and then it clicked

Archive for the ‘The Technical Bits’ Category

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 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!