We’ve all heard the saying “opposites attract”. Looking around, you could probably make a pretty compelling argument that the saying holds true. I mean, what else could possibly explain chocolate covered pretzels tasting good? I rest my case.

Good photographers know how to use opposites in a picture. By the way, I’ve deliberately used the term “opposites” rather than “contrast” because the latter is generally more narrowly defined in photography. You can build in opposites before, during and after the shot. Here are just a few of the many ways how:

Light and dark. Photography is all about lighting. Notice the shadows on the dunes below. I waited for what I considered to be the right balance of light and shadow on the dunes before taking this picture. It remains one of my favorite images. Without the shadows, the picture would have been much less dynamic.

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End of Day at Deadvlei : Prints Available

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

Moving and Still. It is no secret that combining moving and stationary elements can make a photo more interesting. (See my other blog article on including movement in your images). Moving water, clouds, vehicle or people all work. You need to select the right shutter speed to blur the moving object (depends on a variety of factors, but initially think in ranges of 1/15 to 1/125). You also need to make sure your camera is stationary to keep the still objects sharp, given your shutter speed. So a tripod may be needed.

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Subway Gold : Prints Available

A flood in the Subway leaves the formerly turqoise pools filled with sand

Sharp and Blurred. Notice the eyes of the subject are sharp (and higher contrast) while the doorway is quite blurry (and lower contrast). This directs your attention to the eyes and away from the doorframe. During shooting, you can do this by selection of wider aperture or by positioning yourself closer to the subject and leaving more distance between the subject and the background. You can also create or accentuate this during post-processing.

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Smoke Break : Prints Available

Close-up portrait of Indonesian man smoking in the doorway to his home

Warm and Cool. Orange, yellow and red are considered warm colors. Blue is a cool color. A movement across your image of cool colors to warm colors can add dimension. This can occur naturally with low, angled sunlight. However, this is generally something you can do during post-processing. Just don’t get carried away. The image below starts cooler at the bottom and gets warmer towards the top.

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Little River in Autumn : Prints Available

Creek on Middle Prong Trail of Little River during Autumn.

Lastly, creatively including opposite concepts or characteristics in the image (fast and slow, old and new, etc) can work well for conceptual pictures.

Shapes and Backgrounds in Silhouette Pictures

One of the signs that you are getting better as a photographer is hitting the delete button more often. Most of us tend to think our pictures are better than they actually are when we first start out. This is perfectly okay… we just develop higher standards for our photography as time goes along. Raising the bar and deleting pictures that don’t meet up to our new higher standards is a good thing.

One of the easiest types of images to overrate is the silhouette. Silhouette pictures can be cool. However, the image essentially hangs on a shape and a background. If the shape isn’t interesting, the picture will not work. If the background is boring, the image is a tosser. You need both elements for a successful silhouette picture.

The following picture works well because the frog forms a good graphic shape against the colorful orange leaf.

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Frog Silhouette : Prints Available

Frog silhouette on an orange leaf

For the picture below, the background is nice, but the tree is pretty messy and cluttered. So, in spite of the good background, the picture doesn’t really work in my opinion. More simple graphic shapes generally work better than cluttered shapes. I had this image on my site for awhile, but later tossed it.

Lone Tree at Sunset

The following image really depends on the shape of the woman. The hat really helps out, as does the fact that you can see both her arms. It is a relaxed pose and it is obvious that she is looking at the fountain. If she was turned to her side, the image would have been tossed a long time ago in spite of the nice background.

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The Fountain : Prints Available

Elegant woman watching a fountain during a brilliant sunset

The lighthouse picture has a great sky and also a good graphic shape with the fishermen on the pier. The fishing poles and fisherman holding the coffee cup really adds to the overall shape of the silhouette in my opinion.

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All is Well : Prints Available

Silhouette of two men fishing off a lighthouse pier during sunset

Here is one last silhouette picture that works well because of the very strong graphic design combined with a nice sunrise on the lake.

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Morning Dance : Prints Available

Silhouette of woman exercising in the morning on the beach of Lake Michigan

Creating Pictures That Make People Think

Everyone loves an amazing landscape image that stands on its own with no analysis required. However, pictures that require a little extra thought by the viewer can be compelling. Getting the viewer to take an extra second or two to think or wonder about your image is a good thing. Here are a few suggestions on how to make that happen:

Convey a strong emotion. The image below is of an obviously sad or heartbroken girl that has gone through some sort of loss. This is an emotion that any viewer can identify with. In this case, you might wonder what it was that made the girl so sad. Now, before you start worrying about her… she’s fine. In fact, if I remember correctly, she was holding back a sneeze shortly before this picture was taken.

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Heartbreak : Prints Available

Heartbroken girl wearing black and looking at a red rose

Convey a concept. The shot below isn’t an amazing picture, but it does convey a cool concept. The juxtaposition of two very different types of flight in the same image makes you look a little longer at the picture. (In case you were wondering, this was taken as a single shot at an air show… this is not a composite of two separate images)

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Juxtaposition : Prints Available

Two forms of flight represented by a lone seagull flying in front of the Blue Angels during the Chicago Air and Water Show

Show something that needs additional explanation. You might do a quick double-take when you look at the image below and wonder why an old rusty car is sitting in what looks to be a front yard. People will generally try to make some sense of an image before looking away, so this picture might hold your attention a little longer than if the car was sitting in a junkyard instead.

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The Simple Life : Prints Available

HDR rendition of the remnants of an old car

Include intriguing people as your subject. There is something about intriguing people that make you want to better understand what is going on inside their head. I’ve used this image in a recent blog, but the photo below is such a great example of a person that makes you want to better understand what they were thinking and feeling when the picture was taken.

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Jakarta Shipyard : Prints Available

Dock worker in a Jakarta shipyard poses for the camera.

Quick Advice on Minimum Shutter Speeds for Sharp Images

Any serious photographer knows the feeling of looking closely at their pictures after a shoot only to realize their favorite image is blurry. Uggghhhh. Awful feeling. That feeling is much worse if it is your fault because you used a shutter speed that was too slow.

This blog will focus on choosing the right minimum shutter speed for sharp images. Having said that, you might want part or all of your image to be blurry. I love pictures that include both sharp and blurry components, such as the image below which combines a sharp landscape with blurred water. However, this blog focuses on minimum shutter speeds for sharp images.

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Fog Over Ponytail Falls : Prints Available

Fog creeps through the trees overlooking Ponytail Falls

There are four things that I can think of that go into choosing a shutter speed. There might be more, but it’s 5:45 am here and my mind isn’t quite functioning yet. I think I’ll say four for now and I can always go back and change it and you’ll never know the difference.

  • Whether elements in your image are moving and how fast they are moving.
  • How still the camera is. This translates into whether you are hand-holding the camera (and how stable you are holding it) or have the camera on a tripod.
  • The distance from the camera to the various components in the image. A person riding a bicycle left-to-right five feet in front of you will move across the frame much faster than if they were off in the distance.
  • The focal length of the lens. If you are holding the camera, longer lenses are generally heavier which is one factor. Additionally, if you are using a 200mm telephoto lens, you have a much narrower perspective than if you are shooting with a wide-angle lens. This narrower perspective means that the same subject moving around or across the frame will take up a greater proportion of the image and be more of a factor.
  • Whether you are using flash and whether flash is lighting all or part of the image.

Okay, so that’s five reasons. The white chocolate mocha must be working. Now, here are some shutter speed guidelines for different shooting situations. As a general rule, if shutter speed is an issue, I like to err on the side of shutter speeds that are too fast rather than too slow. The trade-off is a higher ISO or wider aperture, but I prefer this to risking it with shutter speed.

For stationary subjects, such as a landscape, I almost always select my aperture as the top priority and then use a tripod for the sharpest image. If it is windy out and there are moving trees or grass in the image which might become blurred, then I must decide on whether that is acceptable to me. If not, I can either adjust my aperture or ISO for a faster shutter speed OR take two images – including one with a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement – and then blend the images in Photoshop. For the image below, because I used a tripod, I used ISO 100 (for image quality), f/13 (for depth of field) which resulted in 1/25 as my shutter speed.


Leading Lines : Prints Available

Late evening light strikes a tree in the middle of a lavender field

For stationary subjects in cases where I am hand-holding the camera, I will generally use the “reciprocal rule” and then often increase shutter speed a bit. What does that mean? If I am shooting at 200mm, I would use a 1/200 shutter speed or faster (so, 1/250 at minimum) to avoid the effects of camera shake. However, if I am using a wide angle lens (say 14mm), I would still not shoot below 1/40. For slower shutter speeds, I will turn on image stabilization and, if possible, lean against something to increase my stability. I’ll hold my breath and fire off 3 rapid shots by holding down the shutter button (in continuous firing mode). Then, later I can choose the sharpest image.

For slower moving elements (such as a person walking), you have two things to keep in mind… first, camera shake and, second, the moving elements in the image. However, the moving elements will be more of a factor here unless you are taking a picture of a sloth. Generally, for slower moving objects, such as a person walking, I use at least 1/125 and prefer 1/250 at minimum.

For somewhat fast moving elements, such as a person running, I prefer 1/500 or faster. A little bit of blur looks good sometimes, but this blog is about creating sharp images.

For fast moving objects, such as a moving car or running water, I generally prefer about 1/800 or 1/1000. For very fast objects, such as a bird in flight, 1/2000 is often recommended as a minimum. For the image below, I used 1/1600 as my shutter speed. I then had to use a slightly higher ISO than I would otherwise have used.

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Giant Leap : Prints Available

Caracaol (lynx) jumping to catch a piece of food

Now, if you are using flash, things get more complicated. I will only touch on the topic here. First, you will want to know your camera’s maximum sync speed and not exceed it. My camera (in theory) has a maximum sync speed of 1/250, although you really need to use 1/200 or slower. The “speed” (or duration) of the flash depends on the settings and the flash itself. However, the flash will be “faster” (a quicker burst of light) than your shutter speed. If your settings are such that the flash is providing the vast majority or all of the light in the image, then the duration of the flash is the key factor in freezing movement. However, it is very common for photographers to blend flash and natural light. In the picture below, the flash generally lit up the model while natural light lit the background. So, the duration of the flash was the key factor in freezing any movement of the model (so, not a real issue here) while the shutter speed was the factor for the background (and therefore I needed to pay attention to shutter speed to keep the background sharp… I used 1/160).

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Indonesian Girl at Sunrise : Prints Available

Beautiful girl carrying a pot of water on a beach at sunrise

There is a lot more to say on the topic, but I better stop here. I hope these quick guidelines are helpful.