminating with the introduction of Adobe Camera RAW 6.6 in the newest versions of Photoshop and Lightroom.

Camera Rig (just getting started...haha)

Image by fensterbme via Flickr

What amazes me most is the fact that so many people, brand new to photography and barely able to work the buttons and dials on their camera properly, are asking questions about RAW processing. I don’t fault anyone for wanting to make better images, but I have heard enough people complain about how their jpg images look better than their RAW images that I wonder at the wisdom of attempting such a technique laden process at such an early stage in the photographic journey.

I have done a good deal of mountain biking and I often hear people talk about courses that are very “technical.” Like the neophyte camera bugs I ventured boldly into the technical areas ignoring the advice of those more experienced. However, I quickly learned that in mountain biking “technical” is a euphemism for “insane.” My son, who is a much better biker than I am, describes his favorite trail like this; “It runs through an old phosphate mine with a six inch path, no room to manuever on the right and a sheer dropoff on the the left. At the bottom of the drop is a lake filled with alligators, including the big one the locals call ‘Big Momma.'” Needless to say, going ‘technical’ in mountain biking can have severe and immediate physical consequences. People venture into that territory with great care.

Not so with Camera RAW. People venture into these technical waters with impunity only to be disappointed with the results. Camera RAW is not the holy grail of photography. I am inclined to agree with Marcel Proust on this subject; “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” You can travel to the far corners of the globe if you like and find breathtaking landscapes on which to use your new tools and techniques and when you get home you are likely to find a 12 year old making better images in his own back yard.

Make no mistake, I love Camera RAW and use it all the time. I have even written a tutorial on the subject for those who want to give it a try. But I am also well aware of the fact that I am going to have to see with “new eyes” if I am ever going to say something of importance with my photography.

What amazes me most is the fact that many of these people have precious little experience in photography and have no business jumping into the rather technical waters of RAW processing. And herein lies a truth that a lot of people miss: real photography is not all that technical because real photography is about “seeing photographically.” It is entirely possible to be a great photographer without ever learning the first thing about camera RAW. As a matter of fact, and don’t expect to every hear this from Adobe, venturing into RAW  to soon can even hinder your growth as a photographer.

Want to get better? Leave the expensive tools alone and spend a lot of time doing something you love: taking pictures. They say that Jimi Hendrix put on his guitar before he put on his pants. A similar approach would serve you well if you want to master your craft like he did. There is no substitute and that includes ACR.

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.

%d bloggers like this: