last week we started this two part series to update a 5 year old forum post on the fundamentals of photography, which was revived by Chua Kim You, from Montreal, Canada. Thanks again Chua for reviving that thread, and I hope you are enjoying these Podcasts.
If you are just tuning in, and didn’t catch the first episode, it’s not essential to listen to these in order, but if you are really just starting out, and looking for some basic tips, we will be building on last week, so it might be better to go back to Episode 216 first.
It turns out that once again, as I prepared for this week, I ended up writing about twice as much as I can fit in one week’s episode. We’re going to finish up the basics series with this, but I’ll be releasing a Next Steps episode/post, probably in two weeks time, so stay tuned for that.
The Composition Toolbox
As we know, in art, as with most things, rules are made to be broken. In fact, some of the things that we even call rules, like the “rule of thirds” (that we’ll discuss shortly) aren’t really rules at all. They are guidelines that you can think of as tools to keep in your toolbox, and pull out from time to time while making images. I often find that when I come across a good subject that I want to make a photograph of, I’ll work through a number of compositional possibilities before I move on. Sometimes I know instantly how I want to shoot it, and nail that straight away, but even then, there’s always another angle or another way to frame a subject, so experimenting and working a scene or subject is a great way to improve your photography. So, although this is not a comprehensive list of compositional guidelines, here are few things to keep in mind when shooting, or a few tools for your compositional toolbox.
The Bulls Eye!
OK, so rather than something to do, the first thing I want to tell you is what not to do. Almost always, you’ll want to avoid composing your shot with your subject smack bang in the middle of the frame. Beginners tend to photograph people with their face in the middle of the frame for example, with lots of dead space above their head. This is often the most uninteresting compositional style. Our eye is drawn to the center of the frame and may not escape from there, so we don’t feel involved with the image. Our eyes don’t explore it. The confusing thing is that it will sometimes work, as in I believe it does in image 2366 (below). So don’t totally remove this from your toolbox, but most of the time, avoid the bulls eye composition.
The Rule of Thirds
Rule of Thirds Example
The rule of thirds is always a good place to start when deciding how to compose your shot and avoid the “bulls eye” composition. As in the example to the right, imagine you draw a line one third into the frame from the left and right, and from the top and bottom of the image. If you put your main subject or elements of the image along these lines, or at any of the four intersections, your composition will be worlds better than placing the subject in the center of the frame. You can see here how I aligned the equinox flower head along the left vertical third line, and I aligned the multiple flower heads to the right along the top horizontal third line. Also note how I aligned the center of the tree trunk in the background with the left vertical third line. I did this of course in camera, without the help of the lines as we see them here.
Bear in mind too that is an old and proven concept. Artists for centuries have used the rule of thirds as a compositional guide. According to Wikipedia, the rule of thirds appears as early as 1797 as a rule for proportioning scenic paintings.
How you place the elements in your image will change the story you tell. Generally if a person is facing the left, you’ll put them on the right third line, to give them space to look into. This is a safe and comfortable composition. You can create a sense of drama though, by putting them on the left third, so that they are looking or moving out of the frame with little actual space in the image to look into. This is more dramatic, and makes the viewer wonder what the person is looking at. It could make us feel as though the subject were troubled, or deep in thought. With lots of room behind them, we might wonder what they left behind etc.
In landscape photography, the horizon should almost never be along the center of the image, unless you are trying to create a mirror effect or balance the elements of the image in some other way. Again, it will be much safer to put the horizon along the bottom or top third line. A lone tree might work in the middle of the shot, but putting it on the left or right third will likely be a more pleasing composition in most situations. Also, remember to keep your horizons straight. A wonky horizon line can be very disconcerting, unless it’s obviously intentionally wonky. A spirit level to go in the flash hot-shoe on the top of your camera can help, and many newer DSLRs actually have levels built in, so make use of these to keep your horizons straight.
Break the Rules
In image number 2200 you’ll see that I positioned the mountain very close to the bottom of the frame. You could argue that the tip of the mountain nears the bottom third line, but that’s not really what it’s about. What I did here was took the rule of thirds, and broke it. All of these rules of composition are more like guidelines to help you, rather than rules. Experiment, have fun and break the rules as much as you like to see what you get.
You’ll also note in this image that there is a lot of what we call negative space above the mountain. Apart from a tiny bit of dark cloud in the top right, the blue sky is almost featureless, but it adds a lot to this image in my opinion. When I view this image I actually feel my eye coming off of the mountain and drifting upwards into the negative space, giving me an even greater feeling of the scale of things than another shot of this mountain that I made with little space above the mountain.
Another example of negative space might be image number 1177 (right). Here we have a silhouette of an archway which is one of the entrances to the grounds of the Taj Mahal in India. We can’t actually see the archway, because it’s totally black, negative space, but because of the shape it forms, framing the image, we can tell that it’s a stone archway all the same.
Finding lines in your scene or landscape can help to lead the eye into the shot, sometimes even towards a small feature that might not be noticed without the leading lines. In image 1549 (left), the river leads the eye into the image, and although our eye initials stops at the cloud bank, to explore the detail there, that gets us close enough to the top of the image to make us peak over the clouds and find Mount Fuji in the distant background.
Image 2396 (below) looks a lot like the eye of a reptile or even God Zilla, but it is in fact a knot on a burnt tree trunk, in the ashes of a camp fire. Look for things that when framed right will look like something else. This can lead to eye catching images.
Layers of Interest
Image 2392 (below) has two definite layers of interest. The first being the foreground tree, in its yellow and red autumnal colors, and the second is the waterfall in the background. You could also say there’s a third layer in woods behind the falls. Adding too many points of interest to an image can over-complicate and ruin an image, but adding two or three complimentary elements juxtaposed like this can be quite effective.
More than two of the same thing is repetition. Repeating elements can be a strong form of composition. I’d say that three is about the minimum you can work with, as with these three sets of leaves in image number 2390 (right), but often with repeating patterns more is actually more.
Look for contrasting colors, such as red and green, or bright colors amongst dull. Most of the things that I’m mentioning today I have podcasted about in the past. I did an episode on contrasting colors way back in Episode #31, when I kicked off with probably still my best example of this, which is image number 56 (left). Here we see a bright orange poppy amongst a patch of baby-blue-eyes flowers. I also discussed the Color Wheel that I placed on my site as a tool to experiment with this, but if you select these two colors in a color wheel, you will see that they sit exactly opposite each other, so there’s a reason why we find this contrast pleasing. Colors separated by one third also work well. Just look for contrasting colors or bright colors against a dark background etc. and you may be on to a winner.
Your choice of lens changes the way the scene looks in your photograph. If you use a wide angle lens, say between 10 and 24mm, and get in close to your subject, you’ll get a very different perspective than you would say shooting the same subject from further away with a 100mm or 200mm lens. This can be difficult to grasp at first, but is easy to see what I mean with a little experiment. If you have a standard zoom lens, say an 18-55mm or a 24-70mm lens, shoot the same subject, first at the widest focal length, 18 or 24 using the same examples, then zoom out to 55 or 70mm, and move away from your subject until the subject roughly the same size in the frame as it was with your wide setting. If you have an even longer lens, say up to 200mm, try that too, again moving away from your subject to keep it the same size in the frame. Doing this will help you to see how the focal length of the lens changes your perspective.
Also note that wide lenses tend to make elements in your scene look further away from each other. If you photograph a person for example standing in front of a building, the building will look much further away from them with a wide angle lens that it would with a long telephoto lens. The longer the lens, the more you’ll get a stacking effect, like the mountains in image number 827 (below). You can see how all the mountains in the foreground all seem to be stacked up on top of each other in layers. That is because I shot this image with a focal length of 135mm.
Drama Through a Letterbox
You can also use perspective to effect as I have in image number 2353 (below). If you use a wide angle lens and point it up at tall buildings, the building will appear to be falling in on you, and this can give quite a dramatic effect.
Look Up, Look Down, Get High and Low
Don’t shoot everything standing up and at your eye level. When shooting small children or pets, kneel or lie down on the ground to get to get to their eye level or even look up at them. Try shooting trees or building from a low perspective. Try shooting down into a valley from a mountain, or across the city from a tall building. Shooting from above or below your scene is fun and helps to get great images. As with the last image we looked at, be sure to look up and down as well while out and about. You only notice scenes like the one in image 2308 (right) for example by looking up into the tree canopy. Without looking up and down into the undergrowth for that matter, you might miss a lot of great photographic opportunities.
Watch Your Backgrounds and Edges
It’s very easy when you find a great subject to concentrate so much on that subject that you forget to look at the other elements in the frame. Do keep your eyes out for things like lampposts or trees in the distance that can appear to be sticking out of people’s head. Also, even when you are using a shallow depth-of-field to make the foreground and background out of focus, you still need to look out for what’s in that blurry bokeh. If you have patches of color, bright or dark spots in the blur, you need to make sure that these not only don’t distract from your main subject, but as you learn to use them, they can actually be used to enhance your main subject.
You also want to keep your eyes on the edges of your frame. Especially with beginner or mid-range cameras that typically don’t allow you to see the outer 5% or the photograph through the viewfinder, be aware of what’s creeping into the edges. If you are using a zoom lens, zoom out a little to check before zooming back in again, or if you are shooting hand-held, just wiggle the camera around a little so that you can see if there’s anything unwanted that’s too close for comfort.
Use a Tripod
Whenever possible, use a tripod. I know that when you first start out the thought of shooting from a tripod can be a bit daunting, but this will improve your images more than anything else you can do. This is not just because it holds the camera steady, but because when you use a tripod, you think about the composition more. You take your time and think about the whole process more in fact. Using a tripod is not always practical. Some fast paced shooting, like for some sports and some wildlife photography, as well as fast paced portraiture work will be much easier without a tripod. It’s your call, but my rule of thumb and guidance to you is to use a tripod unless there’s a reason not to.
Get It Right In-Camera
There’s a tendency these days to be sloppy in the field, because you can fix any errors in exposure or composition in Photoshop, by adjusting the exposure or cropping, rotating, and you can always clone stuff out later. Granted, you can do a lot in Photoshop, but it all takes time, and you will never develop good photography skills if you are sloppy in the field. Remember that when you have to save highlights or shadows in post processing, you are never going to get quite as good an image as you would if you nail it in the field, and it just feels better! I have nothing against Photoshop, and do save the odd photo myself too, but it’s always a last resort. I’d much rather hold my head high and say that I feel I’m a good photographer, than that I’m good with Photoshop.
So, although I’ll do a follow up with some next steps advice in a few weeks, I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts from these two back-to-basics episodes.
Photography is both technical and artistic. Remember that you need to at once be both left brained and right brained. This comes easy to some people and not so easy to others. Whichever you are, please don’t lose sight of the fact that photography is supposed to be fun. By all means spend time on the Internet, in forums, reading books and magazines and view lots of other peoples’ images. It will all help. But the single most important thing for improving your photography is photography. Shoot as much as you can, and look at your resulting images. If you like what you see, think about how you achieved that result, and repeat it. If you don’t like what you see, check the shooting data, and recall what you did in the field, and try to learn from it, so as not to repeat it.
Really though, you have to enjoy yourself. If you get so caught up in trying to figure out all of the details before you get started, you’ll be getting in your own way, and that’s not good.
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There’s no doubt, that patience is a virtue. I can be very impatient with things that I can control. But, once I decide that I “need” a piece of gear for example, as long as I can budget for it, there’s little that can stop me from buying it. I’ve been burned with this a number of times too. Let me recall a story from some 7 years ago, which was when I found myself teetering at the top of a long slippery slope that I feel as though I’m actually still slipping down at break-neck speed.
Having shot with a film SLR for over ten years, I’d bought a Canon PowerShot S10 point and shoot in 2000. From the moment I bought it, I’d used the compact digital for most of my photography, though I still took the film camera with a bunch of FujiChrome Velvia slide film, when I was going to be shooting something special. I found the immediacy of digital incredibly refreshing, but was not all that thrilled with the quality of the images. Vibrant colors were a mess, there was way too much depth of field for my liking, so I figured that I’d take a look to see if there was now such a thing as a digital SLR, so that I could use some of my old EF lenses and get more control over the process. This was early 2002, and I found that Canon had a revolutionary camera called the EOS D30 on the market. At 3 megapixels it was a whole 1 megapixel more than my 2 megapixel PowerShot S10. I had to have it!
I almost ran to the camera store in Shinjuku, and once I found that there was a ¥20,000 (about $200) rebate on the D30 if you bought it before the end of the month, I’d parted with my ¥380,000 (about $3,800) before you could say “digitalitis”. I failed to read the tell-tale signs of the rebate to get rid of stock that would soon be old. Until that point, to me a camera had been something that served a purpose, and once bought, could be used for years until it basically wore out. I’d had my previous film Canon SLR body for ten years for heaven’s sake! Still, just two weeks after I took my baby D30 home, the D60 was announced. Not only did it have double the pixels, it was the same price as my D30! I was devastated! It was only after this that I checked and found out that the D30 had been out for two years at this point. My impatience and lack of understanding the market had thrown me a left hook that I couldn’t duck away from. I actually managed to resist the D60. I didn’t upgrade until the 10D was released. Then the 20D! Then the again legendary 5D! Of course then there’s the 1Ds Mark III and the 5D Mark II, but who’s counting!?
I had no way of knowing at the time by the way, that being able to view images at 100% would show me just how crap my original EF lenses were. I’d jumped of the platform almost with my eyes closed, and was at the part of the slippery slope where the angle is so steep, you’re literally free falling, with your behind just skimming along the surface, with barely no friction at all. I replaced all of my in the first year, mostly for L glass, and this was before I’d signed a pact with my wife to allow me to spend all of my photography income on photography. As the pixels increased, they showed me flaws in the non-L glass that I’d picked up, and prompted me replace those still relatively new lenses with L glass as well. Now some 7 years later I have just about everything I “need”, note the quotes, and I’m just rolling down the slope at a steady pace now. There’s no end to the slope in sight, but I’m going slow enough now that the wind in my ears has died down, and I can faintly hear the Canon board members, that I now realize had pushed me off the slippery slope in the first place. They were laughing, as they made their way to the bank.
Anyway, enough talk about my impatience when it comes to buying gear. Let’s talk about what prompted me to do an episode on this the topic of “Good things coming to those who wait”. The wildlife photographer in me has long admired the beauty of the pretty common turtle dove. This is in my opinion a greatly underrated bird. Sure, it’s only a little bit prettier than a common pigeon, but I like them. I like them so much that until now, whenever I’ve seen them on plain grey gravel, or brown dusty tracks, I’ve only admired them with my camera down. I’ve never even thought about photographing them in those conditions, because the shot would be as boring as hell. I knew that one day I would come across some of these birds that were in better surroundings, and when I did, I’d be able to do them justice.
Well, literally years after I decided that I wasn’t going to shoot a dull, drab shot of a turtle dove, although I never went out of my way to make a better image, I came across about six of these lovely birds in a patch of lush green grass that had gone to seed, and there was violet and yellow wild flowers intermingled in the grass. The mid afternoon light was shining through the trees, a little harsh, but still good light, and I realized that this was it. I had to make something out of this opportunity. I opened up my tripod legs, without extending them, as I wanted to be very low to the ground — as close as I could get to eye level of the doves without getting too much of the grass in the way. I stuck the 300mm F2.8 lens on the tripod, attached the 1.4X Extender between the lens and the body, and I started to shoot. I uploaded six images from this series, and the first one is image number 2269 (below).
#2269 – Eastern Turtle Dove
You can see how low I am to the ground in these shots, and in many I actually have eye contact with the turtle doves. The grass is obscuring the bird’s body, but I’m making art here, not documenting wildlife for an encyclopedia. Actually, note that in many circumstances it is necessary to get a straight shot with nothing obscuring the animal, but here I just don’t think it was necessary. Remember that I’d been waiting to capture this subject in surroundings that bring out the best in them for years. The heavily filtered light through the trees meant that I had to raise my ISO to 400, to get a shutter speed of 1/400of a second at F4. Autofocus was out of the question too, with the subject moving around very fast, in all that deep grass. I just kept locking in on the grass, and so manually focused for the whole series.
The first shot is a pretty straight pose, but in the next image that I uploaded, number 2270 (below), I caught a little bit of behavior. As I said, in the last shot, we had a bit of eye contact. These doves were well aware that I was there at the edge of their patch of grass, and every so often tilted their heads like this, like a dog trying to figure out what they are looking at. This is shot with exactly the same settings as the last image. We can see the dark shadow of a second bird in the background here too. I think there were six in total, so I just kept focusing on the one in the group that was in the best location and best light.
#2270 – Eastern Turtle Dove
#2272 – Eastern Turtle Dove
Next is image number 2272 (right), in which the bird almost fills the frame. Again, I captured some behavior, as we can see a grass seed in the birds open beak. We can also appreciate the beautiful blue markings on the doves neck, and the orange outline, looking almost like fish scales, on the wings. The bright orange ring in the eye is very nice too, and this is of course what I was focusing on the whole time. You don’t get a lot of depth-of-field at 420mm at this shooting distance, so the bird does start to run out of focus at the extremes, but had I stopped down the aperture, I’d have lost that dreamy feel in the bokeh that I love so much. I’d much rather shoot wide open and risk losing missing focus, as I did on a number of these shots from this series, than stopping down for more focus, and loosing that dreamy look.
Finally, probably my favorite from the series is image number 2274 (below). Here I’d gone to a horizontal format, again, trying to get both horizontal and vertical shots whenever possible, got another nice head angle, and both of those beautiful big orange eyes tack sharp. The dove was very close to me for this, still at 420mm, but literally just a couple of meters away. There’s that violet colored wild flower on the left side of the frame, almost mirroring the position of the dove, and some nice longer grasses framing the bird as it looks back towards the camera. Here too, the beak is outside of the depth-of-field, as is most of the birds body, but the eyes, and the birds neck and chest are tack sharp, so this is a winner for me.
A few notes on technique; I was using my Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball-head, so panning around with these turtle doves was more tricky than say if I’d used my Wimberley gimbal head. The great thing about the Really Right Stuff BH-55 though, is that it has both a large main locking knob, to literally lock the ball-head down solid, in any position, and a drag set knob, which you use to set just enough tension to stop your outfit from flopping around. This means that you can still move the camera around to take photos, but enjoy the support of the tripod and ball-head. If you set the tension well, you can actually take your hands away from the camera and lens, and they’ll stay in that position, but you can still grab hold of them and move them if necessary. It’s a wonderful piece of kit.
A quick note on the manual focusing, which is how I focused all of these shots. I always shoot with my left hand cupped under the lens, and this puts my thumb and index finger right on the focus ring of the lens. Most modern lenses have what Canon calls “Full Time Manual Focusing”. What this means is that it doesn’t matter if you have the lens set in Autofocus mode or Manual focus mode, if you to grab and turn the focus ring, the camera stops trying to focus until you let go of the focus ring again. This means that you can focus manually, without flicking the lenses focus switch to manual, and also without the lens trying to focus while you hold the focus ring. This used to happen on many of the old lenses, from Canon at least. Anyway, with that left hand cupped around the lens’ focusing ring, I just had to keep adjusting the focus all the time as I was tracking the turtle dove. They do move around a lot, and have that quick juddery head and neck movement that can make it very difficult to focus on the eyes and head with this shallow a depth-of-field.
#2274 – Eastern Turtle Dove
One other thing to note here as well is that I have my cameras set up to not focus when I half press the shutter button. This is of course the default action, but you can change the camera using the custom functions so that when you half press the shutter button all it does is meter the scene for exposure checking etc. and does not make the focus mechanism kick in. You then use the focus button on the back of the camera to actually focus using auto-focus. Splitting these two functions has merits and demerits. The merit of course is that it allows you focus with your thumb and then let go, then as you half-press or fully press the shutter button to take your photograph, the autofocus does not kick in, and focus on something that you did not intend it to. This is especially useful if you are recomposing your image after focusing. It’s like having the lens in Manual focusing mode, again, without touching the switch on the lens barrel. I’m mentioning this now, because it’s also useful to use the back-focus button at times like this, because if my shutter button started the auto-focus, if I didn’t have my hand on the focus ring when I half-press, I would start the auto-focus, and it would have started the lens searching, with all the grasses etc. in the scene, that I didn’t want to focus on. That can cost you shots in situations like this.
The down side of course is that when you use this mode, you can release the shutter even without achieving focus, and that means that you can actually forget to focus. I’ve been using this focusing method for about 18 months now after my friend Holly Sisson, from Toronto got me onto this, and I still forget to hit that back focus button with my thumb every once in a while. This never happens with medium to long telephoto lenses, because it’s obvious when you’re out of focus, but when using wide angle lenses when pretty much everything looks sharp through the finder, I do sometimes forget to focus. Luckily this is rare, and I’ve never forgotten to the point where I walk away from the scene without a shot, but it does still happen. Just something to keep your eye on if you try this focusing method.
Before we finish, I should say that by good things come to those who wait, I’m definitely not talking about waiting, and doing nothing. You have to continue to sow seeds. You have to either keep your eye out for subjects that you would like to shoot, if or when the conditions are right. You decide how much effort you put into getting to the right location at the right time. In this case, it was me liking the subject, but deciding not to shoot it in the conditions I’ve seen so far. I wasn’t that worried about visualizing what I could get, and then trying to investigate how I might find them in the conditions that I found them in on this day. They’re pretty photos, but not to the point where I would have really gone out of my way to photograph these turtle doves in these conditions.
#1704 – Distant Dance
You might remember my image of the Red-Crowned Cranes in the mist and frosty trees. This is image number 1704 (above), called Distant Dance. This and indeed that whole series that I shot on that beautiful morning during the 2008 Hokkaido Workshop where presented to me after many days at this location over the years. I’d commuted to this location for five mornings in a row at the end of 2006, and still didn’t get these conditions, despite it being just like this the day before I arrived. Some conditions will require investigation, perseverance, and at the end of the day, a bit of luck often helps too. The point is, you’d rarely come across a scene like this by just sitting around with your thumb up your behind.
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Wow! What a busy few weeks I’ve had. Sorry being a few days late, but welcome to the 150th episode of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast. I would have liked to have done something special for this milestone show, but I have been so busy lately that it just isn’t funny. Instead I’m going to do a normal episode, and answer two listener questions that I received recently. I have so many topics that I want to get into right now but simply haven’t had the time to plan for any of them, which also includes selecting images from some of the work I’ve been doing and getting it uploaded to my gallery, as well as preparing some detailed notes so that I remain coherent while recording. Because of this these queued topics are going to have to wait a little while longer. For now though, let’s get right into it and answer a couple of listener questions.
First up, I received an email from Martin Stepka. Thanks very much for your mail Martin. This is actually something that I have been asked a few times, so I figured it would be a good time to go into a little bit of detail on this. Martin wrote:
I am an amateur photographer from Slovakia. The closest to a professional I get when shooting on a friend’s wedding, though I have never got the nerves to charge for it. I have been listening to your podcasts since you joined the Photocast Network and I have listened also to the older episodes. Firstly, I would like to thank you for your work. It has been a great inspiration for me and gives me over and over the motivation to grab my camera and go out there. Especially I find useful the parts where you explain your techniques for achieving different results.
Well, thanks Martin for the kind words. It’s great to hear that I’m helping out. Martin went on to ask a question:
I own a Konica-Minolta 7D and I experience difficulties at focusing. When I closely inspect my photos, often the focus lands somewhere else than I wish. Could you make an episode about your focusing tricks? Like, how you focus on the eyes of animals still having the time to compose? Or, is the auto focusing system of Canon so much better?
So, first off, I don’t know if the accuracy of the Canon focusing system is any better than the Konica-Minolta system. I have no experience with any cameras other than Canon. For general use though, I doubt that it is much better, even if not pretty much the same as other manufacturer’s cameras. Of course, the actual focus points, the patterns of focus points, and the computer in the camera that analyses their information, are all going to make a difference from body to body and maker to maker. Also focusing improves as new bodies come out, so I’m also not saying that all cameras are created equal. The accuracy of each similar type of focus point though, is probably not that different.
When I’m shooting an animal or a person though, or pretty much anything for that matter, I rarely use all of my focus points. There is a place for this, so I’m pleased we have multiple focus points, but 95% of the time I end up selecting only the center focus point or just one other off center focus point. If I’m photographing a person or animal handheld, even for fast moving subjects, I select the center focus point, I then align the center focus point with the eyes, focus, then recompose for the shot. If I haven’t already done it, I will compose the image first, and move my location or zoom to get the right composition, then quickly move to the eyes, focus, then recompose and release the shutter. It sounds like a pain if you are not used to doing this, but it is the best way I’ve found to get the focus on the eyes quickly, without having them in the center of the frame, which we all know is not good composition. Once you are used to doing this, it really becomes just second nature.
Note too that for the last eight months or so, I have been using the back AF button on my 1Ds. For my 5D, I remapped my exposure lock button to act as an AF button, so I have decoupled my focusing from my shutter button. This took a lot of getting used to at first, but now I feel it’s the only way to go. What this means is that once I have focused on the eyes, I don’t have to keep my finger half pressed on the shutter button. I can simply recompose and then release the shutter as and when I’m ready. Note that I also almost exclusively shoot in Manual exposure mode, so I do not have to worry about exposure drifting off as my main subject is moved off center. I’ve covered most of this in other Podcasts though, and actually in episode 139 a few months ago, I went into some detail about some of my focusing techniques, so I won’t go into much more detail about that part. The important thing to note here is to really control focus, you will want to select one focus point, not allow your camera to auto-select it, and manual focus on the eye, and recompose. If you are shooting from a tripod, then another option is to select the focus point that is over your subject’s eye, and use that. Again though, I don’t suggest you allow the camera to auto-select the focus point, because it will lock on the closest thing that has any contrast, and this may not necessarily be the subject’s eye. Even if your focus points light up when they achieve focus, it won’t help much. You’ll still have to mess around trying to get it to focus on the eye if you allow it to do so automatically.
I should also note that I do this for moving animals as well. I still usually focus on the eyes and then recompose. The only time I don’t do this is for flying birds, where the background is a blue or overcast cloudy sky, which won’t find for focus. Sometimes here I will allow my camera to automatically select the focus point. I sometimes turn them all on, and use AI Servo focusing, to track the birds across the sky. This is often fine, even though I won’t be focused on the eyes, because the birds are probably far enough way that they will still be in the depth-of-field, even if I automatically focus on their bodies or wings and not their heads. For wildlife closer by though, I will almost always go back to selecting the center focus point and recompose after focusing on the eye.
Anyway, Martin, give this technique a try and by all means let us know how you get on. Hopefully this will help to get that focus right on to the subject’s eye with a higher hit rate than it seems you are getting right now.
You know, not really related to the question, but before we go on, I should say that what sometimes seems like a focusing error, can actually be a manifestation of something else. For example, when shooting handheld with a very narrow depth-of-field, even just the action of us rocking slightly as we breathe can be enough to move the focus away from the eyes. To overcome this I generally hold my breath while I’m tripping the shutter. I know there are various schools of thought on this, like breathing smoothly, as snipers and target shooters do, but that doesn’t work for me. This might be because I’m overweight. There probably is way too much fat around my internal organs, so I tend to rock slightly when I breathe, especially when I’m breathing heavily. Stopping breathing for a few seconds as I take the shots works for me. Also, of course, using a tripod will illuminate this problem completely, but it is not always possible, especially when you have to be quick on your feet or sometimes when shooting in a studio, depending on your subject or style of shooting. When I can control the pace of shooting though, I always use a tripod, as it just helps so much in getting tack sharp images. Once again though, for some other tips on focusing, listen to episode 139. It’s not a fully comprehensive focusing Podcast, but there’s more information on some other techniques in that episode.
So, moving on to the second mail I wanted to answer this week is from another listener who has contacted me before, named Brian Schiel, from North Carolina. Thanks very much for your letter Brian. It’s good to hear from you again. Brian wrote:
I was printing tonight and noticed that I ALWAYS print at 300dpi and I ALWAYS put have my printer (canon i9900) set at the highest resolution…..regardless of size and color. I have no idea why. It just seems like the right thing to do. I must be short of knowledge. Can you pass along some tips?
So in a follow up email, I found that Brian uses Lightroom for his printing, very wise choice here Brian, and that he knows he’s printing at 300ppi because he has been typing this into the Print Resolution field in the Print Job panel in the bottom right corner of the Lightroom Print Module.
This is actually very tempting to do, and Lightroom is not so intuitive in this area. If I remember correctly, it was set to 240ppi by default when I first installed Lightroom, and that was fine for my 5D images when printing to 13×19” paper. Thinking that I need to specify something, I changed this for 350ppi for 1Ds images when printing to 13×19” paper. Again, this is about the correct ppi for an image of this resolution to this size paper, but I found after a while that changing this setting is actually unnecessary in most cases. All you have to do to allow Lightroom to automatically use the native resolution of the image, and automatically adjust it to the paper size, is uncheck the Print Resolution checkbox.
To make sure that you are still going to be sending your image to the printer at a reasonable resolution, check Dimensions under the Guides section, and Lightroom will display a small panel in the top left of your image showing the size that the image will be printed on the paper, and the ppi that it will be printed with. As you change page size the ppi will change to the new resolution for that paper or print size. The only time I can imagine you’ll need to change this again is if print out to a very large paper size, and you need Lightroom to upsample the image to give you a better large print. Lightroom is very good at this too. I recently sold a 2 megapixel image at a pretty large size, having initially thinking it was not even possible, but after a lot of pressure from a kind client, I gave it a try, and Lightroom did a great job of up-sampling the image for the larger print.
So, some quick tips for you there. Again, sorry I couldn’t do something more special for the 150th episode. It really has been a hectic few weeks. I will hopefully get back to having a little more time again soon, though the recent client work that I have been doing that has kept me busy has been a blast. I’ll try to put something together on these jobs at some point soon, as I’ve put myself in a position to be able to share some of the photos.
For now though, you have a great week, and don’t forget to shoot for the Shadows assignment. Cheers for now. Bye bye.
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