How to Use Light For Better Pictures

Do you really need an expensive camera to take good pictures? Learning to see and use light will make your photography sing, even with  the camera on your phone.
How many times have you heard someone complement a photo, then tell the photographer 'You must have a great camera!'  (shiver) No. Just don't ever do that. It's like telling a carpenter he must have a great hammer. The flip side of this is thinking you have to have a great (and expensive) camera to take nice pictures.
A very good camera can make a difference if you know how to use it, but a good photographer who knows how to identify and create good lighting can make a limited camera do the tango.
Inexpensive cameras aren’t as easy to focus precisely, and often don’t do as well in low light, so the trick is to give them what they need to do the job, which is usually just plenty of light coming from the right direction.
You see, it’s all about light. Where is the light coming from, what color the light is and how much light there is. That can be hard sometimes, because our eyes are so adaptable that we often think there is more light than there really is.
You can learn a lot from looking at other people’s pictures, and figuring out from the reflections where the light was coming from and whether it’s hard or soft. The easiest way to explain hard or soft light is how the reflection looks. If the shadows are very hard edged and defined and there’s a particularly shiny spot reflecting the light, that’s obviously hard light.
Hard light reflections on shiny apples
See the definite white shine spotlighted on the apples? That's hard light.
There’s a big range between light and shadow and it’s harder for a camera to pick up detail in both the shadowed and bright spots. There’s just too big a difference.
Soft light is like the light on a cloudy day. There is still light and shadows, but the difference is not so big. That type of diffuse light makes it easier for a camera to record the details in both the lighter and darker spots of the object.
soft diffused light on a cloudy day
Soft cloudy light, so soft shadows and gentle highlights
To do product pictures (as well as flattering  portraits) on the cheap indoors I like to use a north facing window, or a window that doesn’t have sunlight shining directly in. If I can’t escape direct sunlight I’ll hang a white sheet or sheer fabric over the window to cut the glare. Then I’ll put something on the other side of the object I’m photographing to reflect the light back on that side.
I have photographer’s reflectors of various sizes that have 5 colors in one, depending on how much reflection and what color you need. They're cheap on Amazon. (That's an affiliate link that helps keep my lights on.) The black side can deepen shadow a bit to add definition. Refolding a large one is also great entertainment.
collapsing reflectors can be a challenge
I hate you so much right now.
This is when you really have to train your eye to see color. Most of us just think light is light, but the source of light makes a huge difference. For instance, if you have natural light on one side and lamplight on the other, one side of your picture is going to look yellowish. Not a problem if you’re going to make the photo black and white, but bad for color accuracy, which is what you need for product pictures. Keep your light sources uniform. Your flash has a very blue tone compared to other sources of light, and makes the product look very flat and unappealing if it’s directly over the lens. I avoid using that.
In 2013 I did a series of somewhere near 400 dolls for an estate, and I’m sorry to say I can’t find the picture of how I set up my ‘studio’. And yes, that was Four Zero Zero. Not forty. Four hundred.  It was a fairly dark and crowded house (as you can imagine), but I commandeered the lone sliding glass door in the TV room, and set up my tripod and camera there, disrupting the favorite spot of the curmudgeon watching Fox news.
I set up a TV tray with a high backed chair behind it at a 30 to 45 degree angle to the window, then rolled out half a roll of butcher paper up and over the whole thing to make a plain white background. I used a little painter’s tape and some weights to hold the paper still, and had my white reflector next to me where I could raise and lower it to cut down on shadows on the side away from the window. There wasn't room to set up a reflector stand.
And this is an example of the finished project:
Soft window light coming from the left and a white reflector on the right makes for a cheap lighting system in this picture.
To be sure that your colors are accurate, just color adjust the picture until the white background looks white, not yellowish or bluish. That’s all there is to it. 🙂
Hope it helps.

Improving Portrait Photography-Keeping Shoulders and Hands From Taking Over

Avoid letting your shoulders take over your portrait by changing how you frame the shot. I'll show you some examples so you know what I'm talking about .One way to get a better picture is to keep your shirt on … except it’s 900 degrees outside and you can’t handle wearing sleeves. This is all about the photographer, not the camera. Here's the scene. Awesome hot rod project car at a car show, and the proud owner is styling a 50s dancing dress to complement her car: As you can see, it was a really flat grey day, not a lot of light. Actually, grey days are great for portraits, it's like living in a giant softbox. Much easier on the camera than the heavy contrast of bright sunshine.
Environmental portrait of 50s panel wagon hotrod with the driver in a 50s polkadot dancing dress
Car show cutie
This is the closeup I did. It was a dim and grey day with a really flat sky, no cloud detail at all. Not only that, the inside of the wagon was super dark and unfinished, and I didn’t have an assistant or a reflector to pull in any light. This is where I made a mistake in my framing.
Closeup Portait in car
Closeup that I'd like to have framed differently
When you look at this picture the biggest light spot is not her face, it’s her shoulder. Not only is it closest to the camera (which makes it bigger), it’s lighter in color than her face, so it sort of takes over the whole shot.

In graphic design, the focal point is the place where the eye rests first and longest. Usually it's the lightest or brightest part of the design. In portrait photography usually you want the focal point to be the face, particularly the eyes.

In this case, her upper arm became a big old flat blank spot. It would have been a better choice to change my angle, avoiding having the upper arm take over the frame. Cropping it square improves things a little bit. Cropping is your friend.
square crop to improve portrait
Cropped, although the shoulder is still the same size as the face.
Most of us realize that standing sideways to the camera presents a smaller target. But sometimes we get a little too sideways, and end up looking directly over our shoulder, which isn’t  flattering. On top of that, sometimes we get self conscious, and bad things happen when we’re sucking our gut in and not breathing. Necks look shorter because we pull our shoulders up to hold our breath. Think tall and relaxed, not suck in suck in suck in I can't breathe take the picture already..... Another potential problem is having your hands up next to your face. Sometimes we try to cover a double chin by putting our chin on our fist for camouflage. Just be careful not to have the back of your fist facing the camera. Here’s an example:
The backs of hands are also the same size as the face.
The backs of hands are also the same size as the face, and distracting
The back of your hand is just about as big as your face. For most people, that is. That’s why, if you choose to do an Uncle Rico pose from Napoleon Dynamite you should turn the hand sideways, not facing the flat side of the fist toward the camera. But don’t do an Uncle Rico. Unless you really want to. Intentionally. As a joke…. Because people will laugh anyway.

How to Get It Right

So finally, here’s an example of how to take a good portrait when your model has a sleeveless top on. It was 100 degrees out in August when we did her senior pictures, but I framed it in such a way that her shoulders didn’t take over, and the focus was on her pretty face. Because we were in the shade I had an assistant holding a white reflector to the model’s right to add some gentle light into the shot. Notice she is standing at a slight angle, but not looking over her shoulder sideways. She's at more of a 30 to 45 degree angle to the camera, with her head turned slightly, which elongates the neck.
well-framed senior portrait in sleeveless top
Notice I've cut the shoulder out of the frame, centering the attention on her face.
There's a good DIY profile picture tips article I wrote at the Adult Like A Boss website if you'd like to learn a little more about basic portrait tips. I'll cover things in a bit more detail here, as it's all about the camera, right? So, if you want your portraits to pop make the face the center of attention. If the subject has a sleeveless top on, don't let the upper arm or their hands take too much visual space in the framing and you'll see a real improvement in your portraiture. Happy shooting! Cheryl

Wiki Loves Monuments Contest

Until the end of this month Wiki is running a contest inviting people to submit photos of local monuments here in the US. Here's the link: Wiki Loves Monuments. There will be cash prizes and winners will be automatically submitted to the international competition. They're also encouraging people to do research and contribute to articles. Sounds like a great homeschool project to me! Honestly, sometimes the pictures I see submitted on wiki articles are dreadful and inaccurate, so this is a great way to up the ante. Yay, Wiki! If you do submit pictures, or your kids do, I'd love to hear about it and see them! Either comment here, or email me.

Cats Are Easier Than Web Programming

You just take the plastic off the box. That's all you do. Remove the Gatorade label, the cat is happy, life goes on. Unlike web design. I spent I don't know how many hours today restoring the back up of this site.... I finally called tech support, after fiddling and diddling because I'm bullheaded like that. Picture a 3 year old dressing herself. I can do it mySELF! Yeah, well, I did ok. The thing that was entirely holding me back was 5 files in the wrong place, 3 of which had extra extensions from the backup (HEY! Pay ATTENTION! I see your eyes glazing!) so I had to rename them, removing wp-content-_____ and move them. TADA! I have finally learned that calling tech support is not a sin, venal or mortal. So anyway, I'm back shooting again. I was on Lyrica for a couple of years or so, and one of the <insert sarcasm tag here> awesome side effects </sarcasm off> is a loss of balance and shaking hands. I cried, and put the cameras down. It broke my heart. I have no joy in shooting with a tripod. Anyway, I gave up on the drug when I saw a friend using a cane and leaning in the breeze like a drunken sailor... I thought, do I look like that? I don't pretend to be the greatest photographer in the world, and I sure don't have the latest equipment, but that's your advantage because you probably don't either and you just may be tired of being talked down to. Here I am. If you don't know something, ask, email privately if you like and want to be anonymous and I'll do my best to answer you or point you in a good direction. Let's have some fun together, at any rate. That's what art is, right? Now I better get the plastic off the box.
Glowing cat eyes peering into my soul.
Remove plaztik, hooman. I need box time.

Heartbreak and Healing

My son Levi took this from an access road on the opposite hillside on March 24th. He had to actually photograph a series of shots to get the whole thing in.
My son Levi took this from an access road on the opposite hillside on March 24th. He had to actually photograph a series of shots to get the whole thing in.
As many of you know, everything in the Stillaguamish valley changed dramatically on March 22, 2014. Under all that mud was a neighborhood, a community. Kids with bikes and balls, pets, homes. Every person I know in the area was somehow touched by that tragedy. They all knew someone who was lost or were related to someone who was lost. There were those that suddenly found that there was a 2 hour addition to their commute in each direction morning and night. Some people stayed what we call "down below" either with friends or sheltered by FEMA, etc. Some of them don't see their families for days at a time. There were those that lost everything they owned, except their mortgage in some cases. There are those that are still dealing with fears both up and downstream of the slide from flooding or a sudden breakthrough of the dammed river washing away their homes. My heart aches and my throat closes just thinking about it.
his is the western edge of the slide. You can see a white house across the river that was just missed.
This is the western edge of the slide. You can see a white house across the river that was just missed.
There was a flipside to those losses, and that is the incredible bravery and stamina of those that have put their own lives at risk in the rescue work, and the tireless work of those who supported them. Those people saw things no one should have to see. They found our dead, and every time they did and the helicopter would come to lift the bodies away all work would stop and everyone watched them go. The respect and love shown to the victims really honors us all.
2nd shot, still toward the western edge heading to the middle. The humps are debris under the mud, including homes.
2nd shot, still toward the western edge heading to the middle. The humps are debris under the mud, including homes.
There were the the people in charge who handled logistics, made decisions, took the brunt of the press and dealing with a lot of grieving folks. Thanks for your sleepless nights and the courage to make difficult choices. The local business people that worked so hard to keep up with demands, contributed funds and goods to help the locals were outstanding. Our largest local employer, Hampton Lumber, was absolutely stellar about letting the guys off work to take part in the rescue effort or be with their families and friends. They've been hush hush about their contributions to the victims and their families. They're not in it for publicity, like some companies would be. I admire that. Then there were men and women that came from all over to help. I saw trucks from the San Juan islands, Skagit county, Marysville, Edmonds, Mukilteo, Stanwood, even an airboat from Orange, Texas. I know I'm forgetting a lot of them. It was a blur. They came and covered shifts so the locals could continue the search.
The center toward the east.
The center toward the east.
No one will ever forget those awesome women who fed everyone. I've never seen so many cookies and goodies in one place in my life as I did at the community center! There were those that contributed to our community's needs out of the kindness of their hearts, those who were inspired to put together their own 'relief convoys' and brought truckload after truckload of food for both people and animals, including livestock. Above all I kept hearing over and over again from those who live outside of our community, like the press, that they just had a hard time believing that such a community spirit still exists in this day and age. I had one reporter tell me that it reminded him of his hometown in Texas, that he could tell the roots of the community are southern. 🙂 His photographer didn't know what to make of it. She said "All these ladies just kept asking me what I wanted to eat, if I'd eaten, here honey, have a bite to eat you look hungry..." LOL I saw so many people hugging each other, everyone was comforting someone somehow, and even those who had suffered great losses of their own were doing their best to comfort others. It really shows that there are still good people out there, kind people, if you look for them and give them the chance to shine.
The eastern edge of the slide, towards Hazel, and the beginning of the ponding from the river being dammed.
The eastern edge of the slide, towards Hazel, and the beginning of the ponding from the river being dammed.
One thing I kept hearing over and over again on various news shows was 'it was an act of God' or 'God took him' and I just want to share what gave me some comfort from the bible about that idea. In the bible in the book of Ecclesiastes at chapter 9, verse 11 it says
“The swift do not always win the race, nor do the mighty win the battle, nor do the wise always have the food, nor do the intelligent always have the riches, nor do those with knowledge always have success, because time and unexpected events overtake them all.”
In other words, bad things happen. Unfair things happen. It's not God's fault, it just happens. We're all familiar with the scripture at John 3:16 where Jesus said "“For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life." A God of love doesn't kill people or allow their deaths because 'he needed another angel'. No. Another scripture, James 1:13,  says this:
"When under trial let no one say, 'I am being tried by God.' For with evil things God cannot be tried, nor does he himself try anyone."
The bible explains clearly why God has allowed people to suffer this long, and that he is going to undo all the bad that has happened very soon. Revelation 21:3-4 will come true.
"With that I heard a loud voice from the throne say: “Look! The tent of God is with mankind, and he will reside with them, and they will be his people. And God himself will be with them.  And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.”
These bad times, the "former things,"  will pass, God promises it, and he never lies. This article explains God's promises in the bible about when natural disasters will be a thing of the past earth wide. I hope it brings you as much comfort as it did me. Most of all, though, I just want to say Thank You to everyone who took it upon themselves to get involved, to show kindness to those who had lost so much. Thank you. Cheryl