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.

A Beautiful Wedding

All of the work and worry came to beautiful fruition Sunday, when my son and the girl of his dreams were wed. Congratulations, Luke and Ellie! Thank you for letting your family and friends be a part of one of the most important days of your life.
First Dance as Man and Wife
Two become one.
I shot this with a nice compact 50mm 1.8 lens, no flash. I had my ISO cranked, which makes for some grainyness, but I didn't want to carry a big flash and camera in my purse. And carrying my 'jurassic bag' wasn't an option with my mother-of-the-groom formalware on. I'm still recovering from my bling shoes! LOL You can see the 'real' photographer crouched on the other side of the happy couple getting the mirror image of the same pose. She is an amazing person who we called on very short notice because the first photographer we hired got the stomach flu. The very morning of the wedding the maid of honor gave Denaje a panicked call and she flew to our rescue. She's our hero! You can find the DPB Photography page on facebook by clicking here. Thank you again, Denaje. 🙂 I also want to give a shout out to The Marysville Opera House, the gorgeous venue the bride's family found. It's a truly lovely historic building with a wonderful ambiance. What did I learn from being inside a wedding? Hmmm. Wear waterproof makeup, that's a given. Stuff will go wrong, but it's ok. Friends and famly are the most important decorations in the room, and their loving support made the beauty of that day possible. And it's over before you know it, so be sure to stop and appreciate the moment. I will cherish these memories forever. Thank you all so much. Much love, Cheryl

UV Filters Revisited

In one of my very first posts I recommended strongly that you get a UV filter to keep on your lens all the time in order to protect your lens from scratches and damage, also to protect your lens from getting cross threaded. I realize now I probably should have been clearer about what skylight, haze, or UV filters do, and what to look for. Basically, both film and digital sensors are sensitive to UV light that our eyes don't notice. That is why sometimes your outdoor pictures will have a bluish cast. This is usually more noticeable at higher elevations, but also happens near water and is most noticeable on sunny days, even in the shade. With a digital camera you can fix this by fiddling with your white balance, or in post processing, but why waste time messing around with that when you can prevent it with a good filter and some forethought?

The other thing that a UV filter does is help get rid of atmospheric haze, which is not something easily done in post-processing. Keep in mind, though, that not all filters are equal. Spend the money for a good filter from a known brand, like Hoya's pro series, rather than generics. Here is an excellent site that carries many different kinds of filters, explains their uses, and the different qualities of filters available. If you buy a cheap filter without multiple coatings your images can be subject to ghosting and reflections. Which is what happened in this picture:

Notice the pale triangle near her arm? That's a reflection from an inexpensive lens filter. Which proves another point... you're better off with no filter than with a cheap one. After all, you've spent hundreds of dollars on lenses, and you're going to put cheap glass in front of that to possibly distort your images? Granted, out of many pictures I have maybe 5 that have noticeable problems because of this specific issue, but why even lose those? Another type of filter that many people keep on their cameras at all times is a skylight filter, or warming filter. They have sort of a pinkish hue that warms up the blueness of outdoor light, and often give pleasing skin tones in very cool light conditions. They're another option, depending on where you're shooting. I hope this helped a little, thanks for your time. 🙂 Cheryl    

Dark Prints?

A lot of times when you look at a picture on your screen it looks great, but then when you send it out to be printed, or print it out, it is really dark and the colors are dingy. Why? Keep in mind that your monitor is lighted, so that compensates for the darkness of your pictures, and different monitors are calibrated differently... or not calibrated at all. If the pictures you print out don't look like what you saw on your screen, first look critically at your picture on the screen and see if it's really so. Often times we see what we want to see, or think is there until we get critcal. That's why proofreaders often proofread a document backwards, because often that's the only way you catch the missing words and misspellings. We do the same thing with our images. Compare the printed image with the on-screen image and see if your colors match or if you need to calibrate your monitor. There are built in software programs under 'appearance' in your Windows control panel to do so, and some good online tutorials. There are also actual tools you can buy to do so that physically measure your monitor's output, color, and appearance, and professionals spend a lot of money on those tools and high-end monitors. But most easily, if your pictures are turning out consistently dingy, you need to take a look at your histograms. If the hump of the histogram is consistently to the left, especially if there are no true blacks in the picture, then it is dark, no matter what your monitor wants you to believe. First of all, make a copy of your image to play with. (I know, I nag about that just a bit) 😉 You need to balance that histogram out by pushing and pulling the sliders underneath. If your picture is very dark, and the 'heap' of information is all to the right with nothing on the left, first try sliding the arrow at the left side over until it reaches the start of the rise, where there is information. Take a look and see what you see. You can also slide the middle slider around to move the midpoint (or medium colored) pixels, brightening them. It goes without saying that if you are using a RAW file you are going to have more flexibility in correcting your image than with a jpeg, as there's just more information available. There are no right or wrong settings, you just have to play with this and figure it out. It's art, have fun. 🙂 Cheryl

Watermark Brush

So you'd like to know how to sign your work? There are a lot of great articles out there, just google 'watermark', but I really liked this particular article on creating a watermark brush in Elements. You can vary the size easily, etc. You can also use the individual brush qualities to create a brush the size and color you want easily. Love that! Here's a little work I did over the weekend: Stay until the shot comes. This was hours into a project, and by then I was going for these small details and the subjects were comfortable with me and my camera and moving a little slower than they were used to so I could get the low-light stuff with my ISO jacked way up in a dark garage. Is it perfect? No. I know that. But it's real. And that's life. Real. And that's good. Cheryl