"My Photo Are Too Dark" — Solutions for Common Problems: Part 2

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In my last post (so long ago, I apologize but summer seemed to have gotten in the way), I covered easy solutions for blurry photos. The next most common problem is dark photos (i.e., under-exposed). While the most logical answer is there just is not enough light, there are other reasons for dark photos.

Problem: You are using the flash but the subject is still dark. Reason: The subject is too far away. The built-in flash on your camera can safely cover a distance of about 10 feet or so. If your subject is well beyond that, chances are it cannot be lit by your flash. Solution: The answer in this case would be to move a little closer. (You can also try raising your ISO to give your flash some more distance coverage).

Problem: The background is really bright and the camera’s meter is fooled. This is called a “back-lit” situation. The meters in today’s cameras are excellent, and you have the choice of several metering patterns to help you achieve your desired result. However, there are still situations like back-lit where you camera’s meter is fooled and gives you the wrong exposure for your subject. When the background is overly bright, the camera “puts on a pair of sunglasses” by closing the aperture down a little to let in less light, resulting in a nicely exposed background and a darker subject.

Examples of back lit situations:

  • in front of a picture window
  • at the beach or pool
  • on snow
  • when shooting from below up against a bright sky, etc.
  • under an overhang (like a stadium with field in the background)
  • The sun is behind your subject

Solution: 1 My favorite option is to use the + exposure compensation (covered here and here). This +/- button usually positioned near your thumb is one of my often used adjustments since you can quickly darken or lighten a subject. By adding (+) .3 to 1 full stop of light by dialing towards the plus side (see your instruction manual to see just how your camera works), you can trick your camera into removing the sunglasses and get a perfect exposure on your subject. By bracketing (taking several shots at several different exposure compensation settings) you are sure to get the proper exposure.

Solution 2: A second solution is to pop up the flash and fill in the subject.

Solution 3: Another way to get a good exposure in a precise area is to switch the camera’s metering pattern to spot metering. Most of the time, you are most likely shooting in the camera’s matrix mode that reads several areas of the image and gives you an exposure based on a lot of data built into the camera. This pattern works well much of the time. But the camera also has a center metering pattern where a smaller area is read and the exposure is based on that area. And even smaller sliver of the image can be measured by suing the spot metering mode (the rectangle with a small dot in the middle is the symbol for this pattern). Make sure the dot lays over the area of your subject you want properly exposed and then take the shot. If you need to recompose your image after taking the reading (dot on subject), then hold in the AE lock button located near the +/- button until you have finished taking the photo. Breaking out your camera’s instruction manual will give you the exact steps to set spot metering and to use AE lock.

In my example above (a perfect shot to end the summer), the child’s face my have been under-exposed, or dark, due to the brightness of the sky, surf and sand. But by adding 2/3-stop of light using the +/- feature, I was able to get a great exposure on her cute face.

"My Photos Are Blurry" — Solutions for Common Photo Problems: Part 1

DSC_2702_6x9So while talking with friends who are all new DSLR owners this past weekend, we discussed the solutions for the most common problems people have with their photos. So of course, it sparked an idea for a blog post. Here is part 1: “My Photos Are Blurry.”

The reason for a blurry photo is that the shutter speed is too slow to stop either fast moving action or camera shake in low light situations. The faster action moves, the faster the shutter speed required to stop the action; the longer your lens setting (telephoto), the faster the shutter speed required to stop camera shake since the shake is magnified (think about looking through powerful binoculars and how hard it is to hold them without the seeing shake); and finally, in lower the lighting conditions, the shutter speed slows down to let in more light, making it harder to hand hold.

So what to do? First, you need to understand what the ideal shutter speed is for hand-holding to avoid camera shake. The quick answer to to shoot at a shutter sped that is no slower than the reciprocal of the focal length setting of your lens. So if you are zoomed out to 300mm to catch sports, nature, wildlife or candid portraits, the ideal shutter sped will be 1/300th of a second or faster to stop hand shake blur. However, with today’s stabilized lenses, you can shoot a 2-3 or even 4 stops slower with no resulting hand-shake. Second, understand that it is almost impossible for anyone to hand hold the camera at any focal length setting if the shutter speed goes below 1/30th of a second. Thirdly, if action is moving fast, like soccer or basketball, you will need a shutter speed of approx. 1/500th of a second. If the action moves even faster than that, such as car racing or horse racing, you will need to shoot even faster (1/1000th, 1/2500th, etc.(.

Solution 1: Open your aperture to let in more light and the camera will pick a faster shutter speed.
If you set your camera to aperture priority, move the aperture towards a wider opening (e.g., F/6.3, F/5.6, F/3.5) and watch your shutter speed get faster. Hopefully, you will be able to get a shutter speed / aperture combination that allows you to have a fast shutter speed for the action or zoom setting. Be mindful that with an open aperture, you have less depth of field, so precisely focusing on the critical part of your image is very important.

Solution 2: If opening the aperture does not give you a shutter speed high enough to action blur or stop hand shake from slow shutter speeds as a result of low light or long telephoto settings, then the next solution is to boost your ISO higher. A higher ISO, will automatically provide you with higher shutter speeds. While your photo might have a little more noise or not as vibrant of color, you will be able to shoot the image. (Some DSLRs have really great high ISO capabilities, so don’t be afraid to try higher ISO settings).

Solution 3 (and my least favorite): If neither solution above works, then you can try to increase the lighting in the scene. One way is by adding flash. Flash will certainly freeze action and eliminate hand shake blur (as long as you are not in night time portrait mode). While flash can lead to an artificial feeling in your shot, hence my reason for it not being my favorite, it can do the job effectively and send you home with images of the moment. Remember, however, that flash can only cover a certain distance, and is sometimes not allowed at certain venues, so solutions 1 or 2 or a combination of both may be your only choices to correct the problem.

The image above would have been completely different had I used flash. So I boosted my ISO to 1600 so that the little bit of light coming into the room could be captured naturally. My lens was zoomed to 60mm, making the magic shutter speed 1/60th of a second. However, with my stabilized lens, I was fortunate to be able to catch the image at 1/8th of a second, the fastest shutter speed I could achieve with the given lighting, ISO setting and open aperture (F/4). The VC stabilization allowed me to shoot 3 stops slower than what would be normally required.

And of course, a solution that works the best for low light situations is a tripod. As long as there is no movement in your shot, a tripod will stabilize your camera and let you shoot at rather slow shutter speeds. Tripods are the most essential tool for landscape and nature photographers since a smaller aperture like F/11, F/16 or F/22 are required to achieve deep depth of field, but shutter speeds are naturally slower.

Next time you are shooting in low light, shooting at a longer telephoto zoom setting, or shooting action, consider the solutions above and you should find your images will be sharp as a result.

Shooting Against a Bright Background Fools Your Camera’s Meter: One Easy Answer Is A Quick Exposure Compensation Adjustment

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On my recent business trip to Switzerland this month, we had the opportunity to sightsee for two days. Our tour took us to an amazing view of the Swiss Alps. A short train trip on the Matterhorn Cog Railway from the mountain town of Zermatt brought us to the Gornergrat where we were met with a panoramic view at 3131 meters above sea level. This astounding view of 29 peaks, each over 4000 meters and including the Matterhorn at 4478 meters, offered up the chance for our small group of 25 to take thousands of photos. We each took turns taking photos of each other and quickly discovered we needed to adjust our camera settings to compensate for the extremely bright background. In this case, the meter saw that much of the frame was filled with white, so the camera “stopped down” the aperture to let in less light (sort of like squinting in bright light). However, this made the subject’s face quite dark. To compensate, I moved the exposure compensation setting to +1.0. I then pointed the camera at my colleague, held the shutter release button down halfway to lock in the focus, and shifted the camera so that I could capture Yuki in front of the Klein Matterhorn. This tip is useful when shooting against any bright background such as snow, sand, water and bright windows, all which lead to backlit situations. So keep this in mind as you travel this summer or spend a day at the beach or boating.

A Video on Making Silhouettes

My friend and colleague Ken did a better job than me explaining this. Enjoy!

Set a Slower Shutter Speed for Fun Photos

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My friend and professional photographer Andre Costantini has this great shot in his presentation that really shows the effect of a slow shutter speed. So while at the park last week, I bravely got on a tire swing with my subject and we were promptly spun until I wanted to throw up. In fact, I closed my eyes and just kept shooting and screaming. But it was worth it to show you how a slow shutter speed setting can make a really fun shot. I had my camera set at ISO 200 as it was a really nice bright day and I put the camera on high continuous shooting. I then set the camera to F22 while in the aperture priority mode, which in turn gave me a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second. This slow shutter speed cannot stop the fast action of the tire spinning around, so the sky and trees in the background are wonderful streaky blurs. Yet the subject is in focus (well, relatively speaking and I will explain that in a minute). The reason the subject stays in focus even though the shutter speed is so slow, is that in relation to each other, our position stays the same. It’s as if we were just standing still looking at each other. Now, he is admittedly slightly out of focus since he was a little too close to the camera and had I just kept my eyes open while shooting, I would have spotted this and leaned back a touch. So if you can get yourself on a fast carnival or theme park ride, or a tire swing or one of those merry-go-round things on the playground, position yourself so that you and your subject face each other and relative to each other do not move (i.e., in the same seat), and shoot on a slow shutter speed to really show off the motion of the ride. Tell your subject not to move too much, especially closer or further away from the camera. And have fun. Maybe take some Dramamine® before you head out to take this shot.

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Silhouette Photos Are Easier Than You Think

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Silhouettes are some of the most dramatic images. Who doesn’t love the silo of father and child walking away from the camera holding hands; or dad lifting a toddler high above his head against a blue sky; or an iconic skyline with a beautiful sunset backdrop. I could go on and on with examples we can instantly picture in our minds…palm trees, mountain ranges, large mammals atop a hillside, swimmers getting ready to jump into the lake. You get it. And to get the shot, it is actually very easy. My first example is not the greatest composition due to the distracting fence that surrounds the basketball court, but it clearly shows the subject and all details as black silhouettes. To take a silhouette photo, it helps to remember how the camera makes a proper exposure. When the meter reads very bright light, it stops down the aperture to a very small aperture, thus letting in less light. So if you point the camera at the sky, and lock in the exposure for the bright blue sky or brilliant sunset, the camera will pick a very small aperture like F22, letting in less light and therefore under-exposing your subject, which in turn becomes black. You can vary the effect by using your exposure compensation button (+/-) and taking shots a stop or two under and a stop or two over and pick the effect you like best. In my examples below, I metered off of the bright water and achieved the same effect. So next time it is a sunny day, crouch low so that your subject is against the bright background, meter for the sky and shoot away.

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Video Tutorials Worth Watching


I usually don’t post work-related stuff, but I have to say that the new 1-minute videos featuring professional photographer Andre Costantini are worth checking out, so I thought I’d share the link to the latest video about aperture since it is great information. See Episode Three and other videos here.

Take a Portrait With Shallow Depth of Field

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This is a repeat, but one that needs repeating since I think we all want to achieve great portrait shots— even when it’s just a quick candid shot we’re grabbing before the cake is served or before the kids are leaving for school. And using shallow depth of field is a key to great portraits (along with expression, lighting, angle). Shallow depth of field, when the parts of the image in front of and behind the subject are out of focus, makes your subject pop off the image. The example here (a repost from the summer), for instance, shows the eye and smile in sharp focus, yet the tip of the nose, ear and hair are out of focus. Another advantage of shallow depth of field is that you can eliminate distracting backgrounds like indoor clutter, foliage, cars on the street, etc., It makes the background less defined with soft colors.

To get shallow depth of field, the key is to set your camera to the “A” mode: Aperture-Priority. You can leave your ISO setting at 200 or 400 (or higher if the lighting conditions are low) and leave your camera in autofocus. You will then use your thumb-wheel to dial in the smallest number you can, like F/2.8, F/3.5, F/5.6. Focus on the eyes of your subject, or the eye that is closest to the camera. Depending on how close you are to your subject and what lens you are using (telephoto lenses and closer proximity make the effect even more apparent), you will notice that the background is just soft to almost unrecognizable. If you want the photo to have some context of where you are (like cooking in the kitchen), then maybe F/5.6 is a better choice. But if you want the crowd in the background to go really soft, “open the lens wider” to F/3.5 or F/2.8 if you can.Please review the aperture download card here.

Making Snow Pictures Look Less Grey

After the snow falls and school is cancelled for the day, the first thing the kids want is to bundle up and build a snowman. And we can’t help but grab our cameras and shoot the whole process. Sometimes, you’ll find the snow in your uploaded photos looks slightly grey and/or the overall picture is on the darker side. One way to fix this before you shoot is to adjust your exposure using the exposure compensation dial (see photo below and be sure to look this up in your manual). See, your camera’s meter reads the whole scene as very bright since there is so much white all around your subject. In turn, the camera closes the aperture a bit to make what it believes to be the proper exposure (like squinting when it’s too bright out, your camera wants to put on sunglasses).

exposure-compensation-4-2-650x0So you need to trick your camera and “add” more light by holding down your exposure compensation dial (+/-) and moving the thumb wheel to add exposure by going to the plus side. I usually add +0.7 when shooting in snow. The result is a bright picture and whiter snow. So next time there’s snow by you and you go snowshoeing or help the kids with their snowman, add some extra exposure (+0.3~+1.0) before you start shooting.

 

Fine-Tuning the Color Cast in Your Photos: Custom White Balance

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One of the great advantages of digital photography is the ability to fine-tune the color of your photos pretty easily. There are many ways to do this including after the fact using photo editing software, adjusting custom image settings (like portrait, landscape, etc) though menus on your camera, and even the old fashioned way: using a filter. Filters were commonly used to remove the color cast of certain lighting when using daylight balanced film, or vice versa. Today, however, you can easily fine-tune the color by experimenting with your white balance settings. First, I suggest you review this white balance download card. Second, locate the white balance button on your camera (the button is usually designated by WB and is found on either the back or top right of your camera). If you hold this button down and use your scroll wheel, you will be able to move through the various white balance settings (consult your camera manual if your camera does not operate this way). Most often, AWB (automatic white balance) does a fine job of adjusting the color cast of the lighting to make sure white looks white and black looks black. However, sometimes the photo may  look too orange (or blue, magenta or green) for your taste. To fine-tune, you can select one of the pre-set modes. Just decide what type of light is hitting your subject and set the WB to the corresponding icon (see the download card again).

If you still find the color to not be what you are looking for, then it may be time to experiment with CUSTOM WHITE BALANCE. I will admit, I have not done much with custom white balance as I feared it was too difficult and only for real professionals. However, I have discovered it is really easy to set a custom white balance and the difference in color can be night and day. I used a custom white balance this holiday season in a relative’s living room that has consistently given me an issue the past few years, even when using a flash. This year’s holiday photos were much more pleasing as a result.

To set a custom white balance, follow these easy steps:
1) Hold down your WB button and scroll to PRE or Custom
2) Hold down the WB button until PRE or Custom blinks
3) Point your camera at a white piece of paper that is close to your subject or hold an “expodisc” (my tool) over your lens and point it towards the light source
4) Press the shutter release button as if you were taking a photo and look at the LCD on your camera to confirm the camera states “Good” (If not, try steps 3-5 again). No photo will actually be taken.
5) Take pictures
Note: if you use an expodisc, put your camera in manual focus to take the WB shot and then put it back into autofocus before taking photos.

The samples above of “Marabelle” show a distinct change in color cast. The AWB gave me an orange cast from the tungsten lighting in the room. The preset tungsten white balance setting gave me the same result. But by following the steps above, I was able to get a more accurate color rendition of Marabelle, her clothing and the surroundings. For example, look closely at the white zipper in each photo and the black marble counter top. Places where custom white balance can make a huge difference include stage lighting and gym lighting (look for a future post on this regarding the atrocious mercury vapor lighting in the gym where we play basketball) where the camera’s presets may have a hard time perfecting the white balance. So, if you are up to experimenting with this technique, I highly recommend it as yet another way to improve your photos and even save some time editing them later on. If you find yourself using a custom white balance often, then take a look at ExpoDisc or other products like it to make the job easier.