Photographing Low Angles

Ride 2 Recovery

Ride 2 Recovery

Each year down California's Central Coast is a charity ride for wounded veterans called Ride 2 Recovery, and each year they ride past Vandenberg Middle School down Highway 1 where the kids come out to cheer them.  This year I had the opportunity to witness the event, so I grabbed my camera and got ready. 

I had no idea this guy would ride past cranking a bike with his arms.  When I saw him down the road coming toward me I became as giddy as a school girl knowing that a low angle of him riding past would make for a great photograph.  The kids high fiving him was the icing on the cake.

Why make photographs at low angles?

Great photographs have a different perspective.  Notice how the photographer in the background is shooting from the standing position?  Other than documenting the cyclists riding down the road I doubt her pictures tell much of a story.  We already know what the world looks like from the standing position because we see it from that perspective everyday.  A picture that gets noticed isn't better, it's different. 

If I were standing to take the shot above it would have been just another snapshot.  Instead, I bent my knees and got low showing the world in a way most people don't typically see it.  When you view a photograph with a different perspective it makes you stop and think for a moment.

Whereas, a photograph from the standing position is not too different from any other photo from the standing position regardless of the subject.  I think this is most noticeable when photographing kids.  Get low and on their level.  It not only shows their perspective with how they see the world, but it presents you with a different view of the world, too.

Practice getting low, shooting up, change your perspective, add angles, and find different lines that that lead to your subject. Low angles will make your pictures more interesting. 

Panning and Framing

 Let's face it, a poorly framed photograph is just another snapshot. On the other hand, a properly framed image will draw your eye to the subject, make you think for a moment, and stir emotion. Getting creative within the frame adds even more interest. Consider the above photo. I framed the train's engineer in the window of the engine while panning to show motion... and perhaps his emotion. You can almost hear his thoughts, "Ugh, round and round I go, and these people call this fun."

This picture was made at Travel Town in Griffith Park near downtown Los Angeles. It's a train museum where they have old locomotives, rail cars, cabooses, and all the fixins' on display that go along with the rail industry. They also have a small train ride that rolls around the entire park. My cousin had his little boy's three year old birthday party there on the day I made this photo. Train themed, of course.

The little train runs passengers around and around for hours, and it continued to pass right by where we were sitting. While watching the train roll past I created this picture's image in my head then picked the spot that would allow me to pan, while getting the engineer sitting in the window of the engine.

Panning shots are tough to capture. You have to move your camera at the same speed as the subject using a slow enough shutter speed so the background blurs all while keeping the subject sharply in focus. Panning creates the perception that the subject is moving. For this shot I set the shutter to 1/40th of a second. When lowering the shutter be mindful of the exposure triangle. That means you have to adjust either your aperture or ISO, or both to maintain a properly exposed image.

The second part to capturing a good panning shot is to place the focal point on the subject and move with it. In this case I wanted the engineer in focus looking through the window of the engine to create a frame within the frame. Panning makes for a cool affect and framing within the frame adds more interest.

My first challenge is to have you try some panning shots. Bicycles are great. They're fast enough to create nice motion blur, yet slow enough to help you set up the shot while showing lots of movement. Other vehicles work, too. Just note, the faster the object the faster you can set the shutter speed. Play around with various moving vehicles, and shutter speeds to get the hang of it. I find pans are hard to do well, but when you capture a great one you know it, and it feels good, too.

Second, look to frame your subject within the image. You can make a photograph while looking through the opening of a tent, a side mirror on a car (also adding a reflection), place the subject between columns of a building, or just about anything else that adds a frame. 

Overall, anything you do to add interest to a photo is great. Just be sure your subject is well composed and you can't be wrong. Now go outside and take a picture!

7 Tips For Tack Sharp Photos

We recently spent a lazy morning at La Purisima Mission. While there I took pictures of grandma with her grandsons. We had a lot of fun, and I got some great shots. There was one problem, however. Some of the well composed pictures were not tack sharp.

One of the cool features of Aperture (thank you Apple for killing off another great product) is that you can see where the focus point was placed in each shot. When photographing people it is always best to focus on the eye nearest you. Doing so creates an accurate depth of field that draws attention to your subject and it makes sense to how our brains are wired.

Notice how it's blurry right on the red focus point?

Notice how it's blurry right on the red focus point?

When we got home I uploaded the photos to my computer, and was disappointed with a number of them. I'm sure you can understand why. Many of the best shots were fuzzy making them unusable. 

Some of the photos were tack sharp about one inch behind or in front of the focus point. I've noticed this pattern for a while now. Is it me, the camera, the lenses, all of the above? Let's find out.

Focussing then Moving

I shoot with the Nikon D7100. When shooting portraits I always set the camera to the "single focus" setting. Single focus allows you to frame the composition of each shot by moving the focus point to a specific place within the frame allowing you to create an artistic look.

In single focus mode the focus point locks when you press the shutter button halfway. At that moment it is important that both you and your subject stay still. If you don't then the distance you move (either backwards or forwards) will alter where you are actually focussing.

One way to correct for this is to set your camera to the "Continuous Focus" setting. Continuous focus is meant for live action sports, or anything fast moving. When shooting portraits it will help you correct for movements - especially when your subjects are small children with their chasing parents.

Just know that the lens can be a half second slower than you are when moving around, so you can still get a fuzzy shot. And continues focus will drain the battery faster since it is continuously driving the focus motor.

One thing I found that works is to set the focus lock "chirp" loud enough so your subjects hear it. When they do they know to stay still. I also press the button halfway to lock the focus then release it. I do this a few times until I feel confident that everything is lined up and ready, and then take the shot. 

Increase The Depth of Field 

If changing your focus setting gives you sporadic results try increasing your depth of field. Shooting at f/2.8 makes for a nice buttery background that separates your subject from background distractions, but it also tightens up the focal plane. 

Increasing the f/number will increase the distance between the front of the focal plane to the back of it. Setting your aperture to f/5.6 will give you a few feet to work with whereas f/2.8 and lower will only give you a few inches. 

And if you are shooting portrait photography with a long lens you need not worry about bokeh. A 200mm focal length will give you plenty of blur at f/5.6 while still drawing attention to your subject.

Back Or Front Focussing Issues

You tried holding still after locking in your focus, you changed your focus setting from single to continuous, and you increased your depth of field by changing to a larger f/number, but you still have issues with sharpness. If so, you may need to adjust the point where the camera is focussing. 

Most modern cameras have adjustments that allow you to fine tune the front to back focussing of all your auto focus lenses. Nikon's auto focus adjustment is aptly named Autofocus Fine Tune whereas Canon calls it AF Microadjustment. This setting will allow you to make millimeter adjustments to each of your lens' focal plane.  

Until I get around to writing an article about how to adjust the fine tuning of your camera's focussing system you can learn more about it here.


After all that, if you still have issues check your lighting. Auto focus systems require light for the CCD to make accurate predictions as to where the best focus point is. If you need a little more light you can turn on your camera's auto focus assist illuminator. It is a small light that illuminates your subject just enough to create contrast.

It is this contrast that the CCD uses to set the focus. The best way to obtain contrast is to place your focus point on a line where light and dark meet. So when focussing on the eye for example, use the line where the eyelid meets the eye.

For landscapes use a tree, rock, or hillside. Just be sure to focus on a spot where light and dark come together. In low light a definitive line may be just enough to get you the tack sharp focus you want.

Stop Shooting In Auto Mode

I can't stress getting out of Auto enough - Learn to shoot in manual mode. Or at least use Aperture Priority. The biggest issue you will face when you shoot in Auto is that the camera takes control of what it thinks the frame should look like. Often, the end result is not what you want. 

Auto mode's primary objective is to create an accurately exposed image. It is not meant to take an artistic photograph. When shooting in Auto the camera guesses at what it thinks you want, but instead captures an average boring snapshot. 

In order for Auto to achieve proper exposure your camera may lower your f/number just enough to create a shallow depth of field. It may slow your shutter speed so much so that it creates motion blur. Or it may raise the ISO to the point that the image grain is just too much to bear.

In every photograph you need to keep the ISO low enough to minimize the digital noise, and the shutter speed fast enough to meet the demands of your subject's movements. The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be set no lower than the focal length of the lens.

For example, if you are shooting at 200mm your shutter speed should be no slower than 1/200th of a second. But not all camera's shoot at that speed. If not, you would need to round up to 1/250th of a second. 

Now if you read my variable aperture lens article then you would know about crop sensor cameras and their crop factors. As if things couldn't get more complicated, you need to take the cropped multiplier into consideration and set your shutter speed to that number. 

Case in point. If you have a 200mm lens with a Nikon crop sensor then you are effectively shooting at 300mm (200mm x 1.5 crop factor = 300mm full frame equivalent).

In that case, to avoid motion blur you need to set your shutter speed to 1/300th of a second. If your camera doesn't have a 1/300th setting then round up to the next one. The further out your lens can reach the more exaggerated it makes small movements. So shooting fast with a long lens is the best way to freeze action.

When you take control of the exposure triangle you can make the photograph look exactly how you imagine the image. At that point it becomes a lighting issue that you may or may not be able to control. And variable aperture lenses lose light as you zoom, which creates other problems.

Focus Points

My D7100 has a lot of focus points that cover most of the frame - 51 to be exact. That means they cover the fringes of the lens where the glass curves. This may cause some lenses to be less sharp at the edges.

If you notice this happening then place your focus point more toward the center. Full frame lenses may not have this problem, especially when used on crop sensor cameras.

Whereas, shooting with lenses designed for cropped sensors on a full frame camera may increase the likelihood of blurry images - along with vignetting. Shoot lots and practice. Get to know your gear. It will take some time to become familiar with it.  


If you tried all of these suggestions and you still get poor auto focussing then you may need to have your gear sent back to the manufacture for them to recalibrate it. Or find another hobby, but I'll leave that for you to decide.

Now get out there and do your part to stop flooding Facebook with blurry underexposed images.

Portrait Photography With A Telephoto Lens

We all enjoy taking photos of people.  Unfortunately the majority of photos are just snapshots taken with a cellphone where people put very little thought into the outcome of the image.  But that’s not you because you are a student of photography and want to know how to improve the images you capture. 

There are so many variables to capturing a fantastic image, and one of those is the focal length of the lens you choose. It is important that your photos of people pop and are flattering.  The best way to do that is with a fast f/2.8 telephoto lens.  Remember, the key to great photographs is shooting with great glass.

The Importance of Focal Length

The reason you are shooting a portrait is to create a personal image that is flattering to the subject.   Wide angle lenses create distortions whereas shooting with a long focal length removes distortions by compressing the image and blurring the background to make your subject pop.  The longer lens compresses facial features so noses stick out less, foreheads are not as prominent, and everything else in the image is more compressed when shooting from a distance.

A long lens also removes distracting backgrounds.  With a fast wide angle lens such as a 24mm f/1.4 it is difficult to separate your subject from the background unless you focus really close.  Even if you can get great background bokeh with a fast lens wide open your focal plane is so narrow that the nose and ears can be blurred while the eye is sharp.  This would not make for a nice portrait.

Another reason that you would not want to use a wide angle lens for portraiture is that you need to be well within the subjects personal space in order to fill the frame.  If this is your spouse or a close friend, shooting from 2 feet away may not be a big deal.  However, when I was shooting Uncle Fuggles at 17mm (24mm on a DX sensor), he was a bit uncomfortable with me standing so close.

Separate Your Subject From The Background

Blurring the background is important with portraits because it allows you to isolate the subject from the background.  When everything is in focus the background is too distracting and your eye is not drawn to the subject.  A great photo leads your eye to the subject in the image.  Below are two images that are similar.  One has a more depth of field while the other has less and is more compressed.

Disappear Into The Crowd

A long focal length lens allows you, the photographer, to blend into the background.  Standing further away allows you to get great candid shots.  When you are up in someone’s face with a 35mm lens they know you are there and will react as such.  When you are shooting from 10 to 20 feet from them they will act more natural.  

Shooting across the room when children are playing is great because their attention is on having fun rather than on the camera.  It helps you capture them in their natural state.  Shooting at a distance with a fast long lens can also help isolate someone from a group of people.  Imagine you wanting to photograph a girl singing in a choir.  You can separate her from the rest of the crowd.  Unlike photos where you play 'Where's Waldo' blurring the crowd will help lead your eye to the subject adding interest to the photograph.

Photos In Space

Shooting with a long lens can remove spatial distortions.  When shooting close you may be above or below the subject and wide angle lens will show your spatial difference.  But when moving further from the subject the differences in height vanish.

Finally, shooting with different focal lengths keeps your brain working by causing you to think about each photo you take.  Know your lens, and put your camera in manual mode.  Think about your settings.  Then predict what you think may work for the lighting conditions.  Take the shot and see how accurate your guess was.  Think about the exposure triangle and make any corrections in stops of light to improve the image. 

One caveat when shooting with a long lens is that you don't want to shoot with a shutter speed lower than the length of the lens.  So a 200mm should have a shutter speed 1/200 or greater.  Remember, the crop factor.  If you are shooting with a cropped sensor Canon at 200mm you need to have your shutter speed no lower than 1/320 of a second (1.6 x 200mm = 320mm).

Uncle Fuggles was kind enough to step in as a portrait model. The images below were taken with the Nikon D7100 , the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM , and the Sigma 50-150 mm f/2.8 APO EX DC OS HSM . The camera settings remained constant for each image and I only changed the focal length. The camera was set to 100ISO, f/4.5 at 1/1000 shutter.

Why does the background change while the subject remains the same?

The two images below demonstrate the difference between the 17mm and the 150mm focal lengths.  Using your imagination you can see how the wider lens captures more of the background when compared with the longer telephoto lens.  The longer lens is more narrow, so it gets right in the face of the subject without any ancillary noise from the background. 

Digital Photography: The Exposure Triangle

The Exposure triangle is the most important aspect of photography.  Its three primary components are, Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed, but before we move further let me discuss a few things in detail.

Shutter speed is easy to understand, but it's complicated in practice. In its simplest form shutter speed is how long the shutter will remain open when pressing the shutter release button. It is represented as fractions of a second to as long as minutes or hours.  The shutter controls three things.  

1. Shutter speed controls the length of time light is let into your camera to correctly expose the frame. While looking at your light meter you can see how under or overexposed the image will be based on a set amount of time, and is directly related to how open the lens iris is (your aperture setting) and the sensor's light sensitivity (your ISO setting).  Increase the speed and the exposure will darken. Decrease and it will lighten.

When exposing for low light with a slow shutter speed it's recommended you use of a tripod and a remote trigger to avoid camera shake.

2. Shutter speed either freezes or blurs action.  If you are photographing live action sports and you want to freeze movement you want a fast shutter, or you could slow the shutter to create motion blur.

3. A slow shutter speed can show how slow moving objects change over time. For example, in the film days when photographing star trails you would keep the shutter open for an hour or more.  

One thing to note is that long exposure photography is a relic from the films days. Today, long exposure photography is done by taking many photographs of the same scene then compiling them with software. So instead of leaving the camera's shutter open for two hours to capture star trails you would instead take 1,440 five second exposures stitching them together with software to achieve the same affect all while making a cleaner image. 

The Reciprocal Rule With A Twist

Zooming with a telephoto lens can cause unwanted camera shake leading to blurry images. To avoid this you need to employ the Reciprocal Rule. That is, your shutter speed should not be slower than the focal length of your lens as measured in fractions of a second.  This is to avoid motion blur when hand holding a telephoto lens.

For example, if you are shooting at a 100mm focal length then your shutter speed should not be less than 1/100 of a second. If you are at 200mm you should shoot at a minimum of 1/200 of a second.  

But here's the twist!  If you are not shooting with a full frame camera then you have a camera with a cropped sensor. This adds a multiplier that is based on the size of your camera's sensor (i.e., Nikon = x1.5, Canon = x1.6, Lumix & Olympus micro 4:3 = x2).  

For example, you have a 200mm focal length with a Nikon DX then your are effectively shooting at a 300mm equivalent and should not lower your shutter below 1/300 of a second. A Lumix or Olympus would be at 1/400 of a second. This takes a little thought, but with practice you can quickly do the calculations and be on your way to making tack sharp photos.

Stops of Light

Light is designated with an f/number where f represents doubling or halving the amount of light entering the camera.  You most often see this on your lens with an f/number designation (e.g., f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc.). One stop from f/2.8 to f/4 will cut the amount of light entering your camera in half. Opening your aperture up from f/11 to f/8 will double the amount of light.

This is the primary reason why large aperture lenses are so expensive. A fast f/2.8 telephoto lens requires a lot of glass, and is big and heavy. Whereas, slow kit lenses are much less expensive because they have variable apertures. To learn more, I wrote extensively comparing single aperture with variable aperture lenses. 

Exposure Triangle

Armed with these three pieces of information (Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO) you create the Exposure Triangle.  Keep in mind, the exposure triangle is always in flux.

Think of it this way.  Proper exposure is in the center of the triangle.  If you move up or down on one side you need to move in the equal and opposite direction for one of the other sides. Or a half stop on both opposite sides to maintain the correct exposure.

For example, your camera's sensor has a specific native sensitivity for a properly exposed image.  If you have a correctly exposed image with the settings of 1/125 shutter speed, aperture set to f/5.6, and ISO 800, and you speed up the shutter to 1/250 to freeze action then you either need to open the aperture or increase the ISO by one stop, f/4 or ISO 1600 to maintain the correct exposure.  If your camera is capable of half stops then you can do one half stop of each instead of a full stop of one or the other.  

If you changed any one of the three without changing either of the other two then your image may be over or under exposed by one stop of light.  To see this in action put your camera in manual mode and start turning the shutter and aperture dials while leaving the ISO constant.  You will see your light meter move from a proper exposer to under and over exposed.  

Exposure is always in flux as light is never constant. With a strong understanding of the exposure triangle you will capture great images.  To get out of Auto and into Manual I recommend you shoot in Auto first to see what your camera is doing, then emulate those settings and adjust them by one or two stops up or down to see how each setting affects your image. 

Now get out there and make great pictures.