and then it clicked

June 30th, 2013 by Sharon

Why I Took a Break from Photography… and Why I’m Coming Back

In January of 2010, I started taking a photo every single day.  I didn’t call it a 365 Project, but that’s pretty much what I was doing.  On January 1, 2011, I started my first official 365 Project, and I did another one in 2012.


By the end of 2012, things had changed.  Photography had become an afterthought to my day.  I still enjoyed it, but I didn’t enjoy the structure of having to take a photo every single day.  It had become a chore – and it showed.  My photos were uninspired and boring.  Early in the 365 journey I would drive twenty miles to hunt down the perfect subject for my photo, but by the end of 2012, I couldn’t even be bothered to pull over on my way to work.  So I stopped. Not completely, of course – I still took photos here and there, and still do portrait sessions.  But the habit of taking a photo every single day, and taking photos just for the sake of taking photos, is gone.

Because it Happened
It’s been about six months, and I have uploaded fewer photos to Flickr over that time than I used to over a good weekend.  But tomorrow, July 1st, I am going to, once again, begin taking a photo every day.  I’ve started thinking about photography a lot more, and it’s about time I did something about it.  So tomorrow is the day.  I think the break has been good for me.  I’m not sure this will be the beginning of another 365 – the school year is just a little too hectic these days to make that commitment.  But for the next two glorious months of summer, I’m in.
I Don't Believe in Peter Pan


May 20th, 2013 by Sharon

Focal Length is About More Than Getting Closer

“Zooming in” seems like one of the simplest things our cameras can do. Whether you own a pocket-sized point-and-shoot or a top of the line DSLR with a zoom lens, getting “closer” can be as easy as the push of a button or the twist of the lens. But zooming isn’t the same thing as keeping the same focal length and actually moving yourself closer to the subject to get the composition you want. The focal length of the lens has a huge impact on the overall composition of the photo.



Here is a photo taken in my front yard (holy weeds, Batman!). I positioned myself so the middle focus point in my viewfinder was right over one dandelion and the left-most focus point was over the dandelion on the left. Basically, I wanted to try to keep the dandelions in the same spot for each subsequent photo, so I needed some reference points.

As you can see, using this long focal length and the fact that I was relatively close to the subject means everything in the background is completely blurred. That darker blue stripe along the top of the photo is actually the front door of my house. In this photo, the dandelions are definitely the subject, and are separated visually from the background.



For the next photo, I zoomed in to 135mm and moved a little closer to the subject to try to frame it the same way. The dandelions look pretty much the same and are still separated from the background, but notice that the blue stripe along the top of the photo has gotten a little smaller.



At 100mm, you can see a bit more definition in that blue stripe, but it also appears to have moved back. Even though the distance between the dandelions and my front door is obviously constant, the door looks slightly farther away.



At 72mm, you can finally make out a bit of the background. It’s still blurred enough so it isn’t distracting, but you can see the shrubs on either side of the door and a bit of the garage.



50mm is where the visual distance between the dandelions and the front of my house really opens up. Notice that now we can see the entire shrub on the left and more of the garage. Also notice how many more of the surrounding dandelion stems are in the frame when compared to the earlier shots.



At 35mm, the house in the background completely distracts from the subject. You can see the front of my car, the entire window on the left, and a yellow dandelion has crept into the bottom of the frame. At this point, I am as close as I can get to the dandelion while still being able to focus.



17mm is pretty wide angle, and this shot really shows that. The dandelions are slightly smaller in the frame in this shot simply because I couldn’t get any closer than I was in the 35mm shot, but I think the difference is still apparent enough that I’ll be forgiven for the slight inconsistency! Even though the subject is still similarly sized and placed in the frame, you can now see the entire scene: my house, my car, the tree I was lying under, and the other dandelions at the base of the ones that acted as my subjects. Also notice how far away the house looks. The wider angle not only shows us a lot more of the background, but it also gives the appearance of the house being farther away. It’s not, of course, but the illusion is definitely convincing.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a little animated gif to show the effect…


One place you have probably seen this, perhaps without realizing what you were seeing, is in movies and television shows. The “dolly zoom”, as it is called, changes the focal length of the lens they are using while, at the same time, moving the camera towards or away from the subject. This gives the visual effect of moving the subject towards or away from the background. It’s used to great effect in Hitchcock’s films, as well as in Spielberg’s Jaws, but now is used so often that it’s easy to ignore.

As you can see, focal length makes a big difference in composition. Using a telephoto lens will help to isolate the subject from the background, which can be great if you don’t want anything to distract from the subject. But this also emphasizes the distance between the viewer and the subject. Even though the subject has been brought visually “closer” by the lens, the viewer can get the sense that they are separate from the scene.


Foodie Truck

A wide angle lens, on the other hand, can draw the viewer in and make them feel like they are part of the scene. William Eggleston’s photo of a tricycle (1970) uses this to great effect. By getting as close as possible to the subject with a wide-angle lens, the subject looms over the viewer, drawing them into the photo.



Whether you have a pocket camera or a DSLR, spend this week playing with focal length. Try an experiment like the one I did, or take a walk around the neighbourhood and see if you can emulate Eggleston’s Tricycle photo. I’d love to see how you have used focal length to achieve an artistic effect in your photos!

April 28th, 2013 by Sharon

Throw away more shots than you keep

When I do a shoot – whether it be portraits or any other subject – I end up with more photos than I can actually use. On a typical one hour family photo shoot, I can end up with as many as 100 photos. And that is one of the hardest things to do as a new photographer – going through these photos and choosing which ones to edit and keep. I have only figured out a system of narrowing down the shots I take recently, so I thought I would outline it here. I’ll use a portrait session as an example, but it really could be any subject.


First thing’s first : try to get it right in the camera. Exposure isn’t something you should be trying to fix in Lightroom or Photoshop. Figure out whether you want to freeze the action or blur it and choose your shutter speed appropriately. Think about whether you want everything in focus or if you want to use aperture to creatively blur the foreground or background. Really look at the edges of your frame and the background of your shot. If there anything in the shot that shouldn’t be? Is there a signpost or tree in the background that is going to look like it is sprouting out of the top of someone’s head? Deal with all of these things before you hit the shutter. You may want to take a couple of shots of the same pose or angle just in case someone’s eyes close or an expression changes, but everything else about your shot should be thought out and planned. That will cut the number of shots you have to go through considerably.

233/365 August 21 - Hang Ten

Once I am done my shoot and have my hundred or so images, I bring them into Lightroom and do a quick run through of those shots, deleting the ones that should never see the light of day. For a portrait session, this includes anyone with eyes closed when they shouldn’t be, any shot that isn’t in focus (or, if using some creative focus, where the focus just isn’t where you want it), and any shot where the expression on someone’s face is obviously not one they would want captured. If there were any exposure problems that weren’t taken care of in camera, these can go, too. I spend no more than five seconds per shot making these decisions. Usually even less. If you have to stop and really think about whether a shot should go, keep it (for now). At this point, I will have 75-80 shots left out of that original 100. Still way too many to even consider editing and using.


The next thing I do is go through shots and get rid of near duplicates. I may have three or four of an almost identical pose from the same angle taken split seconds apart as I tried to capture a laugh or smile. How you make decisions here will depend on the program you are using to go through photos, but in Lightroom, I am able to bring two photos side by side to compare. I take the first two photos and take a really critical look. Is the focus tack-sharp in both? Is there one where the expression is more natural? Does the smile or laugh carry into the eyes? Then I choose the one I like better and delete* the other. I bring the next photo with the same pose and go through the process again, each time choosing the best of the pair. In the end, I have only one of those four shots left. I do this for every set of near duplicates. Of the 80 shots I was working with, there may be 50 or 60 left at this point.

and then it clicked 2012-1-17

I then take another look at the images and look for shots that, while not identical, have a similar look and feel. Maybe the pose only changes a bit and the background is the same or similar. Go through the same editing process as was done for duplicates. This will cut another ten shots or so.

and then it clicked 2012-1-20

At this point, I have 30 – 40 shots. This is a fairly manageable number for high level editing. I do a very quick clean edit (no more than five minutes) one one image, and then apply it to all the other photos with similar lighting conditions. This is easy in Lightroom using the Sync Develop Settings. This isn’t an edit for effect – this is just to give the images a clean look that has your editing style. It makes it easier to do the last round of culling before you fine tune the images you will be showing the world.

and then it clicked 2012-1-18

Now is the time where you have to be brutally critical. You should have 30-40 unique, clean shots to look at. This is where I spend the most time. I look at each image and apply everything I have learned from looking at the works of photographers I admire and my own experience, and I delete shots that I don’t love. My opinion and experience is that for every 100 shots, there is one shot that is great. It’s the shot from a session that I want to post on my photostream immediately and show everyone who will take a look. It’s the shot I can’t resist sending to my client for a sneak peek. Just one shot that I absolutely adore. Along with that one great shot, there will be four more that are near great. One of those will likely be the favourite of other photographers or people not related to the clients. There are five to ten more shots that are good. They are worth framing and having in the client’s home and they are solid, clean family portraits that will be shown to aunts and uncles and grandmas. And there will be five to ten that are also good shots that you want your client to see because everyone looks great and they are a nice look into their family.

Part of the Family

Twenty shots of the original hundred make this final cut. I edit these and give them to my client. Basically, I feel that I wouldn’t be embarrassed for twenty percent of my shots to be seen by the subject of the shots and their friends and family. Five to ten percent of my shots are good enough that I would be okay with my photographer friends seeing them. And only one percent of my shots are good enough that I want to post them for the world to see. These are the shots that I am truly proud of and know that when I come back to them months and months later, I will still be proud of. One out of a hundred.

and then it clicked 2012-1-21

This idea holds true for any other kind of photography. When I went to China, for example, I came home with about 1500 shots. One of those shots I knew would be great as soon as I hit the shutter button. I knew I would enter in a travel photography contest, and I knew it would have a chance of winning (and it did). But there are fifteen or so that I truly love and would hang on my wall, maybe 85-100 that I have posted online, and another fifty or so that I would include if I were showing friends and family a slides how of my trip to China. There are another 150 shots that I kept because they show something unique or interesting and they are good solid shots, but they are really just for me. The rest will likely never see the light of day because they are boring and not worth showing.

71/365 March 12 - Biking in Beijing

The bottom line is that photographers need to be really critical of our own work. Just because we have a digital camera that allows us to take hundreds of shots doesn’t mean we should be showing hundreds of shots to the world. Be picky. Choose your best work. Don’t show people shots that should have ended up in the recycle bin. Part of being a decent photographer is knowing which shots are worth showing the world… and being able to toss the rest.

*Edited to add further thoughts…
A photographer friend pointed out something and he is right, so I need to add it. When I say “delete” I don’t necessarily mean “get rid of forever”. Once the first stage of this process (where I “forever delete” the mistakes and absolutely awful shots) is done, I simply hide the ones that I don’t want to use so they go off of my radar but I still have the original files. In the case of portrait sessions, I just remove them from that collection in Lightroom. Keep the files for anything that isn’t absolutely horrid – just get them out of your workspace so you aren’t posting/distributing the lacklustre shots.

April 14th, 2013 by Sharon

Making the Best of It

When it comes to portraits, I am very much a natural light photographer. I avoid shooting indoors at all costs. Yesterday, I was scheduled to do a shoot as part of a thirteenth birthday party. When I arrived at the designated place and time, it was raining (mixed with a bit of hail just for fun!) Had it been a regular family session, we would have rescheduled, but you can’t exactly reschedule a birthday party, so we went ahead and braved the rain, wind, and cold (oh, so very cold!).

and then it clicked 2013-1-7

Thankfully, there were a few breaks in the rain so we did get a few outdoor shots. Unfortunately, those breaks just didn’t last and we were forced to improvise.

and then it clicked 2013-1-11

Thank goodness for the Retro Suites Hotel! They very kindly let us use their beautiful space (despite them being very busy) for some indoor shots when the rain was just too much to take. Don’t be afraid to ask businesses if you can take over their space. This shoot just couldn’t have happened, otherwise, and even though the outdoor locations we had in mind were fantastic, this cool wall was a wonderful substitute.

and then it clicked 2013-1-12

The girls were patient through it all, and just full of personality. They brought along some items that reflected their hobbies and interests, had great fun outfits, and we did a lot of laughing.

and then it clicked 2013-1-8

The importance of encouraging young teens to just be themselves can not be overstated when it comes to photographing them. It helped that they were such great sports!

and then it clicked 2013-1-9

The best thing about shoots where you are forced to abruptly change gears is that you can end up with shots that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Some of my favourite shots from this session were taken because the limitations of the indoor space required me to rethink some of my standard shots that I just couldn’t get in the space. Sometimes, that little shake up is the best thing that can happen!

and then it clicked 2013-1-10

April 7th, 2013 by Sharon

White Balance, and Why It Matters

All of us have, at some point, taken a photo (usually indoors) and been puzzled by the colour of the resulting image.  Either they end up eerily blue…



or a horrible syrupy yellow…


This is because different kinds of light actually appear as different colours.  This is why everything looks so lovely and golden in the hour before sunset, and why our skin can look horrible in public bathroom mirrors.

Usually, our brains know what colours are supposed to look like, so they make a correction so things look right.  White looks white.  Our cameras, as smart as they are, don’t know what “white” looks like.  Setting your camera to auto white balance is asking your camera to guess.  If you are outside during the day, the camera usually does a decent job.  If, however, you are inside under a tungsten or fluorescent bulb, the camera has a harder time deciding.  And if you are in a combination of different kinds of light – for example, in a kitchen with a window and an overhead tungsten bulb – then the camera has an even harder time figuring it out.


Some cameras might have additional settings, and some may be missing one or more of the above, but these are pretty typical.

Today I took these photos using only the natural light coming in through the window.  It was fairly cloudy outside, and the sun wasn’t shining directly on the subject of my photos.  For each shot, I changed my white balance, and as you can see, the results of using different settings are very obvious.



When I compared these images to the actual scene, the Cloudy setting was definitely closest to real life.  Auto didn’t fare too badly in this example, but the colour is still “off”.  Tungsten and Fluorescent look completely wrong.  The Tungsten setting, for example, told the camera that the light was very warm – reddish orange – but in reality the light was just barely yellow. The camera compensated for the orange that it thought it was “seeing” by shifting the colour temperature way into the “cool” range, which appears blue to our eyes.

Does this mean that you always have to match the exact conditions? Of course not.  Colour temperature can be used to great effect to make photos look better.  For example, many people (including me) prefer a slightly “warmer” look to their photos.  I often shoot using the Cloudy White Balance setting, even if skies are clear.  This setting assumes that the light is cooler than it actually is, so it compensates by warming up the resulting image.  This saves me a step in my post processing, because I have already warmed up the image a little bit.  This photo was taken just before noon on a sunny day.  By shooting using the Cloudy setting, I was able to warm up the image and avoid the blue cast that shooting in the middle of the day usually causes.

Great Lakes Lavender Farm


This week, switch your camera out of Auto White Balance Mode and try the different White Balance settings your camera has.  Getting this setting right “in the camera” may improve your photos and can save you lots of time editing. It also gives you one more way to control your camera to get the effect you want rather than the one it decides is best.

Do you ever “trick” your camera by using a white balance setting to give you the effect you want?

P.S. Digital Camera World has a great Colour Temperature “cheat sheet” if you want to know a little more!


April 1st, 2013 by Sharon

Making your photos pop with depth of field

One of the most effective ways to make your subject “pop” is to use depth of field to make the background blurry.

and then it clicked 2012-1


In the example above, the eye is drawn straight to the flowers and the little girl’s dress because the background is completely blurred. This is a great way to get rid of distractions in the background.

He Arrives Just in Time


In this example, I used depth of field to both separate the little boy from the background, but also to make his hands really pop. His hands are the point of focus, and you can see that his masked face is slightly blurry. This makes the eyes go straight to his Spiderman web-making hands.



In this example, I used the same effect in another way. I was intrigued by the level of detail in this Terracotta warrior, so that was the subject of the image. Because I don’t know the museum goer in this photo, I didn’t want him to pull the viewer’s attention away from the statue, but I did like how the amazed look on his face added some context to the image. I blurred his face just enough to keep the statue in the foreground the obvious subject, but not so much that we can’t tell exactly what it is.

Morning Coffee


People aren’t the only thing this technique works on. In this example, it’s pretty obvious that I was enjoying my morning coffee overlooking a lovely small lake, but the viewer’s eye still has somewhere to “land” on the coffee cup since that is what I chose to leave in full focus.

This effect is created through “depth of field”. To put it simply, you can change how much of the scene in front of you will be in focus. For landscape images, you often want a very large depth of field because you want everything in the photo to be in focus. To get the effect in these examples, you want a smaller depth of field so your subject is in focus and the areas in front of and behind your subject are not in focus.

Just a Few More Mornings


So how do we control depth of field?

Depth of field is controlled by three things:
1. How close the camera is to the subject (the closer you are, the more shallow the depth of field)
2. The focal length of your lens (the further you are “zoomed in”, or the longer the lens, the more shallow the depth of field will be)
3. The aperture

The first one is pretty self-explanatory. If you want a shallow depth of field, you can get closer to whatever it is you want in focus.

Zooming in (or using a longer lens) will decrease your depth of field. So a 70mm lens will have a shallower depth of field than an 18mm lens, if everything else stays the same.

Getting an Early Start

Aperture is part that needs a bit of explaining. This is the number you will see on your camera that starts with f. Lenses will also refer to this number. Aperture is the size of the opening in your camera’s lens, so the aperture affects how much light gets into the camera. More light=less depth of field. What many people find confusing is that a smaller f-number means more light is getting into the camera. So if everything else stays the same, a camera set with the aperture at f2.8 will have shallower depth of field than one set at f8.0. There is a mathematical explanation for why this is the case, and I might get into this another day, but for now just trust me: smaller f number=shallower depth of field.

All three of these things work together. If you change any one of them, the depth of field may change. We are going to focus (ha!) on the one that you change with your camera settings: aperture.

and then it clicked 2012-1-9


Here’s an experiment you can do so you can see the effects for yourself:

Put your camera into Aperture Priority Mode. (Canon cameras use Av for Aperture Priority mode. Nikons use A. If you have another camera brand or aren’t sure how to switch your camera to Aperture Priority mode, please check your manual.)

Find a subject to photograph. Put some space between your subject and your background.

Change the aperture (the f-number)to a low number. If you are shooting with the lens that came with your camera, the lowest available number may be f4 or f5.6. If you have a 50mm lens (and you should go out and get one if you can!) then you could go as low as f1.8, but for now, change it to f2.

and then it clicked 2012-1-10

Take a photo.

Your camera will have lots of different choices for aperture, but we are going to use the standard “full stop” f number scale for this exercise. Using the chart below, find the f-number that your camera is currently on. Then change the aperture to the next higher number in the list. Don’t change anything else – your camera will take care of that.

f2 f2.8 f4 f5.6 f8 f11 f16 f22

Work your way up the list, taking photos at each number. So you will end up with at least five, but maybe as many as eight photos.

Secret Garden


Once you have all of your photos, take them to your computer and bring them into whatever photo editing software you are most comfortable with. You can tweak for colour and contrast if you need to, but don’t do too much editing.

Arrange your photos into a collage so they are in order, from the lowest f-number to the highest. Big Huge Labs has an easy to use mosaic editor with lots of options. You can even add text to show the aperture setting for each photo.

Aperture Experiment

Take a really close look. What was the effect of changing the aperture? What do you notice about the object you focused on? What about the objects in front of and behind that object? How does this change from photo to photo?

You have just created your very own aperture cheat sheet! Now that you have seen the effects of aperture, challenge yourself to only shoot in aperture priority mode this week.

Post either your “cheat sheet” or a photo where you used the aperture setting to make your photo “pop” in the comments. I can’t wait to see your work!



April 1st, 2013 by Sharon

Nifty Fifty

This blog is not about gear.  Every once in a while, I will make an exception and the 50mm f1.8 lens is one of those times.  This lens, sometimes called the Nifty Fifty, is a must for most photographers.  Why should you run out and buy a nifty fifty if you don’t already own one?

Cherry Pepper Poppers

1. It’s a prime lens.  Your camera almost certainly came with a zoom lens.   The standard “kit”  lens that comes with entry level Canon and Nikon cameras is an 18-55mm lens, which means you can stand in one spot and make things seem closer or further away just by adjusting the focal length (zooming in or out).  You can’t do that with a prime lens.  The Nifty Fifty, for example, is set at a 50mm focal length.  If you want to fill more of the frame with your subject you need to physically move the camera closer to the subject to do that.  While this sounds like a disadvantage, it brings a huge advantage:  prime lenses are usually sharper and deliver better quality images because the lens doesn’t have to move around.  It’s easier to build, so you get more bang for your buck.

Good Times

2. It’s great in low light.  Without getting too much into the technical aspects, the aperture of this lens (f1.8) means that it can let a lot of light in.  That means that the lens is great in low light situations, like the above shot I took at the fairly dimly lit Dinosaur BBQ.  It’s the only lens I use on Christmas morning, and it’s usually the lens I turn to when I am shooting food.

209/365 July 28 - Beets

3. As much as photography isn’t about gear, and you can take great photos with any camera, sometimes something new helps to boost creativity.  It’s a kick in the pants to go out and experiment.  A new lens can give you a different view of things you see every day.  And because you can’t zoom in and out with this lens, you have to find other ways of getting the shot you want.

160/365 June 9 - Tallgrass

4. Dreamy bokeh.  This is one of the fun things about this lens.  Because it is capable of opening up the aperture to f1.8, you can get really lovely effects in the blurred background (or foreground).

Lucky Loonie

5. It’s inexpensive.  With a lot of camera gear, you really do get what you pay for.  The 50mm f1.8 lens is an exception.  Currently, you can pick up a nifty fifty for between $100 and $125 and it’s sharper than the lens that came with your camera.

and then it clicked 2013-1-2

Do you  have a Nifty Fifty lens, and do you love it as much as I love mine?