They say a photograph is worth a thousand words. This could not be truer for anyone who runs a small business whose sales rely on photographs of their products or services — which, in the age of Instagram, applies to nearly any business. The photos you use on your social media channels or website can make or break a sale, and are not only forms of expression, but become representations of your business. Like any art form, photography is subjective and there are no right or wrong ways to take a photo, but by following some technical basics when using a camera, you can affect a photo’s mood, the story it conveys, and the tiny details that can help a photo go from good to great.
Today, studio potter and still-life photography enthusiast Ayumi Horie is joining us to share some of the easy-to-overlook technical camera basics that can impact a photo. Inspired by her own passion for photographing the art of making pots (which she documents on Instagram), her approach focuses on still objects in real-life contexts. Whether you use a DSLR or an iPhone, her tips are helpful for beginners, business owners who rely on product photography, or anyone who wants their photos to tell a story or convey a message. –Sabrina
Lots to Remember
There are lots of things to remember when taking a photo, and while it’s not possible to control everything, being aware of the factors outlined below can help mediate the things you can’t change and perhaps persuade you to explore and change the things you can. Eventually, these points will become second nature and even something to push the boundaries on! I hope these points help those who are in the “almost-it-nailed” camp, and want to advance further.
Focus and Depth of Field
Focus draws your eye in and says, “this is important; look at me!” If nothing is in focus, your eye doesn’t know where to look, reading an image as a pattern. If everything is in focus, then everything has equal weight. Depending on your needs, this can lead to a great shot, but if you’re trying to place importance and hierarchy on one or two things, adapting your focus and depth of field is key. Consider focus as the singular best tool for storytelling: it creates a subject, while still retaining the supporting context around it. If you want to isolate one object, open up the aperture of your camera to between f1.8 and f4. To increase depth of field, use an f-stop in the range of f11 to f20. Note: Every camera is different and depth of field is also dependent on how far away from the subject you are.
In both pictures, the focus is on the bird cup. The left image was shot at f11, the right one at f1.8. Notice how in the image on the left, the story is about the studio, and in the image to the right, it’s about the bird cup. In general, a higher f-stop than 11 will give you a wide depth of field and anything lower than f4 will give you a shallow one.
Your eye will naturally travel to the lightest spot in a photo. This is perfect if your subject is the lightest element, but if it’s not, then the bright spot off in the distance will end up competing with what’s really important. It can be confusing, both visually and in terms of content. If your subject is naturally dark, then either tone down everything around it or make everything around the subject lighter, so it pops.
In the image on the left, your eye bounces around from the lamp in back to the illuminated cup to the cup in focus, never resting on one thing. There’s more clarity in the right image, but that also may be boring to some.
As with brightness, your eye will naturally gravitate toward the most color-saturated element, so try to be aware of what is saturated and popping in the background so you can make decisions about whether to play off of the color or remove it.
In both these pictures, there’s a saturated object in the background. On the left, it’s a green poster; on the right, it’s a red bucket. The eye bounces between these elements and the cup because those shapes are rich in color, even though they’re out of focus.
The rule of thirds definitely has some merit, but it can also get formulaic pretty quickly, plus it doesn’t really apply to square pictures. The tricky thing about square pictures is that objects are more likely to feel crammed together, so either back up or move in and embrace the intimacy.
While back-lit images seem to be in vogue right now, exposure gets tricky because unless light is reflected from the front, it’s necessary to overexpose by at least one stop so that the subject has the right exposure. This will blow out the background, which you may or may not want. Notice how the image on the right tells more of a story when the long afternoon shadow is included in the frame.
Exposure is probably the most common misstep I see today, and one that feels like a big bummer when every other aspect is spot-on. It’s an intuitive feeling where if it’s not quite right, there’s an uneasiness when looking at the picture, whereas if the exposure is right, it feels satisfying. The old school philosophy (to which I mostly subscribe) is to retain detail in both the shadow and the highlights. The new school trend is to have blown-out highlights, making things look a bit more washed out and dreamy. Either way you choose to go, be intentional about it. Beware of things like a light-colored object in bright noonday sun, because it’s almost impossible to get a good exposure, and if you don’t get it right, it could be a really distracting element. Set the exposure for the highlights, because you’ll be able to fix the shadows later (in post-production, fingers crossed). In this example, it means underexposing the shot, i.e. letting less light into the camera. There’s usually a +/- button on most cameras, so if you want to underexpose the bright white ball in the sun, try adjusting the f-stop to -2/3 or -1. Play around with it. Conversely, if you’re shooting in snowscape, the light meter in the camera wants to make the scene 18% gray because it assumes that it’s grass and not snow. Unless you overexpose by a stop in this case, the snow will look dirty white instead of white. If you’re using a phone, the area you touch will act as the both the focus and the place where the exposure is set.
Lighting will give you an overall feeling and it’s best to stick with natural light (daylight). Fill in shadows with a big piece of white cloth or paper if you don’t have a reflector. If you’re lighting in the studio, move the light source toward the subject for softer shadows, or away from the subject for crisper shadows. I love shooting in soft light, because it’s way easier to deal with exposure and guiding the viewer’s eye in the composition. Colors also look deeper and more rich. Lastly, if you’re taking a shot from above, don’t get your shadow in it unless that’s the point. Otherwise your shadowy presence can be distracting and look a bit creepy.
The picture on the left has a bit of pure white and pure black, but by and large, the tones are in the middle. The picture on the right has too much white, IMHO, especially where the background bleeds into the lip of the cup. Always try and get exposure right when shooting, but with digital tools, it’s also easy to correct, experiment, and ultimately tell a story by the way in which you guide the viewer’s eye.
How many times have you seen delicious food look like the opposite, because it was shot inside a restaurant with incandescent or fluorescent lighting? If the camera’s white balance settings don’t match the color temperature of the lighting perfectly, your image can look yellow, green, or blue. To rectify this, shoot in natural light whenever possible and/or make sure only one kind of light source is used (i.e. the halogens aren’t lighting the object from one side, and the window from the other.) If you’re inside without daylight, make sure your camera is set to the right color temperature for the lighting, because while you can adjust the color balance to some degree in post-production, it’s way better to do it right from the camera. AWB (auto white balance) can be used for beginners who don’t know how to detect what kind of light is being projected, but often a manual adjustment leads to the most balanced photo.
The picture on the left was taken using the daylight setting in the camera, but the lights on it were incandescents, so the color temperature doesn’t match, giving it a yellow cast. The image on the right was shot in daylight with the camera set to daylight, making for a more appealing photo.
The levels and the related shadow/highlights tool is a fantastic tool for fixing exposure post-production. You can adjust levels to bring down the highlights, so you have detail, and vice versa for the shadows. The trick is to not overdo it because when you do, a halo will develop around the interface of a light area and a dark area. You’ll see it where the sky meets a building or around a tree. The solution is to either back off a bit on your phone or use a more sophisticated desktop version to increase the radius, which smoothes out the transition between edges. Also note that adjusting the levels will increase saturation.
See the halo around the cup on the right? The cup’s shadows are less dark now, but if the shadows are lightened too much without increasing the radius, the image looks fake and manipulated.
Resolution still matters even on a little phone screen. Unless you’re a 60s photojournalist or a street photographer, graininess in pictures simply looks bad. ISO is a measure of how sensitive the “film” is to light. The lower the number, the finer the resolution and the less grainy/pixelated it will be, so try and keep your resolution at 400 ISO or below.
The usual 400 ISO on the left, a massive 12,800 on the right. See how pixelated the handle and plywood are on the right? Normally in the day, the camera won’t automatically set your ISO so high, but at night or in low-light situations, cameras and phones do this in automatic mode in order to get the shot. The solution is to use a tripod in low light, keeping the ISO low or opening up the aperture.
These days, a lot of people shoot their Instagram pictures with their smart phone, and while a DSLR camera will allow you to make the most adjustments and customize your photo based on your setting the most effectively, these tips still apply to smart-phone cameras. Technology has come a long way and there are loads of photo editing apps out there to help you: VSCO, Priime, Snapseed, Afterlight, Litely, Photoshop Express and Lightroom for iPhone, to name a few. For the easiest way to get a short depth of field on your camera phone, use the focus lock on your camera app. On an iPhone, touch the area you want in focus until the yellow box appears to lock the focus. Then you can readjust the composition, so the background is “bokeh” or out of focus. You can also use attachable lenses like Olloclip or get a whole set of different lens (macro, wide, fisheye, etc) from a place like Photojojo, who caters to camera phone users. The Sony QX10 attachable lens can also detach and even work wirelessly. In the end, however, this post is really about telling a better story through an image, not fancy gadgets.
Paying attention to what’s in a photo’s background, regardless of camera or focusing on the subject, will make your pictures 100 times more compelling. A raw photograph (from both a DSLR or smart phone) rarely relays how we really saw and experienced something, so editing an image post-production heightens a photo to look more authentic to your experience and expressing how it really was.