occasionally technical tuesday: 7 common problems new photographers face
So you've bought your camera, and a big, fancy lens. You've been shooting everything that crosses your path; in fact, your partner and your kids are starting to run away from you when you get that I'm-in-the-mood-to-shoot look in your eye. And yet, when you pull your images up on your computer screen, you're finding that the results aren't as fabulous as you thought they'd be. You might even be thinking that the camera store pulled one over on you: you shelled out all this money, and they sold you a dud.
Hang on there, my dejected friend: chances are there are just a few little tweaks that you can do to help tap your inner Ansel Adams. So before you go demand your money back, here are the top 7 issues/questions I receive from new photographers that, for the most part, simply require some minor adjustments:
1. Why are my photographs coming out blue/yellow/green?
One of the most common questions I often receive occurs after someone has shot several shots, and the images that result all have a strange hue -- often yellow, but sometimes green, or even blue. This problem is usually a really easy one to fix: it's related to the adjustment of the camera's white balance.
In essence, different sources of light have different qualities. Natural sunlight tends to be the whitest of lights. Incandescent light (from standard lightbulbs) tends to have a yellow hue. Fluorescent light, however, has a greenish tone. In order to correct for this, check your camera's manual on how to adjust your white balance (often indicated by a "WB") -- the camera's ability to adjust for the light illuminating your subject. In other words, if you're shooting indoors under mostly incandescent light, set your camera's white balance for shooting under incandenscent lightbulbs. If you're shooting under fluorescent light, ditto. The colour tint problem should go away.
What if your pictures are blue? Well, that's probably because you left your white balance adjusted for incandescent light, but you're shooting in natural light. Again, simply adjust your white balance for sunlight.
2. Why are my photographs so grainy?
Occasionally, I'll get a question about the graininess or "noisiness" of a photography -- the photograph, even though shot in bright light, looks grainy in texture. This is a common mistake, and one, I'm embarrassed to say, I still occasionally make.
This has to do with the ISO setting of your camera -- remember the "light catchers"? To refresh, the darker the surroundings, the higher the ISO should be. Unfortunately, the downside to upping your ISO is that photographs tend to become more grainy.
To fix this, when shooting in bright light, be sure to lower your ISO as much as possible -- if it's a truly a bright, sunny day, you probably don't need more than an ISO setting of 200, when handholding your camera. If you're shooting in darker circumstances, to reduce graininess (more properly referred to as "noise," when talking about digital cameras), you can either (a) keep the ISO low, but use a tripod, to reduce camera shake or (b) use a flash.
The moral of the story: always check your ISO before shooting.
3. I hate "red eye." How do I make it stop?
You know the issue: you're taking what you're hoping is a stellar portrait of someone, only to have the image return with a demonic red glow in your subject's eyes. This is because either (a) your subject is possessed, or (b) the light from your flash reflected in your subject's pupils, causing that "red eye" effect (and for some reason, this is more common in people with lighter-coloured eyes, than darker ones). If it's (b), take heart: this is relatively easily fixed.
To reduce red eye, do one of the following:
a) Turn off your flash. Make sure you actually need your flash before you turn it on -- it could be that you just need to nudge your ISO setting up a bit (see #2, above).
b) "Bounce" your flash. If you can adjust the direction that your flash points, then point it up, to the side, or even behind you -- any directly except directly at your subject.
c) Less effective, but still often works: have your subject look slightly away from the lens (i.e., not directly at the camera) when you're using your flash.
4. I look at other people's photographs, and they're always so impressive. Mine are so blah. Why?
Your framing looks great. Your subject looks beautiful. You checked things like ISO, shutter speed, aperture and they're all appropriately set. So why does the resulting photograph look so blah, when other photographers get images that truly captivate?
Chances are it's all in the post-processing, my friend.
I've mentioned before that my views of Photoshop have changed -- when I first started shooting, I thought that Photoshop was deceptive, a tool primarily used for making subjects look thinner, or less grey, or remove them from the image altogether. It wasn't until a kindly camera shop employee taught me that really, Photoshop is just a 21st century darkroom, and can be used accordingly: simply to enhance what you've captured on film.
An example -- the following shot was taken straight out of the camera:
It's a decent-enough shot, but it doesn't necessarily convey how beautiful I found the image in the first place.
However, take a look at it after about 15 seconds of post-processing:
See how much warmer it is? And all I did was (a) sharpen it a little, and (b) bump up the contrast a bit. I didn't remove any pixels or anything "deceptive" -- I just used Photoshop to enhance the image in a way that conveys what I found beautiful about this blossom in real life.
However, a warning: once you've become comfortable with post-processing, be careful not to fall into the trap of #5, below:
5. Thinking about all of this camera-adjusting stuff is way more work than I care to do. Can't I just Photoshop it later?
Once you've seen the magic of post-camera processing, there's a danger that you begin to use it as a crutch: you stop checking your white balance on your camera, thinking you can "Photoshop it later," for exapmle. Or you notice some ugly power company lines in the background before you take the shot, and think, "oh, I'll just Photoshop them out when I get in front of my computer."
My advice: fix the issue before you squeeze the shutter. Yes, you can adjust a lot of things during post-camera processing, but in my experience, it's a lot more work to do it then, and frankly, I'm never as happy with the results as if I'd just addressed the problem in the first place. So before you squeeze the shutter, make sure you have your settings right, look through the viewfinder and take a good look around. Notice:
a) Is the horizon straight? Nothing can ruin a good sunset-over-the-ocean shot like a crooked horion. Fix it prior to taking the shot -- it'll save some time and frustration later when you pull it up on your computer screen.
b) Are the vertical lines (buildings, walls, etc.) vertical?
c) Is there anything cluttering the background that you don't want? In other words, if there are electrical lines running through the background, or trash, or whatever, then adjust accordingly: you can simply move so that they're no longer in the frame, or if you want to get really fancy, you can even play with your aperture setting to ensure the entire background is out of focus -- whatever. But fixing it ahead of time will be a lot quicker (and will feel a lot less deceptive) than trying to erase pixels on your computer.
6. Why isn't the focus on my image sharp?
This can be the most frustrating thing about taking a shot: when you upload it onto your computer, and the image is out of focus. And for what it's worth, for as long as I've been shooting this still happens to me. There are a few causes for this:
a) Your camera isn't set on auto-focus. Sometimes this happens -- I have a couple of vintage lenses that are fully-manual, and I think I've focused property, but it turns out I didn't. It happens. But if your camera autofocuses, then by all means, use it. It's just one less thing you have to think about.
b) You didn't focus on the proper subject. Sometimes what you want to do is focus on something that isn't actually in the centre of your frame -- you're trying to focus on something off-centre, in the foreground (or, for that matter, the background). There are two ways to do this:
(i) read your camera manual to see how to adjust your camera to focus on something off-centre (most SLRs will allow you to change the point of focus pretty easily); or
(ii) put what you want to focus on in the centre of the frame, push the shutter release halfway down to get it to focus, and then, without lifting your finger, move the subject to the part of the frame you want it to be, and then push the shutter all the down to take the shot.
c) You're shooting on aperture priority, and you have your ISO set to too low a setting. If this is the case, your camera is going to adjust to a slower shutter speed, and if it's too slow, any movement you (or your subject) makes is going to result in camera shake, or blur. (And if this sentence doesn't make any sense to you, refer to the OTT post on apertures for further clarification.) The upshot: up your ISO setting and try again.
And now, a caveat: sometimes focus is overrated. Two of my very favourite shots I've ever taken were accidents, and completely out of focus:
See? So the moral here is: even when you take a shot that's out of focus, try to look at it objectively. It might actually be the shot you never realized you wanted.
7. Why can't I take a decent portrait?
Usually the way to take a decent portrait is to just practice, practice, practice. But there are a few tricks I use to help enhance my portrait shots:
a) Get in close. One of the biggest mistakes that I see people make is that they don't get close enough to the subject to really take a lovely portrait. Fill your frame with as much of your subject's face as your lens will allow without losing focus. And note that a lens in the range of about 50mm to 100 mm tends to take the most flattering, magazine-cover-type portraits.
And speaking of focus:
b) Focus on the eyes. This is actually a tip our wedding photographer once gave me, and it's invaluable: often, the inclination is to focus on whatever's in the middle of the shot, usually somewhere near the tip of the nose. Don't do that -- make sure the point of focus of your camera is on the eyes; after all, this is what we like to look at when we're looking at someone's face, right? There's a reason they say that the eyes are the windows to the soul.
And finally, my favourite portrait trick:
c) Shoot a ton of portraits at one time. Often the reason portraits result in less-than-favourable images is because the subject isn't entirely comfortable with having their shot taken. So one of my favourite tricks is to just take a ton of shots: let the subject pose, and take the shot. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. Usually, by this time, your subject will say something like, "Oh my GOSH!! HOW MANY ARE YOU TAKING?!" and start laughing. At this point TAKE A FEW MORE. This is when you'll end up getting the most natural shot.
Works every time.
Hopefully this all helps. If there are any other issues you're having with your shots, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll tackle them in future OTT posts. Until then, happy clicking!
Occasionally Technical Tuesday is a new feature here on Chookooloonks, where we'll tackle topics like choosing a camera, how a camera works, how I choose lenses, how I use Photoshop, how I pack for a photo trip, that sort of thing. You can see an entire index of subjects we've addressed here. I'm no expert, but I'll share what I know, occasionally.
Images: The two out-of-focus shots were from deep in my archives, and to be honest, I have no idea what camera I was using or what my settings were. Sorry about that. As far as the remaining shots:
The fabulous Erin Loechner and her furry friend were photographed with my Nikon D300, 50mm lens. aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/6500, ISO 200
The equally wonderful Erin Sullivan was photographed with my Nikon D300, 50mm lens. aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/2500, ISO 200
The orchid was shot with my Nikon D300, 60mm macro lens. aperture 3.2, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 200