12-week photo course


Ahh, the hated flash. Photographers seem to hate this and regard it as you would other f-words. I mostly hate it too and try to avoid it whenever possible. But the lesson gave a few helpful tips on how to use it if you must use it, as well as a few scenarios where you might not think to use it but it can enhance your photo.

The first challenge I did was to use the flash to eliminate dark shadows on a human face on a bright day. My subject (hmm… I could get used to calling him that… badum chh) helped me out here, and stood at an angle which cast shadows over half of his body.

Without flash:

Shutter 1/100; Aperture f/8.0; ISO 200; Flash Off

Although we’re in bright sunlight, here is the photo with the flash filling in the shadows:

Shutter 1/200; Aperture f/5.6; ISO 200; Flash On

This might be useful if you don’t have control over what angle of the sun you want your subject (for instance, if there’s a really cool waterfall behind your subject that you can’t conveniently move to a more flattering light).

I’m still not totally sold on the flash (it just has a weird look to it) but I can see how if you were taking a photo where you really needed everyone’s faces to be well-lit, it would be useful.

The other exercise I did was to use the fill flash to combat backlighting on a shadowed subject. I put my subject (Blanche) in the shade with a bright sunny backdrop behind her. (I think I probably could have found a better situation to illustrate this, but I’ll show you the pictures anyway.)

Without flash:

Shutter 1/250; Aperture 5.0; ISO 200 Flash Off

With flash:

Shutter 1/200; Aperture 5.0; ISO 200; Flash On

I encourage you to download the lesson, because they give a lot of helpful tips on how to use flash and the situations in which flash really can improve (gasp!) your photos.

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White balance is a big deal in the world of photography. It’s a tricky little bugger. If you’ve never given a thought to photography besides pushing the shutter button down and then uploading your photos to facebook, you probably don’t know a lot about white balance. But you’ve definitely seen when it’s off. You know how most photos you take indoors at night (you know, those especially incriminating facebook photos) have a yellow glow? That’s because the white balance is off. For most settings, the camera actually takes a pretty darn good photo on Auto. From what I’ve experienced so far, Auto White Balance (AWB) is the only thing that the camera can’t seem to figure out when you’re indoors under a mix of lights.

This was taken of my subject with AWB as he dutifully works on completing his thesis:

Here it is with the Tungsten white balance setting:

And here it is with my custom white balance setting:

While he does look less jaundiced here, the custom white balance didn’t quite do the trick of capturing how he truly looked sitting there. He was somewhere between the second and third photos. He did look a little yellow, because he’s sitting under a bunch of incandescent lights (shh… don’t tell the green police- they’re the only ones we could find to fit the chandelier!).

Mr. Smartypants himself had a look, and after I complained that my custom white balance overcompensated and made him look a little blue, he pointed out the fact that his face was also being lit by the computer screen, which is a much different color of light than an incandescent bulb.

So the takeaway message is that white balance is tricky, especially when multiple light sources are involved. Honestly I will probably only worry about it when trying to take indoor nighttime photos, since in most other situations AWB seems to do a pretty good job.

Any white balance tips?

The photo course continues! Ha. I finally figured out how to look at the photo info in iPhoto (news flash: you don’t have to sit there and write down your settings and remember which settings correspond to which photo because iPhoto tells you all that if you know where to look).

On to the lesson (download here).

It starts with ISO, which is the film speed. The takeaway is that a higher ISO (800-1600) means the photo is captured on film or the digital sensor quickly, and you’ll need less light. This is good for indoor and other low-light situations. A lower ISO (100-200) means that the photo is captured more slowly and you’ll need more light. This is good for outdoor bright light situations. The tradeoff is that a higher ISO means more “noise” in the photos (they’ll be more grainy). So you can’t always just adjust the ISO higher to compensate for low light, unless you want a grainy photo.

Shutter speed is pretty self-explanatory; it’s how quickly the shutter operates. A fast shutter speed will freeze action, while a slow one will blur it. The lesson contains handy rules of thumb for each range of shutter speed. For example, anything slower than 1/50th of a second probably requires a tripod so that only the moving object will be blurred.

The exercise was to take a photo of some water flowing over an object. I worked in Shutter Priority (Tv) mode so that was the only setting I had to worry about. The first lesson I learned is that it requires a LOT of light to take photos using a high shutter speed. I tried doing the exercise at the kitchen sink and then outside in the shade, but when I tried to shoot at 1/1000th of a second, the photo was too dark. So the only way I was really able to complete the exercise was to go outside in bright, direct sunlight.

Here are my photos, beginning with the slowest shutter speed. Notice how they go from showing motion to “freezing” the action.

Shutter: 1/80; Aperture: f/16.0; ISO: 200

Shutter speed: 1/1000; Aperture: f/5.6; ISO: 320

Shutter speed: 1/2500; Aperture: 5.6; ISO: 800

Shutter speed: 1/4000; Aperture: 5.6; ISO: 800

1/4000 is getting super fast, and you’ll notice that the camera is at its limit trying to compensate with the other settings, and the photo ends up a tad underexposed.

Just for fun, I took a super slow one:

Shutter speed: 1/10; Aperture: 32.0; ISO: 100

Again, the other settings are trying to compensate for how long the shutter is staying open (the aperture is high and the ISO is low). When I tried to go slower than 1/10, the photos started getting really overexposed.

It helps to zoom in and notice all the details and just how many water droplets are frozen the higher the shutter speed.

Some people really have their crap together, ya know? Or at least they seem to. Or at least they seem to squeeze a whole lot of stuff into their lives and enjoy it. Right now, the person that I’m slyly alluding to is Kate at Twenty-Six to Life. She’s been reorganizing her blog, adding pages, and making it look easy (it’s not- that stuff takes lots of time).

Anyway, she inspired me by posting about a free 12-weeks-to-better-photos class. You can download PDFs of each lesson, and the thing that hooked me is that each lesson truly takes like ten minutes! But then if you want you can continue to fiddle around for quite a while experimenting and trial-and-erroring.

I recommend you read Kate’s overview of Lesson 1: Aperture and/or download the lesson here. Basically, a wider aperture (lower f-stop number) means that more light will go in and less of your photo will be in focus. A smaller aperture (higher f-stop number) means that less light will go in and more of your photo will be in focus.

Here are my examples. I shot these in Aperture Priority (AV) mode, meaning essentially that the camera is figuring out everything besides aperture for me.

f-stop 4.5, ISO 400

f-stop 8.0, ISO 400

f-stop 29, ISO 400

If they all look the same to you, look again. See how much of the background is in focus in the last photo with the highest f-stop (and therefore most closed aperture)? In the first photo, you can’t see the detail of the zucchini and tomato plants or the fence.

Neat huh?

Here’s another one:

f-stop 4.5, ISO 400

f-stop 8.0, ISO 400

f-stop 29, ISO 400

Again, in the first photo, the flower is the star. By the time I get to an f-stop of 29, details like cars, the cracked cement, and other plants are competing with the flower.

A couple other notes:

  • My lens’ lowest aperture setting is 4.5, which is fine- you can still see the difference
  • I didn’t know how to check shutter speed, which is why it’s not listed. (But I do now!)
  • I’m lucky that Stan the Man likes photography and has a nice expensive camera for me to mess around with
  • Stan the Man also already knows all this stuff and is therefore a very handy tutor to have on hand. But these lessons are a really good starting point for me, then I can grill him with my questions to fill in any gaps. But if I didn’t have a Stan the Man, there is a wealth of information on the interweb.
  • You can take these lessons even if you don’t have an SLR!

I’m excited for the next lesson! Kate is doing a link-up party, so feel free to join us and then link up!