03 November 2019

How can you ruin a shot?

As you are doing things, you get better at it. At least in general. Of course you sometimes need to push yourself to try and not just repeat what you know. This qualifies for photography as well as for any other thing in life. The problem is that this improvement goes slowly and gradually. You do not wake up and went from making lousy shots to winning a Pulitzer. I was thinking I did not make much progress, until I looked back at the early photos I made from when I started looking in photography. Which is about three years ago for me. And I picked out one of the very first photos I did post process.

I shot the photo on the left on the airport, going on holiday, with my brand new Nikon D3200. My first DSLR, my first experience with things like aperture, ISO, and I barely had a clue what I was doing.
The photo will not win any award, but you might call it okay. You would be fooled, as I probably made every mistake you can. This is the result after post processing it yesterday. The original photo is, being RAW format, much flatter and has some glaring issues. Flatness is, of course, fixed in post. Or at least that is what I thought when I did this three years ago. Looking back that turns out to be an exercise of making a bad photo worse.

Why am I sharing this?

To perhaps have some new photographer realise these things, before making the mistakes. To share that this is the learning curve many go through. For me important: to notice I have developed. I can see some of my mistakes, I can see what things to avoid. So, in short: to boost my own feelings. I will of course celbrate this fact with a lot of alcohol and good food. After finishing this post.

The original

As already said, the image was saved as RAW, so flat. Nothing with that, but now look at my settings:
ISO: 1250
Aperture: f/22
Shutter speed: 1/400
Focal length: 220mm
The first thing I would question is: f/22? Really? Why? You can see the noise in the original clearly. Obvious as it has an ISO of 1250, at which the D3200 with the 55-300 kit lens definitely is showing noise.
The aperture should be wider, as there is only the airplane of real interest. Nothing besides that thing needs to be really sharp. And that could have lowered the ISO significantly. The shutter speed could otherwise have been lowered a bit as well. The airplane was going very slowly, so even with a high f-stop, ISO could have been reduced. The mode of shooting was aperture priority, so - looking back - it would have been so obvious to dial that down and get much less noise.
As for composition: it's an airport, so hard to get really clear shots, but perhaps making a bit more space on the left side, so the airplane would have some space in the direction it is going, would not have been a bad idea. I cannot say for certain, as I really do not remember how it exactly looked. It was three years ago after all and my memory is already not so good.

What did I learn?

The most important thing is that I actually know way better what the controls on my camera are and what they do. I had a good camera on my holiday, many shots are totally unusable as they are over- or underexposed. Caused by not knowing what the controls do.
This is tightly coupled with understanding the exposure triangle. That's not really hard, but if you only think you know it, you are making things harder for yourself. While it is easy to already know when to user shutter speed priority or aperture priority mode. Just this knowledge and switching at the right times makes a huge difference. There is more, but these two things are such vital parts. Neither of them has you make great photos, they are merely "technical". But they will certainly help you to at least get decent photos. I learned (a lot) more, but think that these two are the first and most important steps to take as a new photographer.

The first edit

Then, after the holiday, you come home. Start with the great new tools, mainly Lightroom. I can assure you that Lightroom is a very, very powerful tool and I love it. But it does help to have a clue what you are doing. What was I thinking when I made this edit? It's horrible! And I know I actually liked it. Yes, I am not lying, I liked it. The main reason? The colors popped. And yes, they do. And yes, I still like popping colors. But this, this is neon colors. They do not just pop, they jump out of the screen and slap your face until it hurts.
I was using mostly presets, whcih could stack and did not hesitate stacking them. Contrast up, vibrance up, clarity up. All those things that make a photo "pop".  Not always wrong in my opinion, I do like the tail of the airplane, the brightness of the red and blue there. Which screams for a local edit. I of course did none of my edits local, all were applied all over the photo.
I was not happy with the grey sky, so, up goes the blue saturation. Totally ignoring all the distractions on the photo.

What has improved?

It goes without saying that the first photo in this article (the later edit), is much better. The first thing I did there was to remove a lot distracting stuff in the foreground. In many photos less is more. The photo was not to show how many red-white poles there are, the photo was about the airplane and how it moves over the runways.
I kept the colors much more as they were, making them pop a bit is mostly done by curves adjustment layers in Photoshop. With masks to keep them limited to where I feel they should be applied. The colors of the tail also pop more, because the background is way less vibrant. A much easier and more natural way to have parts stand out.
Big parts of the white on the plane were blown out in the first edit, I learned to keep an eye on the histogram and kept that under control, so there is still some detail on the airplanes lighter areas.
The sky, well, I still did not like that. But making it cyan is surely no improvement at all. In this case I did replace it. Not with a bright blue sky. The original is gray and subdued. So I picked a gray sky with a little bit of lower cloudes. I did dodge the top of the clouds, to give those a bit more contrast with those highlights.
Midtone contrast was added to just the plane, to sharpen the letters and windows on it. Because the letters were not so brightened as in the first edit, it comes out much sharper as the contrast is higher.

All is great now, right?

No, most definitely not. Even if it helps me see that I like making photos, but that I like processing them even more. I think that area has improved much more than the photo-making skills. The newly edited photo is still not an awesome photo. Given how little I invest in really making better photos, I am certain that my photos are never going to be the main piece in a gallery.
But this comparison does help me put my current photos in perspective. My current photos are in general a lot better than this shot.  Just as I am no longer blindly raising contrast and saturation. So, I am pretty happy to actually see my improvement. And I am fine with the slow pace it is improving. It's only my hobby, I do not make money out of it. Although... one of the photos I shot on that vacation has sold three times in Adobe stock. Earning me not even 2 dollar.

How about you?

If you're reading this blog, I can safely assume you're not a professional with 30 years of experience. Most likely you're more like me. Clawing your way forward to become a little better. With perhaps the same questions I sometimes have. Like: why don't I improve and make great shots? If you do, go back to your early photos from the moment you thought you wanted to look more seriously into photography. You might be surprised about the progress you made. And if so: join me in celebration and get yourself a nice drink or food, or other gift. Or go overboard and buy yourself that great camera. I would like a Nikon Z7.đŸ˜€


15 April 2019

Horizontal, vertical, diagonal

Orientation

This time I was thinking of adding some more about composition. And in this case not even about what is on your photo, but about the orientation of the photo.
Video orientationFor those that want to go quickly through this, I found an awesome explanation on XKCD, which tells the whole story of it. That story includes the new, bold and dynamic method of diagonal! On a more serious note, there is a difference on the orientation. Sometimes one is more suitable than the other.  Even this graphic shows already a bit of that. Horizontal has people and tree, vertical only 1 person and diagonal has half a person and a mountain. In general it can be said that tall subjects are more suited for a vertical orientation and wide subjects for a horizontal orientation. But it is not always that simple. So I grabbed a few example shots I made and try to give some noob-ish explanation. Which you probably had expected, but if you would have wanted a pro explanation, you would not be reading this blog, would you?

Fairly obvious

My first example is in my opinion an obvious choice.
A photo made at a re-enactment at Slot Loevestein in the Netherlands. Some tents, soldiers, water, grass, trees and sky. The tents make a nice horizontal line, they have a nice reflection, which also is horizontal. In fact, I would say all lines in this photo are horizontal. You could exclude the trees, but it's not the trees that are the subject. The line of trees add to the scene as environment.
Here we have almost that exact line of tents, soldiers and trees. Due to the width, the tent on the right mostly fell off, you just see a small part of it. If I would have wanted to bring over the idea there would be many more tents there, this might have been a possibility.. The water, instead of a horizontal feature, now feels more like a square area and is hogging the lower part of the photo. Unfortunately with little detail, except for a shadow of something unrecognizable on the lower left. There is also more air. Which is not too bad as a background, but not a very interesting air to have much of. The leafless trees of which we can now see more and higher branches also do not add much to the photo.
The subject of the photo here was the horizontal line of tents and soldiers, plus the also horizontal reflection of it in the water. The air and water at the top and bottom add nothing to this photo. So I think this indeed is a fairly obvious example of that generic rule: horizontal subjects are best displayed in a horizontal orientation.
Of course, a photographer does not call this horizontal or vertical, he calls it landscape or portrait mode. For the diagonal orientation is no photography term yet, so, giving it is bold and dynamic I opt to call that boldamic mode. Keep in mind where you heard that phrase first, I want due credit for it!

Less obvious

My second example is already less obvious, because it might depend on what I would want to bring over. Both photos have a couple sitting in front of a castle.
At that same re-enactment as the previous photos, I saw these two people sitting and talking. They looked nice enough to make a photo of them, with enough of the castle in the background to give a clue about the surroundings. I would call this a decent photo and am happy with it. To me the composition is nice enough and it brings over what I wanted to show people.
What the previous photo had less, was showing the height of the castle. Okay, not really fair, you can see the roof starting, so you get an obvious hint. But the left side could be awesomely high. So I added the photo in portrait mode. For showing the height of that left part, portrait mode is more suitable. There are some annoying things on this photo, which makes it not my choice. Mostly: to not have the people tucked away in the lower corner, I had mroe grass on the foreground. It unfortunately adds nothing, but - like the previous one with the water - an undistinguished shadow. The castle seems to lean more backwards here, and I miss out on that table in front of them, which I think makes a decent foreground, contrary to the grass.
So, I would again pick the landscape photo, because I think it is way more pleasing and better balanced. Plus it shows the people in front of the castle, with just enough information about the size of the castle. The portrait photo gives more information about the height of the castle, but less about the width, as you now do not see the corner. Therefore I would say it's still fairly obvious which is the better photo, but it does demonstrate that the orientation might convey different things.

I changed my mind

The next example had me change my mind about the orientation I would choose. Again two photos taken at that same re-enactment.
 At one side was a low hill, from where you had this view of the castle. It offered a nice possibility of showing the castle, including a few of the buildings next to it. I would not call this the greatest shot ever. The leafless trees do frame the castle, but somehow leafless trees rarely make lovely frames. There are also a leafless trees in front of the castle. Nonetheless, there is most likely not much better to get from this angle and it does give a bit of an overview.
When I arrived at that low hill, I actually wanted to have a photo of the castle and not much of the other buildings. I also wanted to show the castle has a bit of height. So, portrait mode was obviously needed. I did notice the branches on the right poking into the photo, but could not easily find an angle without them, so decided I would later remove them in post processing. This photo obviously emphasize the height much more than the portrait photo does. So you could call this: mission accomplished. Of course, as I looked at both photos later, I felt the landscape mode did bring over way more than the portrait one. Which made me happy that I had taken a shot in both portrait and landscape mode.

Which is better?

If you got this far, you probably already know I am going to answer this with: neither. It all depends on what you want to bring over. But from my last example, you might get the idea that I do advise making a shot in both orientations. Even if you think you need only portrait, as I did with my last example, it can be worth making the other one. It can surprise you later.
I often take both, if I have the time for it. As I am usually just snapshotting, I do sometimes get photos where my original idea of portrait or landscape simply does not work out as good as I thought. And hey, it's a digital camera, the extra shot is only a click away and costs nothing if you decide not to keep it.

Now just one final remark about this part of composition. In all my examples I preferred the landscape orientation, so you might think I do never pick portrait. The photo I actually published from the first examples was a portrait one. Is it better? I do not know, but it is the one I finally picked. Although it is obvious that I changed my viewpoint a little, because it was not possible to make that photo from the position the other two were taken from. And that shows the number one of Rick's rules on my previous blog entry about composition: value viewpoint.
Besides the last one, none of the photos was edited, besides a bit of exposure compensation. White balance is not set, nor any other edits.

05 January 2019

Rules for composition

What is this composition talk?

Every site you go to talk about photography has talks about camera's, lenses and other equipment and about composition. Luckily there is nothing magic about what composition entails. A bot of a repetition from my previous post: It is - as the word already says - how you compose your photo. The first thing that pops in my mind when I think about composing, is music. And according to Wikipedia a musical composition refers to the structure of a musical piece or the process of creating a musical piece.
Wikipedia would not be complete if it would not include an article about composition for visual arts. Whether you call photography a visual art, or whether you would qualify your own pictures as art, I leave up to you. To be honest, I personally cannot look at my own photos and think of them as art.

Anyway, the article for visual arts says: In the visual arts, composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or 'ingredients' in a work of art, as distinct from the subject. It can also be thought of as the organization of the elements of art according to the principles of art.
Just like the part of music it is talking about structure, here defined as arrangement.
And this is where those rules come in, as it has been shown that certain arrangements are generally registered as more pleasing. And that makes your photo more pleasing, also known as "better".


Show me the rules!

Stop, stop. Not so fast. There are some things you need to know before looking at the rules. The most important is, these are not rules in the sense of law. You have no obligation to follow any of them. And even when breaking all the rules, you can still make some awesome photo's. So, these are guidelines. According to all I saw and read so far, most courses tell you that it is a good advice to follow them, until you know enough to also know when to break them.
If you want to know: I have not reached that point of knowledge. At least to my knowledge, the problem I still have is that I make mostly snapshots: I see something, I click. I don't do that always, but often. Nor do I actually go re-arrange things to set it up better. I do switch viewpoint, or try to at least follow the famous rule of thirds. But I should really think a bit more before pressing the shutter button.

The other point is: there is as far as I know not a single list "rules of composition". There are some that seem to pop up everywhere, but there are also some that are less frequently talked about. I saw a course a bit ago from Rick Sammon and he sums up twenty of them. That is a lot to do in just one blog post, so I think I will split that up and handle them in later posts. I also hope Rick won't mind me using them, and if you really want to learn about them with the great examples, you will need to see his course.

Common rules

I think most sites will agree on the list below and refer to them as common, these are also the five that Scott Kelby mentions in a video I saw:
  • rule of thirds
  • leading lines
  • fill the frame
  • patterns
  • frame in frame
I did an earlier post on composition which showed an example about that third point: fill the frame. It is indeed an easy rule, and I doubt I will spend much more time on it. However, I can add that the example of the "wrong" image that I gave, seems less wrong than I said. You could have a quick look and see the photo. There is indeed a lot of redundant stuff there, but if I look back, I think: of the photo would have included a bit more on the left, to show the building the couple came out of, a few more people blowing bubbles, it would bring more over what was going on here. So filling the frame with your subject is not always want you want to do.

Rick's rules

  1. value viewpoint
  2. rule of odds
  3. fill the frame
  4. orientation is important
  5. negative space is nice
  6. seek separation
  7. love leading lines
  8. don't amputate the joints
  9. patterns/contours/texture
  10. horizon line homily
  11. foreground element
  12. frame it
  13. balance is beautiful
  14. golden spiral
  15. rule of thirds
  16. diagonal lines
  17. triangles
  18. "S" curves
  19. reflections/symmetry
  20. color is cool
I will in following posts use this list to go on a bit about composition, because composition is really that important. If you want to make good photos, it is an unavoidable topic. My previous post was already inspired by Rick, as it was about his #1 point: value viewpoint.

André's rule

I have a blog, so I must be important enough to make rules, right? Perhaps not, and it is not strictly about composition. But I do think that when you can, this is surely one you might want to follow:
Take your time and try different things!
If you find a subject that looks interesting, and you have the time: look at it. Preferably from different viewpoints. And look how your subject lines up with the surroundings, what is the background? How does it stand out? Would it be better suited with filling the frame, or will the surroundings add to the story? It's not a thing of necessarily going over a checklist, but most of all just taking your time and trying to find out what might work best. Of course, given this is the age of digital camera's: nothing prohibits you from taking photo's while doing this.