Using Complementary Colors in Your Pictures

Those who know me well would probably say that I’m not a fashion god. I don’t lay my clothes out before getting dressed to make sure the colors complement each other or at least match. I’m more of a “this dark blue shirt probably matches with these light blue jeans and my brown shoes go with everything” kind of person.

Now, before you rush to judgment, you should know that this is all different when it comes to photography. When I’m composing a picture, I think a lot about color. In fact, using complementary colors in your pictures can make your images stand out.

So, what are complementary colors and how do you use them in photography? Although there are large books written on color, I’ve never read them. Because I’m not an expert on the topic, I think I can make this really simple. Let’s start with the basics. Take a quick look at this color wheel diagram below. This is the most basic version of the color wheel, with the wheel itself broken out.


The idea is to mix colors at opposite ends of the wheel which are considered complementary colors. Notice that in all cases you will be mixing a primary color with a secondary and a warm color with a cool color. In this, the most basic version of the color wheel, you have three sets of colors to work with: blue and orange, red and green, yellow and magenta. Take a look at the three images below and notice how well the colors work together.

Mixing Blue and Orange

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End of Day at Deadvlei : Prints Available

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

Mixing Red and Green

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Red-Eyed : Prints Available

Close-up of colorful Red-Eyed Tree Frog

Mixing Yellow and Magenta

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Sunset on the Farm : Prints Available

Colorful sunset silhouette of an Illinois farm

Now, of course, things are never quite as simple as they first seem. In fact, the color wheel is actually a continuum with a practically infinite number of colors. To illustrate this, take a look at the picture below. If I’ve ever take a picture that screams “complementary colors”, this is it. Yet, looking at the basic color wheel, this seems to be a mix of something closer to magenta (which should go with yellow) and green (which should go with red).

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Oil and Water : Prints Available

Close-up of bubbles made from oil and water

So, why do these colors work so well? Take a look at the expanded color wheel below which takes the next step and adds “intermediate colors”. The colors in the above image are actually closest to “yellow-green” and “red-violet” in the wheel below, which are indeed on opposite sides of the color wheel.


Keep in mind that you don’t need to match colors perfectly. In fact, depending on what you are photographing, you may have no control over the colors in your image. The important thing is to be aware of complementary colors and watch out for opportunities to include them in your images. It is not a bad idea to have a copy of the color wheel in your camera bag.

Natural vs Artificial Light Portraits

People like things that are natural better than things that are artificial. After all, don’t you prefer to see “strawberries” on a list of ingredients rather than “artificial flavoring” and “red dye 40”? So, when someone introduces themselves as a natural light portrait photographer, it really does sound pretty impressive. Or, does it? [insert your preferred dramatic musical interlude here]

It is true that low-angled sunlight is hard to beat for portraits. However, great natural lighting isn’t always available. Portrait photographers that use only natural lighting are at a big disadvantage in my opinion. I have seen the portraits by natural light only photographers and find the lighting is often pretty bad. Although not true for all, my suspicion is that quite a few of these photographers are simply not comfortable using flash.

I think that in the majority of cases you can get better results by bringing in flash to your outdoor portraits. Let me give an example of an image that would have been basically ruined without the help of artificial lighting. The following back-to-back images were taken on an overcast morning, both with and without flash.

No flash and no processing

No flash and processed slightly to open up shadows

With flash and no processing

I think almost all of us will agree the image using flash looks much better. In fact, without the flash, I would have probably tossed the picture due to the flat, boring lighting. There are three reasons the artificial lighting contributes so much to the image:

Reason 1: Better separation between the subject and background. The flash on the subject makes him stand out against the background. In the shot without flash, the subject’s face is darker and basically blends in with the rest of the image. Even with some post-processing adjustments, it doesn’t look as good. Starting out with good lighting is better than trying to create it in post-processing.

Reason 2: More contrast. In the pictures below, I cropped the same images to show only the subject’s face. Notice the lighting on the face looks much more dramatic and seems sharper. This is due to a greater difference in luminance between the light and dark areas of the face. This makes the subject more interesting to look at.

No flash and processed slightly to open up shadows

With flash and no processing

Reason 3: More control over the power and direction of light. With natural light, if you have great, low-angled lighting, you still have to position your subject to take advantage of the light. This gives you less options for what your background will be. Or, if it is overcast, you get soft lighting with little contrast as in the above example. Artificial light can mimic the sun, or even overpower it, and allow you to have much more control over the light, such as changing its’ direction or using multiple light sources.

Granted, if I had chosen an image taken in beautiful, low-angled light, the situation would be different than the above example. And there might be cases where the soft light of an overcast day is preferred. So, then what is the point of this blog? Here it is… Before you go down the natural light only portraiture route, learn how to use artificial light effectively. You can then decide whether to add artificial light when you want or deal with the constraints of natural light. Having seen the benefits of artificial lighting, I’ve gone with the first option.

Editor’s Note: Notice that I showed good judgment in not ruining this blog by ending it with “but I’ll still take strawberries over artificial flavoring any day!”

Cities at Night

Yes, yes, I know it has been awhile since my last blog post. Well, I have a good excuse. I have been devoting all of my spare time in the last two months to helping my wife launch her newborn and child portraiture business. You can find evidence of this at

Although I don’t specialize in cityscape photography, I do enjoy city lights and have managed to get a few decent night pictures. Here are my top three pieces of advice for getting cool pictures of cities after the sun has gone down:

Shoot at twilight. Photographers call twilight the “blue hour”. Just prior to the sky going black, it turns a beautiful cobalt blue for perhaps 20-30 minutes. This is a great time to be shooting pictures of cities. Take a look at the two pictures below. The first was taken at twilight, so you get the nice color contrast of the blue and gold.

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Pulteney Bridge at Twilight : Prints Available

Pulteney Bridge lit up at night

The picture below was taken after the sky had already turned black. Booorrrriiiinnnnngggg.


Capture motion. Assuming you are shooting at a reasonably low ISO, night pictures require long exposures. This gives you the opportunity to capture motion, whether it be moving clouds, tail lights, water or anything else.

My favorite city night shot is below. The whole image looks basically out of control. I used a 30-second exposure with low, fast-moving clouds overhead. Although this was taken well after twilight, the lights of the city turned the clouds orange in the exposure, which looks as good or better than the twilight. Without the moving clouds, this picture would have been a tosser.

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The London Eye : Prints Available

London Eye spinning at night

Process in black and white. Don’t put your camera away after dark. Even with a black sky, you can still get compelling black and white city shots. This is because black and white images rely on contrast, not color. The picture below was taken late at night and looks much better when converted to black and white than the original color image.

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Eiffel at Night : Prints Available

Shot from below the Eiffel Tower in black and white

How to Get Sharp Pictures – Part 3 of 3

We’ve reached Part 3 of our 3-part series on getting sharp pictures. This blog has been text-heavy, which differs from my usual approach of going relatively lighter on text and including photos as examples. So far, we’ve covered the first 4 of 7 causes of less-than-sharp pictures and how to address each. Causes #1-4 included camera shake, motion blur, inaccurate focus and your ISO/aperture choices. Let’s look at the final 3 causes now. Again, I am only scratching the surface of each as there are entire articles and even books devoted to each of these individual topics.


  • Good quality camera equipment make a difference. The internet is full of articles on whether to put your money into good lenses or a good camera if you are faced with a choice. Those on the side of good lenses form the majority when discussing sharpness and image quality. Can you still get sharp pictures using lower priced lenses and cameras? Sure! But, all else being equal, high quality cameras and lenses give you a better starting point.
  • Prime vs. zoom lenses. Although it is less the case than it used to be, prime lenses (those that have a fixed focal length, such as 50mm) are generally considered to be sharper than zoom lenses. Good quality zoom lenses can be sharp, but keep in mind that use of a zoom lens (especially a low or medium quality one) might affect overall sharpness.
  • Keep your lenses clean. You don’t want to be shooting pictures through dirty glass. Take it easy on lens cleaner, though. There are proper ways to keep your lens clean, so make sure to do some research on that.. and watch for a future blog on it.
  • Use filters of comparable quality to your lens. If you put filters over your lens, then the “weakest link” principle holds true. Don’t put poor quality filters over a premium lens.


Lighting is everything in photography. Try shooting a subject in a dimly lit room and then in beautiful lighting (natural lighting or using flash) and you will see a difference in perceived sharpness even if both images are exposed properly. If you are shooting in dim light and your pictures don’t seem sharp, then lighting could be a contributing factor. You can’t always control lighting, but many times you can. Consider shooting at a different time when the lighting is better or adding flash. The important point here is to know that lighting quality affects perceived image sharpness.

Compare the next two photos. Although there are a variety of factors going into the perceived sharpness of these two images, lighting is probably the key factor here. The top image was shot in dim light with no flash, whereas the bottom image used flash. Yes, these are processed differently, but the starting point was a lot sharper in the bottom image due to the flash lighting.

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Balinese Dancer : Prints Available

A Balinese dancer looking out the window

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Early Morning Smoke : Prints Available

Indonesian man having a morning smoke in a village outside Jakarta


If you notice your images are not as sharp as your favorite photographer’s images on his or her site, it could be partially due to post-processing. Post-processing can really make a night and day difference in the sharpness of the final image. If you shoot your photos in RAW format, then the files themselves are structured to preserve as much data as possible. These files often look dull and flat without processing. The idea is to add an “appropriate level” of sharpness for the medium in “appropriate areas” of the image. The point here is that, if you don’t sharpen your images in post-processing, you will likely not get the level of sharpness you see in images that have been sharpened in post.

Well, that’s it for this series. I hope this at least gave you some ideas on how to get tack sharp images. As I have only touched on each topic, feel free to shoot me an email through this site if you have any questions.

How to Get Sharp Pictures – Part 2 of 3

We are back with Part 2 of our 3-part series on taking sharp pictures. To recap, we are focusing on seven common causes of less-than-sharp images and how to address each. Part 1 focused on the notorious “camera shake”. Part 2 will introduce causes #2-4. With a reminder that I am only touching briefly on each, let’s jump right in…

CAUSE #2 – MOTION BLUR. While camera shake relates to movement of the camera, “motion blur” is about elements in your composition moving. Motion blur can happen with both your subject and your background. Your moving subject might be a person walking, while your moving background may include trees or grass blowing in the wind. Now, not all motion blur is bad. In fact, some of it is downright cool. However, it is important for you to have control over whether you want to freeze or blur the motion.

Motion blur happens when the shutter speed is too slow to freeze moving elements in the image. In addition to the speed of the moving elements, the space that the moving elements take up in the frame is a key factor. So, the distance to the subject and your lens choice play an important role. Once again, below is a link to a recent blog on shutter speed which deals with both camera shake and motion blur. For those that do not feel like clicking on the link, some starting points for freezing motion are to use 1/125 – 1/250 for slow moving objects (walking people)… 1/500-1/1000 for fast moving objects (running people and moving cars) and 1/2000 for very fast moving objects (race cars).

CAUSE #3 – INACCURATE FOCUS. Getting good focus isn’t quite as straightforward as it would seem. Here are some guidelines for getting good focus, starting with some tips which hold true whether you are using autofocus or manual focus:

  • Zoom in when focusing. If you are using a zoom lens, you will get better focus by zooming into your subject to lock focus and then zooming back out as necessary to take the shot.
  • Use “live view”. If your camera has it, you can get more precise focus using “live view”, which is Canon’s terminology. Live view (or whatever it may be called for your camera’s manufacturer) allows you to view and focus via the LCD screen on the back of the camera. You can zoom into a very small part of the image for precise focus. Live view is typically used when you are photographing still subjects on a tripod, as hand-holding the camera and looking at the LCD screen is not a stable way to hold the camera.

Here are some tips which apply to auto-focus only:

  • Test (and adjust if necessary) the autofocus of each lens on each camera. Don’t assume that your autofocus is working perfectly. I had to send a brand new top-quality lens back for repairs because the autofocus was WAY off. It is a good idea to test each lens’s autofocus with your camera on a tripod. There are some relatively inexpensive tools which will help you determine if your focus is off and by how much. Most of the better cameras will then have a micro-adjustment tool, where you can adjust the focus of your lens (or camera) and re-test to help it focus properly.
  • Be careful when re-composing with very wide apertures. Generally, photographers using autofocus will lock their focus, then recompose for the shot. This recomposing means a slight movement of the camera. For very wide apertures, such as 1.2 or 1.4, this slight movement can throw the image out of focus. So, be as careful as possible not to move forward or backward. If you are aiming the camera at an angle (as opposed to straight towards you subject), this is even more of an issue. If re-composition is necessary, some photographers using f1.2 will snap a few images, moving very slightly back and forth between each shot in an attempt to get one shot in focus.

Now, here are tips for manual focusing only:

  • First, try using manual focus. Many people never use it. However, you can sometimes get better results than with auto-focus. I always use manual focus when shooting macro subjects and some of my landscape images.
  • Getting good focus on manual is dependent upon two things: 1) Your eyesight; and 2) the diopter being adjusted properly if your camera has an adjustable diopter. The diopter is the little window that you look through when composing your image through the viewfinder. Adjust this until it is sharp to your eyes.

I know this might be “link overkill”, but I did do one other blog on focusing for moving subjects. Here it is:

CAUSE #4 – ISO AND APERTURE COMBINATION. We’ve discussed shutter speed. However, ISO and aperture can certainly affect the sharpness and quality of your image.

  • Use a lower ISO when possible. Your ISO setting determines the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is to light. However, as you raise the ISO, the picture quality suffers in the form of “digital noise”. Shoot with as low an ISO as possible under the conditions, without compromising the image from an inappropriate shutter speed or aperture combination. Newer cameras, such as the Canon 5D Mark III, can handle high ISOs with minimal noise.
  • On a related issue, it is worth a brief mention here that aperture determines depth of field. Wider apertures (lower f-stops, like 1.8) have less depth-of-field, meaning relatively less of the image outside of the plane of focus will be sharp. Narrower apertures (like f/22) will have greater depth-of-field, meaning most or all of the image front to back should be in focus.
    • However, many people are not aware that lenses have differing levels of sharpness across the range of apertures. Generally, the sharpest aperture of your lens is 1-3 stops above the widest aperture. So, if your widest aperture is f2.8, then f5.6, f7.1 or f8.0 will typically be the sharpest. This does not mean that your pictures will be blurry at f/16, but it is useful to know that these apertures produce the sharpest images and factor that into your choice of aperture. You may still want to shoot wide open or at a small aperture to get the depth-of-field you want.

    That is more than enough for today. We’ll deal with the last three causes of less-than-sharp pictures in Part 3.

How to Get Sharp Pictures – Part 1 of 3

There is an old saying amongst professional photographers that “blur happens”. Okay, there is no such saying. I just made that up. However, there should be such a saying. That’s because we can all identify with being disappointed upon the discovery that our pictures were either blurry or less than sharp.

So, how do you get tack-sharp pictures? There is a long list of ways. I have identified 7 causes of less-than-sharp pictures and have included some specific suggestions on how to address each. Because there is a lot to say on the topic, I will only be summarizing and, even so, will be splitting the blog into three parts.

Before we get into it, here is some helpful advice: Evaluate your images for sharpness by zooming in closely on the image and checking key parts for sharpness, such as a person’s eye. You might be surprised that the pictures you thought were sharp are not so. With that piece of advice, let’s get right into the causes and corrections for less-than-sharp images. Part 1 focuses exclusively on the first of seven causes….

CAUSE #1 – CAMERA SHAKE. The exposure of an image… how light or dark it is… is determined in part by shutter speed. Unless your camera is stable, longer shutter speeds (even 1/125 is too long in some cases) can lead to blurry photos due to the natural movement of the camera. I recently wrote a blog on suggested shutter speeds which offers guidance on acceptable shutter speeds if you are hand-holding the camera. I suggest you read this blog first.

In case you skipped over the above link without reading (you know who you are!), the general rule for shooting STILL subjects is to NOT hand-hold the camera at shutter speeds slower than the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. So, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens (or zoomed in to that equivalent), then you would not want to hand-hold the camera at speeds slower than 1/50. (There is no 1/50, so you go to the next fastest speed, which is 1/60.) If you are shooting at 200mm, then 1/250 (there is no 1/200) is the slowest you will want to hand-hold. This is just general guidance, although a good starting point. As for me, I try to avoid going slower than 1/60 even with wide-angle lenses. I like to err on the side of caution.

If your shutter speed is fast enough to hand-hold and you will get better results due to the mobility of NOT using a tripod, then follow these suggestions when hand-holding the camera:

  • Hold the camera steady. Holding the camera still during shooting is important at any shutter speed. For digital SLR cameras, you grab the right side of the camera with your right hand and use your index finger to press the shutter button. Rest the camera on the palm of your left hand. Hold the camera close to your body, which means looking through the viewfinder, as opposed to holding the camera out in front of you. I usually breathe in and hold my breath for a second while pressing the shutter, then exhale. You will also want to stand in a stable way. You can lean on something if you can. If there is nothing to lean on, then spreading your feet apart (perhaps about even with your shoulders) will help. Standing straight up with your feet together is not optimal.
  • When in doubt, fire off a few shots using continuous shooting mode. If I have no other choice but to use an uncomfortably low shutter speed, I’ll stand as still as possible and hold the shutter button down in continuous mode, firing three quick shots. This increases the chance of getting a sharp image.
  • In some cases, use your lens’s image stabilization (a.k.a. vibration reduction) feature. Some of the better lenses have a feature that allows you to shoot STILL subjects at considerably slower shutter speeds. This does not work for moving subjects. It also should not be used if the camera is on a tripod or otherwise completely still, as many photographers (including myself) have gotten blurry images by forgetting to turn this feature off when using a tripod.

Next, if your shutter speed is too slow to hand-hold OR you want to help ensure your camera is completely stable, then do the following:

  • When appropriate, use a tripod. Photographers have a sort of love/hate relationship with tripods. They can be bulky and a pain to carry, but help us get sharp pictures at slow shutter speeds. It is important to know that not all tripods are created equal. A flimsy tripod might be okay in some circumstances, but add a little wind or place the tripod in moving water and you will be unpleasantly surprised when you see your pictures. Your tripod must be stable. The following picture always comes to mind when I talk about the stability of the tripod… I had the camera on a stable tripod, but my friend and I were shooting on a flimsy bridge when another photographer came running up on the bridge and was moving around while shooting, resulting in the bridge moving around slightly. As a result, one of my (otherwise) best landscape pictures is not completely sharp.
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Sunset Over the Watchman : Prints Available

Brilliant light hits the Watchman after an intense rainstorm

  • When using a tripod, use a remote shutter trigger and mirror lock-up. Even with a tripod, there are two things that can cause camera shake. First, pressing the shutter button will move the camera slightly. Secondly, with single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, the internal mirror must move out of the way in order to expose the camera’s sensor and create the image. This movement of the mirror can shake the camera slightly. You can address both of these issues by using a remote shutter trigger (or the camera’s self-timer if you dropped your remote in the water like I did), combined with a “mirror lock-up” feature. If your camera has mirror lock-up, then enabling that while your camera is on a tripod is a good idea. You trip the shutter twice instead of once.. the first time to lock the mirror up and the second to expose the image.

I should quickly mention the monopod here. A monopod is basically a stick that you can put your camera on. This falls somewhere between hand-holding and using a tripod. Your legs and the monopod together form a sort of less stable “tripod”. The advantage of the monopod is that it allows the photographer more freedom to move around while providing some stability. Sports and wildlife photographers who use heavy lenses often use monopods to take on the weight of the long telephoto lenses.

Coming up in Parts 2 and 3… causes #2-7 for less-than-sharp pictures.


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.