Photography Theory

You want to become a better photographer? Take fewer photos!

The shock! The horror! The blasphemy! How can we here at Photocritic, a place that purports to teach people about photography, nay has over 2,000 students in its online school, dare to utter a statement that is contrary to the received wisdom of practice making perfect and the 10,000 hours rule? How can we possibly suggest that taking fewer photos might put you on a path to being a better photographer? Quite easily, as it turns out. Upon his graduation, my cousin was gifted with a Nikon D5300 and promptly legged it to Italy where he proceeded to photograph everything in sight. While I might be prone to hyperbole, that is scarcely an exaggeration. When he returned, he asked me if I would peruse his images and advise him on improving his photography. When he told me that there were in excess of 2,000 images, I dispensed my first piece of advice: that he needs to take fewer photos. He looked at me incredulously and said: 'But I see so much that I want to photograph!' And therein lies the problem.

Memory is cheap. Images are ubiquitous. We communicate via self-destructing snaps and have developed a penchant for deliberately aged-looking photos of cups of coffee. As a consequence, there is a persistent temptation to take hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs every time that we venture out with a camera. While this might serve our most pressing needs to relay where we are and what we are doing, the act of creating an image that will stand the test of time requires a more considered approach.

Too many coffees

If you want to improve your photography it demands that you practise it as a craft, and strive to make each photo better than the last, rather than regard images as digital currency in our social media-dominated world. It's time to step back, slow down, and take fewer of them.

Tell your story

All photos are about telling stories. They are about communicating something that you see to other people. This applies whether you're sharing a Snapchat chat or creating a fine art print. But if you are intent upon taking better photos, it should be at the forefront of your mind whenever you pick up your camera. Before you even raise your camera to your eye, you must ask yourself: 'What am I trying to say?' Until you have defined the story that you want to tell, don't click that shutter release button.

Not perfect, but at least I knew what I was trying to achieve.

Without a grounding narrative, your photo will fail to convey anything of value and will, effectively, be wasted. Show some restraint and discipline at this point and you'll benefit your photo-taking skills enormously. First, you will produce a meaningful image. That's step one towards becoming a better photographer. By thinking about what you want to say instead of randomly spraying your camera in the direction of something that you hope might make an image out of one of twenty three variations on a theme, you'll have increased the chances of saying something significant.

I'd worked out this story before I even scurried down the bank to the waterfall

Second, when you have identified the story you want to tell, you have to figure out how you're going to tell it. To do this, you will need to think about the light, know how best to use your camera, and consider how to manipulate light and tools to achieve your aims. That will improve your photography.

Third, I can guarantee that five miniscule variations on the same sunset scene over the Alps will not offer you any meaningful improvement on the first iteration. Of course we've all done it: taken nineteen photos of the exact same scene using focal lengths that vary over a distance of 3mm; shuffled half a pace to the left, and then switched the right; adjusted the aperture by a stop; and finally reverted to where we started. Looking back at the series of images, there's no discernible differences between them and you're left wondering which you actually prefer and which it's worth investing your time editing. If you take a moment to decide what you really want, you'll make your life easier.

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By honing your story-telling skills, slowing down your photo-taking process, and reducing the number of photos that you take, you'll force yourself to practise your skills. If that won't make you a better photographer then I doubt much will.

Edit judiciously

All photos deserve a little editing love. This isn't about airbrushing away half of a model's thigh, but subtle tweaks that enhance rather than alter an image. You cannot turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, so you must think of editing your images as adding the final touches to turn something already good into great. You must be working with already-good raw materials. In addition to taking great photos in-camera, learning how to finish them in post-production is part of the process of becoming a better photographer.

Not such a bad original

Apart from giving yourself a better opportunity to manage this by working with fewer, higher quality raw images, you also need to be shooting in Raw. Raw format gives you the flexibility to create images as you want them to be, rather than as the camera thinks they should look. When you shoot in JPEG format, your camera makes various decisions about the final version of the image, for example contrast and colour, that you really should be making yourself. It's a case of you being able to realise your vision, rather than your camera trying to decide for you.

But a teensy crop, a white balance fix, a bit more contrast, and some sharpening makes all the difference.

On a purely practical level, Raw images are significantly larger than JPEG files; you'll probably find that you need to shoot fewer images because storing them becomes a little more complicated.

Fewer photos means more time to edit and finish those you do take, helping you to create a better final product.

Reflect on your images

When you're trying to get somewhere, it helps if you know your starting point. On your (endless) journey to becoming a better photographer, you need to know how well you are doing at every given point and what you must do to improve. This is something that comes from evaluation and critique, given by both yourself and other people. Critically evaluating photos is demanding, however, and finding the stomach to do it for thousands of photos, or at least a good proportion of your catalogue, is probably overwhelming. You want to give yourself the best chance of being able to assess and to improve, and while it might sound counter-intuitive, it comes from fewer, rather than more, images.

Would I have preferred boy in-focus and wall blurred? I'm still not sure.

Go back to the five miniscule variations on the sunset scene over the Alps. With so little to choose between them, when you're in post-processing being able to determine their faults and their positive points will likely be a struggle. Rather than being a distinct iterative process, you might find it's easier to stick a pin in the collection to select one. Think more carefully about one or two shots when you take them, and you'll be able to reflect on them more effectively and improve your skills as a consequence.

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Of course, being able to play and experiment is a thoroughly important part of improving your photographic skills. What we're saying is that you need to do it in a way that actually helps you, rather than overwhelms and hinders you.

Practice does make perfect

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more you practise photography, the better the photos that you'll take. But the word 'practise' carries with it far more connotations than simply pointing your camera and depressing the shutter release button in the hope rather than the expectation that it will result in a well-exposed, beautifully composed shot that tells a meaningful story. It demands that you approach photography as a discipline: that you decide on what you are trying to say before you try to say it (or 'engage brain before opening mouth,' as my primary school teacher would say) and that you evaluate your images to establish what you are doing well and what you can do better. Then, you need to work on making those improvements.

Do I like it? Mostly. Could I do it better? Of course.

It's a never-ending process that you'll be working on for as long as choose to take photos.

Happy with it? Yes. Could it be better? Definitely.

Back in the old days of film you typically had 12, 24, or 36 exposures to a roll. Even if you had multiple rolls of film in your bag having them developed was expensive, or time-consuming if you did it yourself. It meant that you took a little more care in composing and exposing each shot, because every frame cost you money. Each exposure was precious. If you're serious about improving your photography, I'd advocate placing a restriction on the number of photos you can take in one day, or over the course of a trip or excursion. It will soon instill a sense of discipline into your picture-taking!

Four photos good; two photos better

This advice then, is not about using your camera less, it's about using it with more care, attention, and precision. It is about working to ensure that every frame you expose and develop tells the story that you want it to tell, and that you can use each image as a platform to taking a better one next time.

Sleep on it; it usually helps.

Are photographs for humans?

Last month I was invited along to the inaugural EyeEm Festival & Awards. Among other things, I was on a panel on "The Camera of Tomorrow". I do quite a bit of panel-ing (is that a word?) but I'm unable to shake this particular one from my mind, because at some point, the discussion wandered into a topic that I haven't given much thought so far: Who actually consumes photography?

Are photos for humans or machines?

Getting a little bit of help from a machine (in this case, Triggertrap Mobile) made it easier to capture this photo. But who will be viewing the image?

One of the big and scary ideas that came up was that the average photograph - or frames in a video, as may be the case - are no longer primarily for human consumption. As computers and image recognition becomes better, we now live in a world where even though if your photo is seen by 50 of your friends on Facebook, that very same photo will be seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of robots. Image recognition bots, facial recognition bots, localisation calculation bots, Google Images, scientific and statistical analysis bots... Who knows.

If you think about it: say you are a scientist who is trying to map the increase or decrease of water in a particular lake. You could install expensive equipment - but where would you get historical data? Well, if that lake happens to be a popular holiday destination that people tend to share photos of, you could actually do image-driven research: Photos taken on smartphones are tagged in the metadata by time and GPS location; Scrape the internet for photos taken in that particular location, then use image recognition software to estimate the water level in the lake. Science fiction? Nope - perfectly possible, and projects like this are already in action at universities and in commercial settings all around the world.

That's a relatively benign example: What about the data we put out there ourselves? That the trend of taking selfies is an incredibly powerful tool: By posting photos to Twitter, and describing (or even hashtagging) the photo as a 'selfie', it means that over the years, computers can start to map your ageing process, and potentially learn about the way that human faces tend to age. Add a layer of geo-location on top, and perhaps scientists will find that humans living near power stations have, on average, slower hair growth (just to pick an example). To a data scientist / statistician, the possibilities are absolutely mind-boggling.

Of course, there are less salient uses too: By posting selfies online, you're feeding an incredibly powerful facial recognition opportunity: Facial recognition based on a single photograph can be incredibly difficult (think about it: You're just a new pair of glasses, a baseball cap, or a beard away from looking very different from a single photograph). If, instead, one were to collect all the photos I've ever posted of myself online, you've got a huge amount of data: What I look like in different lighting situations, with a hat, with a beard, with glasses on, in the morning, in the evening, smiling, angry, moody... All of this is data that could be used to create a mathematical formula for what "I" look like. Feed that into a network of CCTV cameras (they say that you can travel from anywhere to anywhere else in London without ever stepping out of reach of a CCTV camera), and it's possible to track my every movement through my home city. Scary? Perhaps - but against that lens, it becomes all the much clearer that the chief consumer of imagery is, indeed, computers - and by sharing photos of ourselves, we're making it all a lot easier for whoever wants to track us around.

Is there anything machines can't do better than humans?

In low light, machines start struggling with all sorts of things, including focus. Which is why shooting manual is the only way I could capture this shot of EyeEm's CTO Ramzi Risk

Ok, so we're being ruled by robotic overlords; what else is new... Is there anything humans can actually do better?

Of course, you can teach a computer to take photographs - it isn't even a very big challenge. A computer could even take some highly proficient photographs, technically: Focus, white balance, depth of field, colour saturation - even triggering the camera at exactly the right point in the process of taking a photo is all describable mathematically, which means that computers are rather good at it. In fact, when you think about it: Most of us heavily rely on computers already: Exposure light meters, automatic focus - they've been the computer-powered helpers in the world of photography for years, and we wouldn't want it any other way. 

The other side of photography, however is trickier: The artistic side. This is where a recent XKCD comic hit the nail on the head:

XKCD 1425

Put simply, whereas a photo can be objectively 'bad' technically (Out of focus, motion blurring, white balance issues, exposure issues, wonky horizons, etc etc etc), deciding what makes a good photograph creatively can be very difficult to ascertain even to humans (Go on, give it a shot: See if you like / admire / understand why each of the top 10 photographs picked by Time magazine to be the best of 2013 were chosen. There is a recurring theme; more about that below).

Of course, what makes a 'good' photo is partially down to taste and cultural convention, but also down to a very difficult to answer question in general: What makes a good photograph? There are a few technologies that already exist to help people determine which photo in a burst of shots is 'best' tends to be limited to technical elements (From a set of 10 photos, pick the photo with the least camera blur, the least motion blur, and where people aren't blinking), rather than the aesthetic side of things.

But what about the story?

Interesting? Sure. Good? Well... That depends.

The other - and perhaps most important part - of photography is where machines truly fall short: Computers may one day be able to create photographs that are technically proficient and aesthetically pleasing, but the most powerful photographs are the ones that have a third layer: A story that's worth telling; a story worth listening to, and thinking about.

Every photograph that ever tugged at your heart-strings will have done so because it tells (part of) a story. In fact, the photo doesn't even have to be particularly creative or technically perfect - a slightly blurry photograph of your recently deceased grandmother could move you to tears - not because of the photograph, but because of the story it tells.

Ultimately, the story is all that matters; A technically perfect photo of a person is a photographic rarity, and may be interesting for that reason. If the lighting and setting is also great, you may be on to a good artistic photograph too. But the reason we identify with portraits is the stories they tell: Either because we (think we) know the person in the photo, or because we, as human beings, relate to something about the person in the photograph.

It may very well be the case that machines have overtaken humans as consumers of photography, but machines have a different purpose than humans: Computers see photographs as datapoints in an almost unfathomably large matrix of data. Humans see photographs as stories and memories. Maybe that's a thought worth taking with you into your next photo shoot - I certainly will.

Digital zoom: best avoided

Whenever I'm asked for quick tips for better smartphone photos, I usually proffer the same advice that I give to any other type of photographer: get closer and tuck your elbows into your body. But with smartphones (or indeed with some point-and-shoots) that first pointer in augmented with an admonishment to avoid digital zoom. So that's do get closer, but don't get closer using the capability that manufacturers have baked into their devices to accomplish it. Get closer, but nix the digi-zoom.

The truth is, digital zoom sucks. One day it might not, but right now it does. It sucks because digital zoom is nothing more than a glorified cropping tool. Whereas optical zoom relies on the physics of lenses to ensure that what you see appears larger or closer, digital zoom simply crops away the extraneous pixels and enlarges those remaining in the picture. While this might get you closer to your subject—and that's rule number one—it has an unfortunate effect on your images.

Get closer!
Get closer!

By enlarging the pixels that are on display, you've degraded your picture quality. You're spreading your information more thinly over the same surface area. It's the technological equivalent of spreading one teaspoon of jam over a slice of toast rather than two. Even if the processor is clever enough to use interpolation to enlarge the image, there's probably still some degradation.

Don't believe me? Have a look at these examples and tell me which is superior. I'll bet you a friendly pound that you prefer the image where I've got closer to my subject using my hands and my feet rather than the slider on my iPhone.

The first step in the art of getting closer is to do so physically: walk in, reach in, lean in. Getting optically closer is your next step. And if you're still not close enough, take the photo with what you've got and crop in after the fact. You'll still be spreading those pixels more thinly, but at least you'll have better control over the final image.

Get really close with an Easy-Macro band
Get really close with an Easy-Macro band

And if you want to get really close, try an Easy-Macro band. It's $15 well spent.

Aspect ratio: what it is and why it matters

Did you go to see Wes Anderson's glorious fondant fancy of film The Grand Budapest Hotel? Did you notice how the size of the picture varied depended on the era being portrayed in the story? As the story moved between 1985, 1968, and 1932, the aspect ratio, or size of the image, jumped from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 to 'Academy Ratio'. This was part of Anderson's story-telling technique: the aspect ratio provided viewers with a visual cue for each period of the narrative. It's also a reflection of the changes to aspect ratio that film and television have experienced over the years. But what about photographers? Where does aspect ratio come into stills?

Frame size

Maybe we need to back-track and establish precisely what we mean by 'aspect ratio' first. It's the size of the image expressed as a ratio, width to height. You'll often see film-making aspect ratios expressed as a value to 1 (like to 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 mentioned earlier), whereas the most common photography aspect ratios are 3:2, 4:3, and 1:1, although there are plenty more besides. If your image has an aspect ratio of 3:2, it will be three units wide and two high. When you come to print it, you might choose a 6×4" or a 12×8" print.

The entire rectangle is 3:2 (900 by 600); the red zone represents 4:3 (800 by 600); and the purple zone is 1:1 (600 by 600).

Originally, these aspect ratios were as a result of our film sizes. Lots of medium format cameras produced square, or 1:1, images; 35mm cameras used film that measured 36 by 24 millimetres, giving an aspect ratio of 3:2. What's referred to in the film-making world as 'Academy Ratio' is very close to 4:3. It's also the common aspect ratio you'll find in smartphone cameras as well as Micro Four Thirds and some medium format cameras. 16:9 is usual for recording video.

While our digital sensors might preserve these aspect ratios in their physical dimensions, at the press of a button I can switch between 3:2, 4:3, 16:9, and 1:1 on my camera. And when I import an image into Lightroom or edit it in Snapseed, I can select from 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 7:5, 8.5:11, 16:9, or settle upon an entirely idiosyncratic free-styled aspect ratio. But why would I want to?

Composing the frame

It's about composition, and dividing and filling your frame.

Photographers talk a lot about subject placement, about the different rules that can be used to divide the frame, and about negative space. All of these elements contribute to creating visually appealing, dynamic images that draw the eye. It follows, then, that the dimensions of the frame will have an impact on composition: on where you place your subject and how much space surrounds it and how you divide your frame.

Different rectangles

We've already written about the square crop here on Photocritic, and how the eye has a tendency to move around a square frame, as opposed to across it, which it does with a rectangular crop. When changing between 3:2 and 4:3 crops, are there any considerations that need to be made?

Lily square

At its simplest, you have more space to fill with a 3:2 frame. Depending on your style and your subject, this can mean your subject has more room to breathe compared to a 4:3 crop. But it can also mean your subject has that bit too much space and feels a touch lost. You certainly need to be aware of this when you're shooting; and indeed if you intend to have prints made.

When I photographed my cousin on his graduation day, I adhered to my preferred 3:2 aspect ratio. It was how I approached filling the frame on the day and, consequently, how I processed the images afterwards. However, when my aunt had her prints made, she opted for a 24×18 canvas. I had to re-crop her favourite shot in a hurry. You can see both of them here. Can you see why I prefer the 3:2 aspect ratio in this instance? It doesn't feel nearly as squashed as the 4:3 version does.

My preferred 3:2 ratio - a little wider, with more room for the subjects to breathe

What my aunt needed for her print: 4:3 ratio. I think it looks more squashed. (Image measures 800 by 600 pixels.)

If you compare these sunset photos, you can see how much of the view the 4:3 version loses when compared with the 3:2 aspect ratio. It can prove difficult to fill the extra space in a landscape shot, but sometimes you need it, too.

Sunset, 3:2. (Image 600 by 400 pixels.)

Sunset, 4:3. (Image 533 by 400 pixels.)

Of course, you don't have to adhere to 3:2 or 4:3 aspect ratios. I decided that 4:5 worked best for this bee enjoying the Sicilian springtime flowers. The more compact frame focused attention on the bee better than the larger 2:3 version.

The original 2:3 version

A more compact, and focused, 4:5 version

Don't forget, if you switch from landscape to portrait orientation, then the aspect ratio will alter format accordingly. Width always goes first, thus 3:2 will change to 2:3 and 4:3 becomes 3:4. Or in the case of the bee, it's 4:5.

Opting for a different aspect ratio doesn't necessarily mean that you need to use a different compositional rule; however, in some circumstances, you might find the Golden Ratio preferable to the rule of thirds. It depends on your vision for the image. But do think about how much space you need around your subject. If you're struggling to fill it, think of trying 4:3; if it looks squashed, consider 3:2. Or try something else. Try not to feel too constrained by the constraints of aspect ratio.

But I will leave you with closing thoughts from xkcd. Who could put it better?

Trying the golden triangle

One of the first compositional rules that we learn is the rule of thirds. It's relatively simple but definitely effective: divide the frame into three, horizontally and vertically, and use the divisions to place your subject. But rules are made to be broken—once you understand them properly, that is—or at least adapted and challenged. If you're looking to leave behind the rule of thirds but still want place your faith in geometrically validated subject-placement, try the golden triangle. Look closely...

Determining the golden triangle

Draw an imaginary diagonal line across your frame. Now draw imaginary lines from the other two corners, which each meet the long line at right angles. It should look something like this:

Where the lines meet: your points-of-interest

Your points-of-interest are where the lines meet. Use them to place your focal point, for example the eyes in portraits, and use the lines to divide your frame and draw the eye to the focal point to help create dynamic images.

Why use the golden triangle?

On a mundane and practical level, it's easier for some people to visualise the triangle than it is the rule of thirds. Moving towards a more creative purpose, by using triangles to compose your frame you're introducing a strong compositional shape to it with a great sense of balance pitted against a precarious point. And triangles have a nifty way of retaining the attention of the eye within the frame: the eye moves from one point to another in a continuous loop.

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Quite specifically with the golden triangle, you give yourself a means of dividing the frame in a way that is frequently more pleasing to the eye than a horizontal or vertical split. As well as using the lines to draw the eye to focal points, the use of triangles in the frame brings balance to the image. Think of one half as blue and the other as yellow. Or shadow versus light.

White against stripe

By counter-poising the two points-of-interest against each other, you can enhance the sense of balance in the frame. You get dynamism and balance in one go: brilliant.

Cards balanced against foot

Putting it into practice

It's all very well knowing the theory - what about the practice? Try portraits with your subject leaning into the frame and the eyes on a point-of-interest. Use the rule to place bridges in your frame, and have the eye travel along them to a focal point. Just give it a try - you never know!

Triangles galore!

Depth-of-field in greater detail

We're probably all familiar with the notion of aperture controlling the depth-of-field in our photos. By using a faster aperture, you create a shallower depth-of-field. To keep more of your image in focus, you need to use a smaller aperture. But there's a whole lot more to depth-of-field than adjusting your aperture to get more or less of the scene in focus.

'Acceptably sharp'

Let's start with setting out what we mean by depth-of-field. It's the range of distance in a photo that is considered to be 'acceptably sharp', or what we would regard as 'in focus'. Only the actual point of focus in a photograph is definitively sharp and 'in focus'; depth-of-field describes the zone of acceptable sharpness either side of it. A wider band of 'acceptable sharpness' running through an image equates to a greater depth-of-field. To introduce more blur into your photos you would want a shallower depth-of-field with a narrower band that's 'acceptably sharp'.

A shallow depth-of-field with a gradual fall-off

It's worth remembering that there's no sudden transtition from 'sharp' to 'unsharp': focus falls off gently on either side of the plane of focus, regardless of the aperture you use. It is fair to say, though, that larger apertures have a more rapid transition from in- to out-of-focus than larger apertures.

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Controlling the depth-of-field in an image is achieved primarily by adjusting your aperture—a smaller aperture for a greater depth-of-field; a larger aperture for a shallower depth-of-field—however, there are other factors that affect it, too.

Focal length

You'll often hear people say that telephoto lenses have a shallower depth-of-field than wider angled lenses. This isn’t strictly true. It’s more accurate to say that because telephoto lenses are mostly used to magnify subjects, and the subject will then fill more of the frame relative to the background, the depth-of-field appears to be shallower.

200mm; ƒ/3.2

All the same, it's worth capitalising on the magnifying effect from telephoto lenses to pick out your subjects and surround them with blurred foregounds and backgrounds.

Subject-to-lens proximity

If you've ever practised macro photography, you'll appreciate how getting closer to your subject makes it harder to get it all sharp. The closer that you position your subject to your lens, the shallower your depth-of-field will be. Choose a subject further into the background and you'll find that the depth-of-field surrounding it is larger.

Crazy-shallow depth-of-field with a macro lens

Distribution of acceptable sharpness

Depending on the focal length you use, you will find that the depth-of-field isn't divided equally in front of and behind the plane of focus. Instead, the area of acceptable sharpness behind the point of focus is generally larger than that extending in front of the focal plane. As focal length increases, so too does the distribution of the depth-of-field in front of the subject.

When you shoot with a focal length of 15mm about two thirds of the depth-of-field will be behind the subject and one third in front of it. When you get to 400mm it's closer to a fifty-fifty divide.

Depth-of-field: not just about aperture.

Up or across? The choice between horizontal and vertical frame orientation

Sweet peas

It is a truth universally acknowledged that landscape format pictures work more successfully in articles than their portrait format counterparts.

When I'm offering feedback on the assignments submitted by our Photography School students, one of my most frequent questions is 'Did you think about framing this vertically?' Or at least, something along those lines. Human vision is binocular, meaning that we have two eyes that happen to be positioned adjacent to rather than on top of each other. We are, therefore, predisposed to scanning things along a horizontal plane rather than a vertical one. It’s no surprise then that we’re more inclined to capture horizontally oriented pictures. The vast majority of cameras have been designed around this fact, thus have a default horizontal orientation and it's just about uncomfortable enough to rotate it that we sometimes overlook doing so. 

We shouldn't be so hasty.

The case for horizontal

The long and the short of it (ahem) is that the majority of subjects that are wider than they are longer will benefit from being photographed in landscape format. You'd have to be standing an awfully long way back to fit all of the Schonbrunn Palace into a portrait format picture. Most of the time, the horizon in a landscape photo will demand to take up as much space as possible, stretching across the frame. Typically, there's more to see when you scan left-to-right than there is up-to-down. But not always.

Corn field

The case for vertical

It's hardly an accident that vertically oriented pictures are referred to as 'portraits'. Any subject that is taller than it is wider—people, trees, skyscrapers, doorways, bottles—will suit a portrait shot.

Sheara i

It's hardly a co-incidence that portraits are called portraits.

It's a case of letting the natural lines in the image dictate how it's framed. Don't be afraid to swing your camera through 90° and give it a go.

Arrow slit

The entire point of this image is the vertical. Why would I shoot it horitonzally? Let the subject dictate the line.

Creative choices

If you stop to think about it, the majority of the time it will feel obvious whether you should be framing your subject horizontally or vertically. There will be a natural line and flow to your composition. Sometimes, however, you might be presented with a compositional dilemma or you might want to spread your creative wings.

Lonely Apostle

The Lonely Apostle might be a vertical feature, but it's the landscape that gives it context and the horizontal framing emphasises that.

For example, you might have a landscape that features a mountain range running off into the distance—a horizontal motivation—but with tall trees in the foreground that would enjoy the vertical emphasis of a portrait framing. Which do you go for? What you have to decide is which element do you want to be the dominant one and therefore be emphasised by your framing. There's not necessarily a right or wrong here; it's about ensuring the subject and the framing complement each other.

Sheara ii

But portraits don't always have to be oriented vertically. A landscape format can look fabulous.

If you've time, shoot both. You've nothing to lose.

Sunset kayaker, Mullaloo

The traditional landscape format works perfectly for this sunset seascape...

It is worth trying something new and different, though, to challenge your thought processes and expectations. You don't need to be wasteful and practise obscure compositions for their own sake, but it is always worth moving and rotating and shifting and changing. Don't feel constrained by what is expected, work to produce an image that tells a story.

Mullaloo beach

... but take nothing away from the vertical version.

Back to basics with a pinhole camera

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Elvis Halilović, the man behind the ONDU Pinhole camera company, asking me if I'd like to try out one of his handmade, wooden pinhole cameras. It's not the sort of offer I'm likely to decline. Last week my entirely gorgeous 135 Pocket Pinhole arrived through the post. On Monday I took advantage of glorious sunshine and the flourishing abundance of the allotment and headed out with a few rolls of film to see what the camera could see. Today I collected an envelope of developed images from the shop in town. One ONDU 135 Pinhole camera, with an approximate focal length of 25mm

How did they turn out? Actually not all that brilliantly. The film was expired, which has resulted in all of my photos having a rose pink cast. Despite the very useful exposure guide provided by ONDU, judging shutter speed was a very hit-and-miss affair that was counted in pink elephants and almost everything is over-exposed. My little Lollipod stand is a perfect match for the ONDU pinhole, but I've not mastered opening the shutter without disturbing the camera, and of course the longer exposures means motion blur, so everything is hazy. And without a viewfinder, you're guessing at just what the camera can see, so what's in the frame isn't necessarily what I'd anticipated would be there.

Proof of the pinhole

But the truth is, none of that matters. What matters is that I'm proud of these pictures and that I had fun taking them. I enjoyed experimenting with exposure times and attempting to determine what the camera could see. I recalled the anticipation of my childhood, when I'd send films off to be developed and have no idea what would be sent back to me. It was, in fact, the most fun that I've had with a camera for a very long time.

I won't deny that I had a few frustrations, but they weren't enough to deter me. The ONDU requires you to tape the film onto the receiving spool and count one-and-half rotations to wind on between frames. Loading the film was a bit tricky and I succeeded in breaking one roll with a heavy-handed winding action. There were a couple of unintentional double-exposures, too. No one said this was going to be easy, or indeed fast, though.

The ONDU pinhole in action

Perhaps the best tip that I have is to head out with a notebook when you're shooting, to record the lighting conditions and exposure time for each frame. When I go out next time, if the lighting conditions are similar, I'll know to open the shutter for a fraction shorter duration. If the conditions are different, I'll be making more educated guesses. Whatever the light, I'll be having more fun.

Pinhole photography itself is intuitive, with the requirement to judge and estimate and guess. It's also visceral and plays on your emotions of surprise and vexation. The more that you practise it, the better you'll become, not just at pinhole photography, but at the general discipline of photography. It pulls you back to the founding principles of expose and compose: a simple concept but with a nuanced practice.

The opportunity that a pinhole camera gives you is to play with light in a box: photography in its most deceptively simple form. If that doesn't intrigue and inspire you, and remind you what's wonderful about taking pictures then I'm not sure what will. Get hold of a pinhole camera and go back to basics; you won't regret it.

Nothing new under the sun? The darkroom techniques we apply digitally

When you tell people that image processing and manipulation isn't anything new, but is just about as old as the art of photography itself, you can get some funny looks. Many of the processes that we carry out without a second thought were equally normal for analogue developers. Depending on how proficient you are with Photoshop, compositing might be faster today, but it's not new. Think of Man Ray and his image Le Violon d'Ingres. And beautifying subjects with the help of a brush was a far from alien practice for Cecil Beaton. Yes, really.

The difference is that now the ubiquity of editing suites means that techniques that were once the preserve of skilled darkroom practitioners are accessible to anyone with a computer. The degree of skill required to complete subtle, effective, and credible edits is still high, but the mystery has gone. Or rather, the mystery has assumed a new narrative as the dark arts of the darkroom remain under wraps.

To try to set some of that record straight, here's an extensive, but not necessarily exhaustive, list of the techniques that bridge the analogue and digital divide.


Have you noticed how the crop icon is a variation on a theme, in almost every editing package you encounter? That's because it's based on the tool that would be used to crop and resize images in the darkroom.

[gallery ids="6782,6783,6784"]


The brush icon is another familiar one, whether you're in Photoshop or Pixelmator or Aperture or GIMP. Brushes were used extensively in the darkroom, to define edges or enhance details, to hand colour, to spot correct, to complete just about any task for which you might now use a digital brush.


Dodging and burning

Haje has already written an article that explains why the dodge icon resembles a lollipop and the burn one a fist. Of course, they're techniques that were used in the darkroom to lighten or darken specific areas of an image as required. The dodging 'lollipop'—or piece of black paper on a stick—could protect the photographic paper from too much light during the development process, thereby keeping the areas in question lighter in the final image. The fist would be your hand, controlling how much light got through to darken areas of your photos.


Using red to distinguish masked from unmasked elements in an image wasn't an arbitrary choice by software engineers. That too is a hangover from darkroom days. Mask an area that you don't want developed with red, gel-like rubylith and the light won't be able to penetrate it in the darkroom, so it won't be exposed. If you've ever found yourself irritated when masking a complicated outline in Photoshop, imagine what it would be like doing it with a scalpel!

Photoshop's Quick Mask overlay isn't red arbitrarily


Yes, there's a reason why the sharpening tool in Photoshop is called the Unsharp Mask. Again, Haje has a comprehensive explanation here, but the short answer is that images were sharpened using a not-quite-sharp positive of the image to make a mask (an unsharp mask) combined with the negative. The blurriness of the positive image should work with the negative to create a sharper final image.


Maybe you use the split-toning feature in Lightroom to create cross-processed effects, or to give a golden-hour glow to your photos, or perhaps to correct the white balance in your images. But it was originally a darkroom technique that allowed different tones to be present in the highlights and shadows of an image. Split-toning was something of a dark art, relying on the interplay of different papers and different chemical toners deployed after the standard developing and fixing process to produce different colours in the final image. Getting the balance right with your sliders might be a frustrasting experience now, but I'm sure it beats fiddling with gold-, selenium-, and sodium-based chemicals!

Split-toning isn't a new-fangled Lightroom thing


It might be simple to adjust the contrast in your photos on a slider in a digital darkroom, but you had at least three ways of doing so in an analogue darkroom: with graded papers, with variable contrast paper, or with filters.


Unless you're shooting with a Leica Monochrom, you can choose between colour or black and white for any given photo now, switching back and forth between them as many times as you like in a non-destructive editing package. But in the early days of film it was black and white, maybe sepia, or perhaps the vagueries of split-toning, unless you opted to hand-colour your images. Love or hate selective colouring, for some people that was all that they could afford when hand colouring was a time-consuming art form. It isn't just a Photoshop abomination.


Finally, the much-maligned airbrush. It's not just a new-fangled phenomenon that magically reduces the size of an already-stick-thin model's thighs. The airbrush has been removing undesirables from images since at least Stalin's time and Cecil Beaton was famous for slimming his subjects.

I think you'll find, then, that there is very little that's new between the red light of the darkroom and the digital glow of Photoshop.

Struggling to understand the exposure triangle? Try thinking of it as a glass of water


There are three things that affect an exposure: speed, aperture, and ISO. They work in a triangle to achieve an exposure.

When you give with one you take with another to ensure that you don't over- or under-expose your shot. In your early days of setting your exposure manually, it can be a bit tricky to remember how they fit together. But if you think of exposure as a glass being filled by water from a tap, it might help. Here's how it works.


Think of aperture as how much you open the tap. The wider you open it, the more water flows into the glass. Open the aperture wider and you let more light into the camera.

Shutter speed

If aperture is how far you open the tap, shutter speed is how long you open the tap for. If you open it for a long time, a lot of water comes out. If you open it only briefly, just a little water comes out.


The final control in the exposure triangle is ISO. From the perspective of our water-glass analogy, ISO could be described as the size of the glass. At a low ISO, the glass is a large one. At a higher ISO, the glass is smaller. In effect, if you are shooting with a high ISO, you need less water to fill the glass.

Equivalent exposures

Much like filling a glass with water, getting an exposure can be achieved quickly or slowly, but you'll get there in the end. You can use a trickle of water—so that would be a small aperture—for a very long time, and the glass will eventually be filled. Alternatively, you can open the tap all the way—the equivalent of a large aperture—very briefly, and the glass will be filled.

The same is true in photography. Two different exposure settings can result in the same amount of light being recorded inside the camera.

Sunset beer

Okay, it's a glass of beer. But that's much more fun than water.

How, then, do you put this into practice? It depends on what you want to achieve with your photo. If you're looking to secure a particular depth-of-field you'll set your aperture accordingly and then adjust the shutter speed and ISO to complete the exposure. For a long exposure shot you'll need to think about whether it needs a small or a large aperture and a low or a high sensitivity.

Drink up!

More unusual ways of looking at things and remembering rules are in my lovely book, The Rules of Photography and When to Break Them. Available in print from Amazon UK and US.

From light to dark: the Photocritic guide to vignettes

For literary types, a vignette can be either an anecdote or short story, or a illustration—often foliage-inspired—found on chapter headers. For photography types, a vignette is the gradual fall-off of light from the centre towards the edges of the frame of an image. If you enjoy Instagram or play around with Snapseed, you might know a vignette as a cool effect that you can add at will. They are, however, far more than just an effect. Thus we present to you the self-contained, but not necessarily short, Photocritic guide to vignettes, without any vines.

Types of vignette

Photographic vignettes occur because of natural, optical, mechanical, and technical reasons and can appear whether you prefer analogue or digital technology. While we might associate vignetting with vintage, it's hardly stuck in the past. Digital sensors managed to introduce their own form of vignetting, and a great deal of it is down to lenses. What are we looking at, then?

Natural vignetting

You are most likely to see natural vignetting when you use a wide-angle lens. It's a gradual darkening of the image that happens because light reaches the sensor (or film) at different angles. As the photons need to travel further to reach the edges of the sensor, they lose their strength, hence the darkening.

Optical vignetting

Lens design is primarily responsible for optical vignetting; the lens' barrel prevents light reaching the sensor evenly, and the lens elements stacked up on top of each other can have an impact, too. Optical vignetting is more pronounced when shooting at wider apertures; stop-down a bit and you can reduce its prevalence.

Mechanical vignetting

If anything physical blocks the passage of light to the sensor, for example a lens hood or a filter, it can cause a vignette. This is the easiest vignette to correct: check all of your accessories are properly attached.

Pixel vignetting

The pixels towards the edges of a sensor aren't always able to record light at the same intensity as those closer to its centre, mostly because of the angle at which the light hits them. This can lead to a darkening of the image towards its edges. Sensor manufacturers have caught onto this phenomenon, however, and have introduced compensations to rectify it.

Why add a vignette?

If a vignette is regarded as an aberration, why would you want to add one deliberately to an image? When used reservedly, they can bring focus to your subject and draw your eye into the frame, particularly in portraits. First because they allow for fewer distractions at the edges of the frame, but also because they mimic the natural effect of the eye. We don't see sharply all the way to the edges of our vision, and a vignette's fall-off has a similar impact on our photos. They reproduce a degree of 'normality' that we can find pleasing. The essential factor in applying them is to be subtle, therefore.

Adding a vignette

Lightroom allows you both to add artificial vignettes and to correct those produced as the result of optical or mechanical aberrations. If you need to correct a vignette, reveal the Lens Corrections panel, where you can also adjust various types of lens distortion, and nudge the Lens Vignetting sliders until your photo looks 'right'. (They sit beneath the Manual tab.) Easy!

Correct unwanted vignettes in the Lens Corrections panel (or use it to add easy vignettes to uncropped images)

This is also an easy means of adding a subtle vignette to a largely uncropped photo, too. It doesn't let you over-do it, which is the cardinal sin of adding vignettes, and there aren't too many factors to consider. It's sneaky, but if you're working with a cropped photo, not helpful. For a cropped photo, you need to head to the Post-Crop Vignetting options in the Effects panel.

Here, you have far more control over the vignette that you add to your image.

Gently does it with the Post-crop Vignetting options

With three drop-down options and five sliders, it might appear as if adding a vignette is more trouble than it's worth, but it's relatively straightforward. We'll deal with those drop-down options first.

Highlight Priority, Colour Priority, or Paint Overlay?

Highlight Priority, Colour Priority, or Paint Overlay? Highlight Priority allows for highlight corrections and recovery, so is good with images that have specular highlights, but it might have an adverse impact on the colours in the darker areas of your image. If you're working in black and white, colour shifts won't be an issue, so it's an easy choice.

Colour Priority won't produce such a pronounced shift the colours in the darker areas, but it won't let you recover highlights, either. Julieanne Kost, who works for Adobe, reckons it's a more subtle effect. You might want to consider this if your photo is in colour.

As for Paint Overlay, it is supposed to mimic the effects of overlaying your photo with either black or white paint.

To walk through the sliders, I'm using a photo of my nephew Wil for demonstration purposes. It's been cropped, converted to black and white, and had all of its other adjustments made. The last thing on the list is the vignette. That's how you should apply one, too.

Wil, ready for his final curtain vignette


The Amount slider is the crucial slider when adding a vignette. It determines how strong the darkening or lightening of the edges of the frame will be. Set it at -100 and you'll have deep black edges; conversely, +100 will leave you with bright white edges. Without adjusting this slider, none of the other Post-Crop Vignetting sliders will have any impact on your image.

A bright white vignette with the Amount set to +100

From now on, we'll look at all the other sliders having an effect with the Amount set to -100. It offers the clearest demonstration of their impact.

Amount at -100


The Mid-point slider controls the size of the vignette from the centre of the frame. It naturally sits at 50 points; reduce it to 0 and you'll produce a vignette that encroaches far into the frame.

Amount -100; Mid-point 25

Set it at 100 points and it'll sit closer to the edges of the frame.

Amount -100; Mid-point 75


The Roundness slider controls the shape of the vignette. At 50 points, it's elliptical in shape. Push it to 100 points and you'll have a circular vignette. At 0, it's a rectangle with rounded corners. (By pushing all of the Post-crop Vignetting sliders completely to the left, you'll create a rounded-corner rectangular frame effect for your photo.)


To control the strength of the transition between the vignette and the centre of the image, adjust the Feather slider. 100 points ensures a very subtle transition; 0 points is a sharp transition with a hard edge. Its native position is 50 points; I don't often vary far from there.

Amount -100; Feather 0

Amount -100; Feather 100


Finally, we're left with the Highlights slider that starts at 0. Why might you want to increase the highlights slider? It prevents the vignette being applied too heavily to highlights in the image and helps to keep them bright. There's no hard-and-fast rule for this slider; it needs to be adjusted on the merits of each image.

Amount -100; Highlights 100

It's important to note that the Post-crop Vignetting panel applies the vignette centred according to the crop. If you want to introduce a vignette that works around an off-centred subject, you'll need to do that using Radial Blur. That's a whole different article, however.

Other vignette options

If you don't use Lightroom, you can add a vignette using plenty of other editing suites. Photoshop, of course. And Pixelmator. Or Pixlr. Under the 'Centre Focus' tab if you're in Google+. In Apple's Aperture.

The end product

Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth

This is my final version of Wil, with a vignette Amount of -15 and a Mid-point of 75. That was it. Remember: subtle is better!

What's the story?

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A session with Mary Ellen Mark, winner of this year's Sony World Photography Awards' Outstanding Contribution to Photography. She was asked many pertinent questions and gave a great many eloquent answers, but it was the statement that 'Photography has to say something,' that struck the most resonant chord with me. It chimed right back to one of the very first things that I was taught when I started to wield a camera. I learned the basics of photography from my friend Daniel's mother, exploring the hedgerows around my school and attempting action shots of my classmates playing sport. Linda was patient, enthusiastic, and inventive. I was desperate to do well under her tutelage and one of the most piercing criticisms that she could give of my photos was 'But what's it a photo of, Daniela?' You see, every photo is meant to tell a story, and if your audience cannot discern what you're trying to say, then you've failed in your task as a photographer.

View from the top

'What's the story?' is a mantra that has adhered with me for some 27 years, and it's the starting point for any critique that I give a photo, whether it's mine or it's someone else's. Even a photo of a gorgeous flower in bloom has a story to tell, and this story is the origin of all picture-taking. Your audience needs to be able to connect with your image and they will do that through its story.

All is not what it seems

When you're faced with a compelling scene, it's pointless to wave your camera about wildly, snapping at everything you think is relevant and hoping that something will come out of it. All that you'll succeed in producing will be photos as scatter-brained as your approach. Think about: there is a story there that caught your eye and you need to convey it. So think about what that story is and concentrate on narrating it through an image.

Port cranes at sunset, Livorno

When you shoot a landscape, picking out the isolated stone house nestling in the valley will convey a sense of loneliness, or maybe peace. Catching the glint in your nephew's eye as he sneaks a biscuit out of the tin says everything about his cheeky furtiveness. It's all there for the telling.


Building further on this notion, by identifying the stories in your photos and concentrating on how you aim to tell them, your photography will improve. You will have a clearer idea of how to compose your frame and it will give you a starting point for your technical settings. You might not get it right first, or even second or third time, but you will be working in the direction of whatever it is that you're trying to say rather than fumbling in the dark. In every possible way you'll be strenghtening your photography: creatively, technically, and practically.

Sometimes, it comes together

Before you depress the shutter button, ask yourself, what's the story and how am I going to tell it? Remember: every photograph has to say something.

If you think that photos all in one colour are boring, think again!

No, we don't mean black and white here. We mean all one colour. All red, all green, all yellow. All anything. Colour is one of the most powerful tools in your compositional arsenal and it can be easy to forget how striking images composed of all one colour can be; we get caught up in the idea of complementary colours and of our images having to contain enough to satisfy and intrigue their viewers. And monochromatic images can do that: the key is to have as many different varieties of one colour within an image so that it becomes an exercise in naming the different shades, tones, and tints of one hue. Colours are able to elicit strong emotions in people. It might sound terribly airy-fairy, but there are introverted—blues, greens, and some purples—colours that give a calm, even subdued feeling and there are extroverted colours, such as reds, oranges, and some yellows, that are positive and energetic. You can prompt particular responses from your audience by using particular colours in your photos.


Red is regarded as the 'strongest' colour; certainly, if you've a multi-colour image that contains just a speck of red, people's eyes will automatically be drawn to that red dot. But if you choose a monochromatic red image, be prepared for something that feels passionate, energetic, and vital. A strong colour will incite a strong response.


It shouldn't come as any great surprise that I have a particular fondness for orange: I'm Dutch. Daniela rather likes it, too, if how often she wears it is anything to go by. Hardly surprising, then, that we chose it as the Photocritic theme colour. There's something very inviting and reliable about it. Maybe that's because it's the colour of sunrise and sunset. You know it'll happen every day, and that you have the the chance the start over and then to put everything beind you.


Yellow is cheerful, optimistic, uplifting, vigorous: anything positive, really. And it's easy to grasp the association with the sun, with good weather, with the opposite of darkness.


It's spring here in the UK, and we're being presented with a riot of green. It is abundant, youthful, verdant, and symbolic of growth and renewal.


Ever since I can remember, my parents have painted their bedroom blue. They do it precisely because of blue's qualities: it's calming, contemplative, and restful.


You don't find that many purply tones in nature. Of course there are some, especially amongst flora, but it's rarity means that violet tends to have a mysterious and superstitious quality to it. The expense of dying fabric purple in Roman times (the dye came from murex shells) meant that it was reserved for only the highest echelons of power, which contributes to the regal and superior feeling purple has, too.

So, don't be afraid of the monochrome: embrace and experiment with it!

The influence of colour in our photos

Colour: it's one of your most valuable compositional tools. But it's also something that we can take for granted, rather than actually considering the impact of colour in our photos. Different colours and their tones can influence how people will look at your images, so depending on what you want to achieve and how you want your viewers to respond, it's worth thinking about the colour palettes that you use in your photos. Colour makes everything look delicious

So what can you do to enhance colours, to make them even more involved in the impact that your photos can have?

The colour wheel

Lets start with the colour wheel, with its primary, secondary, and tertiary colours. How they interact forms the basis of colour theory, and great looking colour photos.

Additive and subtractive primary colours

When we were at primary school, we were taught that the three primary colours were blue, red, and yellow. Or technically, cyan, magenta, and yellow. You can mix blue and yellow to achieve green; red with blue makes purple; yellow and red creates orange; and mix them all together and you get black. They're known as the subtractive primaries and they're used in print.

Red-Yellow-Blue colour star (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

But there are three other primary colours, the additive primaries, which mix to form white. These are the 'digital' colours that are used in screens and sensors to create colours. They're blue, red, and green, and they form the 'RGB' colour wheel. There's a shock!

The 'RGB' - or Red-Green-Blue additive primary colour wheel

It doesn't matter which version of the colour wheel, with it primary colours you prefer, understanding it, and how the colours in it interact, will help you to produce gorgeous photos.

Balancing colours

Combining different colours in your images can create a sense of balance or tension in them. The sense of balance that you get in a seaside picture usually comes from the contrast between the sea and sky blues and the golden-orangey sand.

Ever wondered why a pink flower on a green background looks so stunning? It's because of the inter-play of the colours. Complementary colours, or those that sit opposite each other on a colour wheel, create well-balanced images.

If you're looking for a more harmonious image, focus on combining analogous colours, or those that sit adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. Done right, it isn't boring, but inviting.

Purples, oranges, and reds work together

Combining colours

Using lots of colours simultaneouly can be overwhelming: the eye doesn't know where to focus and the image descends into a confused mess. However, it doesn't mean to say that you can't take a photo with a riot of explosive colour.

Don't be afraid of a multi-coloured photo. It can work!

If you get it right, and people know what they're looking at, they can be vibrant successes, rather than confused failures.

Enhancing colours

Don't forget that black and white can have an impact on colour properties, too. If you place a colour against a white background, that colour will lose some of its vibrancy and appear somehow muted and dull.

Things don't appear as bright on white

It's hardly surprising that the opposite effect happens with black backgrounds: colours become brighter and emboldened. This is useful to remember for portraiture, but vital if you ever dip your toes into product photography.

Muting and saturating colours

By muting your colours, or 'toning them down' you can lend a calm, subdued, or even a sombre feel to your photos. If you saturate the colours in your photos, and intensify them, you can make them feel more vibrant and alive.

You might want to be careful when it comes to saturation, though. Too much of it and you can leave your photos feeling unrealistic, almost cartoon-like. It might be the effect you're looking for every now and again, but probably not all the time. People with orange skin don't tend to look so great!

Beware of red

Finally, beware of red. Our eyes are drawn to it and even a tiny fleck of red in a scene can be a monumental distraction.

Know the rules so that you can break them properly

Rules. They're pretty important. Can you imagine trying to get anywhere without some rules for the road? No one would know when to stop, when to go, or even where to go. It'd be chaos, and not my idea of fun. They provide us with a framework, a means of understanding how things work, which enables us to get from A to B more safely. Then there are photography's rules. They aren't quite so critical to everyone's navigational competence and safety—the rule of thirds will hardly prevent me from getting run over—but they are there to make pictures look better.

Breaking them properly

If having rules and laws and dos and do-nots seems terribly restrictive to a creative pursuit (or how fast you want to ride your motorbike), remember that if you know and understand them properly and put them into practice, it gives you one up on anyone who doesn't. In fact, it gives you two up on people who follow them blindly. When you know them properly, you know when you can break them successfully, too.

Make sure your horizons are level...

The power in breaking a rule comes from understanding why it's a rule in the first place. When you know how and why something works, you also understand its limitations and restrictions. This means that you know when you need to reverse it, to stand it on its head, or to smash it altogether in order to get the effect that you want.

...except when they're definitely not.

This works better with an example.

Plain versus creative backgrounds

If you want to show off your subject optimally, you're best to use a plain background. That's a fairly obvious photographic rule. A busy background will compete for attention with your subject and your eye will struggle to focus where it should be focusing. The type of plain background that you use has its own set of rules that goes with it: black makes colours bolder, white makes them duller, complementary colours are striking, and using the same colour background as your subject can look stunning, too. But you know that the rule is a plain background will serve your subject best.

Nothing else to distract from gorgeous Sheara


When you need to provide some context for your subject. Photographing an academic against a plain background might make for a lovely portrait, but it doesn't really convey who this person is or what she does. Photographing her in her study, surrounded by her books, would be much more meaningful. What's important here is that the background isn't cluttered or confusing. You need the eye to fall on the professor, but the books to relay who she is.

This background helps to show the context in which the photo was taken, however busy it is

Of course, if you're photographing something like a riot or a protest, the chaos and the confusion needs to come over in the picture. You'll need a point of focus for the eye to fall upon, but everything swirling around it will add to the story.

So you want to be a rebel with a cause?

Photography is full of rules. Which means that understanding them properly presents you with hundreds, thousands of opportunities to break them to creative effect. Rather helpfully, Haje combined lots rules and examples of when and how to break them into one rather awesome book: The Rules of Photography and When to Break Them.

Always use a plain background to bring focus to your subject

Except when you need to bring context to your story

Even better, Rules is currently only £4.99 if you download it from the swish looking Ilex Instant site. That's half-price! This means you can read all the rules and learn how to break them. Go on, be a rebel!

Making a Pringles Can Obscura

I spent Saturday at the Cambridge Festival of Science and Royal Photographic Society's photography day, listening to talks on megapixels and watching videos of caesium react with water in slow-motion. It was mostly a fun and informative experience, but apart from the caesium videos, the best bit was sitting inside Fotonow's Camper Obscura. That, just as its name suggests, is a camper van that has been transformed into a camera obscura. A camera obscura is the basis of any photographic camera, from a pinhole to a dSLR. A camera obscura is literally a dark (obscura) room (camera) with a hole poked into it, through which light can pass to create an image of the outside world on a screen. There are room-sized camerae obscurae in Bristol and Edinburgh, but they don't have to be walk-in activities. It's easy enough to scale them down and make something portable. I was aiming for something more along these lines when I decided to devise my own.

Of course, if you replace the screen with photo-sensitive paper you have a pinhole camera and by steadily improving the light-gathering and focusing abilities of the hole, with lenses, you end up with a camera more akin to those we use every day. But that's another project for another day.

Undeterred, I looked around for some DIY camera obscura instructions and found the perfect example on Exploratorium, which used a Pringles can. Seeing as Haje has already used a Pringles can to create a cheap macro extension tube, it seemed entirely appropriate to transform the snack container into a portable camera obscura. A Pringles Can Obscura.

1. Take one Pringles can

After securing a can of Pringles either from a nearby shop or your pantry, you'll need to divest it of its contents—whether you eat them all or transfer them to a new container is up to you—and then wipe it clean and keep the lid.

One Pringles can, two pieces

Draw a line around the tube, about 6cm or 2½" up from the base. Using a craft knife, or in my case, a bread knife, cut through the tube so that you're left with two pieces. The shorter section will be from the bottom of the can, and the longer section from the top.

2. Make a screen

You need to make a screen onto which your image will be projected inside the can. The cheapest and most readily available means to make one is from tracing paper.

I drew a spare, just in case.

Place the lid of the Pringles can on a sheet of tracing paper, draw around it, and then cut it out. Secure the tracing paper on to the top of the tube using the lid.

3. Put the can back together

Rather than reconstruct the can with the two cut ends meeting again, you want the cut end from the bottom section of the can meeting the lidded, tracing-papered end from the upper section. Secure them in place using gaffer tape or electrical tape. No light should be able to pass through the join.

I got so carried away sticking it together that I forgot to take a photo. I'm sorry.

4. Pierce a hole

In order for the light to pass into the can and create an image, pierce a hole using a drawing pin in the base of the can.

Wanton assault with a drawing pin

5. Finish off your Pringles Can Obscura

To make sure that you don't end up with spurs of cardboard poking into your face when you hold your Pringles Can Obscura to your eye, tape up the cut surface with some electrical tape. And if you don't want it to resemble a Pringles can that you've hacked up, wrap some coloured paper around it.

A Pringles Can Obscura!

6. Head out into the light

The brighter the day, the better the image you'll be able to render on your screen. Just remember that everything will appear upside down. And then it will be a case of moving nearer and farther away from your subject to get it in focus.

It's a great tool to remind you just how simple the principles of photography are, and to get you back in touch with moving subjects into and out of focus.

(And don't go getting any ideas about the gorgeous image of the tree. That's obviously, from the Camper Obscura.)

Visualising studio lighting

Once you feel you’ve started to get the knack of pointing your camera at things and clicking the button, it’s time to start taking control of all the lighting in the scene. But, as it turns out, that’s bloody tricky.

I keep having to explain how to ‘visualise’ different types of lighting to people, and it turns out that it’s rather difficult – not because what I’m doing is particularly advanced, but because sometimes, it’s just tricky to make the connection between what is happening in a photo, lighting-wise, and how the lights are set up.

I’ve put together a collection of examples which I hope will help. For these photos, I’ve used a figurine with a nearly round head – this will be very useful to determine where the light is coming from; but remember that all of this is as valid with more complicated shapes, including people.

This picture of HappyHead is part of a series of photos designed to explain some basics of studio lighting.

If you’re curious, this is the equipment I’m using throughout this post (and when I’m taking photos in general, for that matter).

For most of the photos, the lighting set-up is like this:

Lighting setup, ItL

Check out the Flickr page for a detailed breakdown of everything you see in this photo.

Or, for additional clarity:


A couple of basics

Introduction to Lighting - 1 Picture 1 – Lit by a single 580EX II flash from top left (flash 1 on the schematic) at 1/32 power output.

Introduction to Lighting - 2 Picture 2 – Same as Picture 1, but with an additional flash from the right (flash 2 on the schematic), slightly behind HappyHead, at 1/64 power, to lift the shadow a little.

Introduction to Lighting - 3 Picture 3 – Same as Picture 2, but with an additional flash at full blast on the background (flash 3 on the schematic). Note the light fall-off to the right, due to the flash being too close to the wall, and not aimed correctly.

Introduction to Lighting - 4 Picture 4 – Shows just the flash to the right (flash 2 on the schematic), slightly behind HappyHead.

Introduction to Lighting - 5 Picture 5 – Shows just the flash behind HappyHead (flash 3 on the schematic), used to blast the background.

Troubleshooting lighting.

The observant among you will have figured out that Picture 1 + Picture 4 + Picture 5 = Picture 3. As a general rule, you can often just switch on one flash at a time to figure out which flash gives what kind of light – but only when they are in manual mode, obviously: In E-TTL mode, the flashes will attempt to compensate for the missing flashes.

So what is all of this good for?


When you’ve perfected this lighting setup with a figurine, it’s time to replace the doll with a real, live person. Take a close look at this photo – the lighting setup is exactly the same as that we used for HappyHead!

Gels add a touch of colour


Introduction to Lighting - 6 Picture 6 – introduces the use of coloured gels. This is basically Picture 1 plus the same set-up as picture 2. However, the gelled flash has a much higher power output (1/32) to help overcome the light loss from the blue gels

Umbrellas or softboxes make the light softer


Introduction to Lighting - 7 Picture 7 – This uses the same flash setup as we’ve had so far, but with an umbrella on the left-hand flash to make the light softer. Notice how much gentler the light fall-off (i.e. how much less harsh the shadow is) is in this photo compared to the ones before in this series

Preventing spill-light

Introduction to Lighting - 8 Picture 8 – Same as picture 7, but I have turned the right-side flash to the background, with the blue gels on it. Note how the blue in the background looks quite washed out. This is because the umbrella is great at spreading the light, but it also throws a lot of light onto the background, which causes the blue light to be ‘contaminated’ with white light

Introduction to Lighting - 9 Picture 9 – Same as picture 8, but here, I have added a piece of cardboard to the flash on the left, to ensure less of the light hits the left side of the umbrella:

Lighting setup, ItL w/ umbrella A simple barndoor

That, in turn, that means that less light is diffused onto the background, so now the blue flash can do its job better. Note that the flash output in Pic 8 and Pic 9 is identical – the only thing that changes is a tiny bit of cardboard. Incredible, eh?

Don’t forget about reflectors

Introduction to Lighting - 10 Picture 10 – Okay, back to the original (this is a different picture than pic 1, but uses essentially the same settings, so should look very similar). See how dark the right side of HappyFace’s head is? In Picture 2, I fixed it by adding a flash, but you can be more economical with your flashes


Introduction to Lighting - 11 Picture 11 – is exactly the same photo as Picture 10, except I’m holding a reflector (that’s a posh word for ‘a piece of A4 paper’) just out of the frame on the right side of the image. The light from the flash is reflected off the paper and back onto HappyFace, causing it to look much less dramatic.

From night to day with the flick of a switch

Introduction to Lighting - 12 Picture 12 – is quite similar to Picture 1, but has been set up to contrast with picture 13… Also note how the light has been moved further towards the camera (i.e. further to the front of HappyFace). This is so you can tell the edge of the head better – instead of getting the effect like in picture 7, where you can barely tell where the side of his head ends and the wall begins, here you get a clearer definition of his head.

Introduction to Lighting - 13 Picture 13 – The only difference between picture 12 and 13 is that in Picture 13, I have turned the flash lighting up the background off. Two completely different looks at the flick of a switch. It’s bloody magic, I’m telling you

Time to show off

Introduction to Lighting - 14 Picture 14 – is just showing off, really, and combines a whole series of lessons: The background is beautifully lit with a 420EX, the right side of HappyHead’s face is lit with the familar strobe, but with a red gel on it.

Iin retrospect, I wish I had umbrella’ed that strobe, because it’d have gotten rid of that bright red specular highlight just at the edge of HappyHead’s mouth.

Good luck!

This is only a very quick’n'dirty introduction to lighting, but it seems as if most people who e-mail me are actually struggling at this level – I’ll pick up with a more advanced lesson in a couple of months, I think.

Originally posted on 26 May 2011, but definitely worth dusting off and dragging out of the archives.

Considering the square crop

I've never been a particular fan of the square crop; I have no good reason for my disfavour, but it doesn't stop me from recognising that it does have its place in the canon of crop. And that's not just its historical position, but its artistic one, too. Consequently I do use it from time-to-time, and I've spotted an increase in the frequency that I at least try it out on my photos. That doesn't mean to say I'll use it, but it's worthy of closer consideration. If you're accustomed to the rectangular frame, you'll notice almost immediately that the compositional rules with which you are so familiar don't seem to apply any longer. The frame is different and you must think differently, too.

Dynamic shift

Primarily, the tension within the frame has shifted. What makes a picture 'work' and what holds the eye to the frame has changed. With a rectangular crop, the eye has a tendency to move across the image until it finds its focal point; with a square crop the eye moves around the image. This shift in the dynamic, from fluid to static, presents you with a great setting for capturing the serene. Striking still lives with plain backgrounds and posed portraits work a treat in a square frame.

Lily square

Centred subjects

Centred subjects have a tendency to look flat and dull in a rectangular frame, but that circular eye motion that we make with square-cropped images means that they don't lose their impact.

Centre placement works because the eye moves around the frame

Symmetrical images

Following on from the centred subject comes the symmetrical subject. When you place a symmetrical subject within a square frame, it is bounded and the symmetry emphasised.

Okay, so it isn't perfectly symmetrical, but I was in a moving car (being driven, not driving) when I took it

Evenly balanced images

Splitting the frame and balancing your subject across it: black against white, calm against active, rough against smooth, will work to the benefit of a square crop. There's nothing wrong with splitting your frame horizontally or vertically, but diagonal divides work brilliantly, too.


The point is, of course, to use whichever crop works best with your vision and your image. Don't feel that square crops carry the mark of the Instagram devil and that a rectangular frame is somehow symbolic of photographic purity. Try it; you never know, you might like it.

Photographers of the future: Sony World Photography Awards Student Focus finalists

'Jackpot', by Aimee Turner (UK). Student Focus Finalist, 2013 Sony World Photography Awards

The judges of the Sony World Photography Awards Student Focus competition have named their ten finalists. They come from ten different countries, across six continents, and were selected from 230 universities.

The finalists can't sit back and rest on their submitted images to be in with a chance of bagging €35,000-worth of Sony photography equipment for their college or university, though. They've been given a brand new Sony Alpha 65 and the brief of shooting a series of between six and ten images on the theme of family.

All of the finalists will, however, see their final-making photos exhibited at Somerset House as part of the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition between 26 April and 12 May 2013. They'll also be treated to a trip to London for the gala awards ceremony on 25 April.

The final-making images are on the carousel up there. What do you think? Is this a good example of the depth of student photography and how does it make you feel for the future?

And for the record, here are the finalists:

  • Zanele Plaatjie, Vaal University of Technology, South Africa
  • Eugene Soh, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
  • Anshul Mehrotra, Jamia Millia Islamia, Dehli, India
  • Andrea Azema, École nationale supérieure des arts visuels de La Cambre, Brussels, Belgium
  • Natalia Wiernik, Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts, Krakow, Poland
  • Sarai Rua Fargues, Institut D’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain
  • Aimee Turner, Coleg Sir Gâr, Carmarthen, Wales
  • Marcelo Sanchez, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Monterrey, Mexico
  • Kim Annan, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
  • Maria Candelaria Rivera Gadea, Escuela Motivarte, Buenos Aires, Argentina