Taking Better Pictures: Part 2

This is a picture I really like but I had to work hard to get. It’s taken at Seward, Alaska and the first time I saw it was a cold, drizzly day as we were driving into Seward. As soon as I saw these water lilies with that mountain in the background I knew I MUST come back and take this shot. I had to wait 10 days and make a second trip to Seward to get a clear day and the right light, but it was worth it to me. I also had to stand up to my chest in a stinking, leech-infested pond and risk destroying my camera, but I have no regrets! Notice that everything is in focus from the nearest lily to the farthest mountain. That’s Depth of Field. The sun was at a right angle to me and I used a polarizing filter to darken the sky and take the glare off the water.

In my last post we looked at some very simple things you can do to improve your photos. None of them required a better camera or any kind of studying; all you needed to do was become aware of the idea and put it into practice. Today we are going to look at more things you can do to improve your photos, but these are a little more difficult and some of them require learning and study, and some really mean buying a better camera. I’m very aware that isn’t an option for many of you so I’m leaving them for last. I’m also saving the single most important thing for last because it is one of the hardest to do, explain or understand.

1) For landscape shots, try to always have a foreground, middle ground and background. Doing so is as simple as constantly looking around for a subject that will work as a foreground or background. Then, once you’ve found one or the other, turn around and look for something that will work to compliment it in the foreground or background. Nearly all my photos have at a minimum a foreground and a background. The better they are, the better the picture will be. A great foreground with an average background will still be a very good picture. But a great foreground and a great background will be a “Wow” picture!

But, like all rules, there are many exceptions to this one. An example of that is sometimes the light is the subject and there will be no foreground or middle-ground at all, just the beautiful pink on the tip of a mountain at sunrise. Another example is a sunset with the silhouette of a tree in front of it. Or maybe you are taking a macro shot of a rose with a butterfly on it. In that case you want to eliminate the background and everything else so they don’t distract from the subject.

I took this as a snapshot to compare.  This was my second attempt to get the shot bot that light was bad, the clouds were bad and I made no effort to find a better shot. A great photo requires time and the full involvement of your mind, body and creativity.

I took this as a snapshot of the same scene to compare. This was my second attempt to get the shot but the light was bad, the clouds were bad and I made no effort to find a better shot. Instead, I stopped the car, got out and snapped the shot and got back in and drove away.  A great photo generally requires time and the full involvement of your mind, body and creativity.  Are you ready to suffer for your art?

2) Nearly every photo must be sharp and in focus to be good. Camera shake can easily create fuzzy pictures so you want to find a way to hold the camera steady:

  • Buy a camera (or lens) with anti-shake stabilizers built in. Even if you have to buy a new camera, it will be worth it.
  • Buy a camera with low noise abilities so you can turn up the ISO. All DSLRs are better at that than point-and-shoots and full-frame DSLRS are far better than cropped-frame DSLRS. I can routinely shoot at ISO 6400 and not see any noise with my full-frame Canon 6D.
  • Learn the best way to hold the camera so it’s steady. Oddly enough, most photographers find a bigger, heavier camera is easier to hold steady than a small, light one—I certainly do.  Whatever camera you have, study and practice how to hold it steady. If you are using a viewfinder press it firmly against your face and if you are using a screen don’t hold it out at arm’s length. For either one the single best tip is to try to hold your elbows tight to your chest.
  • Use a monopod or tripod to steady the camera. The value of a tripod is obvious but it is inconvenient; a monopod is convenient but not as rock-solid. Here is the secret to using a monopod: use it along with your legs to form a bionic tripod. Spread your legs wide and have a monopod long enough to put the bottom a few feet in front of you and then lean your body into it; you want it to be supporting some of your weight. That turns your legs and monopod into a tripod with the camera about in the middle.
Here I am taking this shot in water up to my chest. This is an example of Depth of Field in action. Notice that I'm very low and close to the flower but because I'm using a wide-angle lens and a large F-stop everything will be in focus from the flower to the mountain in the far background.

Here I am taking this shot in water up to my chest. This is an example of Depth of Field in action. Notice that I’m very low and close to the flower but because I’m using a wide-angle lens and a large F-stop everything will be in focus from the flower to the mountain in the far background.

3) Understand depth of field. Proper use of Depth of Field is extremely useful if you have a DSLR but less so with a point and shoot and almost impossible with a camera phone. My favorite photo is one with some beautiful thing (usually flowers or rocks but it can be anything) that is very close and large in the foreground and something beautiful (usually a mountain) in the background. Getting both the object that is very close (the flower) and the far away object (the mountain) both in focus is a matter of using a wide Depth of Field. But it can be just the opposite as well. If you take a picture of a bird in a tree you want everything but the bird to be out of focus so limbs don’t distract from the bird. You do that by using shallow Depth of field.

In my last post I said that our goal was to take control over the entire picture and that is what we are doing by deciding exactly what will be in or out of focus on every inch of the picture. To do that requires a camera that gives us near total control over it. Camera phones don’t give you the control you need. In fact to use Depth of field requires either a DSLR or a high-end point and shoot. At a minimum you need:

  • Manual focus
  • Wide angle lens
  • Control over the aperture used in exposure.
  • To take the time to learn how to use them.

This is the kind of shot I love! It has a clear foreground, middleground and background. I bet 10,000 people stand here every summer at the Grand Tetons and very few ever take this shot. Instead, they just see the mountains, take a shot, and walk away. If they looked down at their feet they would see these very pretty red rocks. If they know about Depth of Field they would know how to include them in their photo! I took this later in the day so I used a polarizer to take the glare off the water and darken the sky. The very bright, white snow made it a hard shot so I used the HDR setting on my camera. Some of the rocks are out of the water and dry rocks create a bright, hot spot so I splashed them with water to make them an even tone. I also walked up and down the beach and found more red rocks to throw in to the shot!

4) Use the best light! Since we are painting with light, the single most important thing you can do is always be aware of the light in your photo. Although this is most important, I saved it for last because it is detailed and complicated and I didn’t want to lose you right away.

Is the sun overhead and harsh or is it just above the horizon and soft and warm? More than anything else the answer to that question determines the quality of your photos. Our cameras (either film or digital) pale in comparison to our eyes. Our eyes are so amazing, they can look at a scene with full sun in it and see the blue of the sky and at the same time see the full details of things in the shadows. Your camera, on the other hand, will look at that same scene and the sky won’t be blue it will be “washed out” and an ugly white color and it can’t see any details in full shadows, just a black blob. In that situation, all you can do is be willing to sacrifice the very bright objects and the very dark objects and try to properly expose the middle colored objects. You do that by exposing for the middle-tones.

For example, let’s say you’re taking a picture of a friend at noon with a pretty mountain in the back-ground. Since your friend is the biggest thing in the picture the light meter in the camera metered off of him and he will be properly exposed. He is neither very dark like the shadows nor very bright like the sun. Unfortunately the sun is behind the mountain so your sky will be a washed-out white color instead of blue, the mountain will be a hazy gray, and anything in the shadows around you will be black. That’s commonly called harsh light.

Is there anything you can do about that? Yes, but some of them are probably impractical for your circumstance and others have a learning curve and are expensive:

  • If the light is harsh the very best answer is to wait until its better. If you can wait a few hours the sun will move around and be behind the camera so the light is much better on your subject. Even better is to wait until the “golden hour” (which is the half hour before and after sunrise and sunset) and shoot the photo then. This is the real difference between a pro and an amateur photographer, he can afford to wait until he has the best light (or to create it with flash) to do his painting with! Unfortunately, most of us can’t wait for better light; we have real lives and real schedules and the time is now or never.
  • If you can’t wait for better light, try to move around so you don’t shoot toward the sun. If the light is strong and harsh the worst thing you can do is to shoot toward the sun because it will wash out the sky and other parts of the photo and there will be more shadows to go dark. I try to shoot only the opposite half of the sky away from the sun. That way the sky has the least brightness and there are the fewest shadows.
  • If you’re camera has Exposure Compensation (and many better Point-and-Shoots do), it’s easy to adjust the exposure either darker or lighter depending on the photo. Try it both ways and see what looks the best.
  • Use a polarizing filter to improve the light. We’ve all heard of polarizing sunglasses and this is the same thing except it’s for your camera. It takes the haze out of the sky and darkens it and it takes reflection off of water. During full daylight I almost always have a polarizer on my camera because it so dramatically improves the light. I know what you’re thinking, you can do the same thing during editing the photos. But I disagree, I think nothing will replace the value of a real polarizer.  Photoshop can get close, but it isn’t as good. Some point-and-shoot cameras will allow you to use a polarizer by buying some kind of adapter; check to see if your camera will. All lenses for a DSLR allow you to put a polarizing filter on them and that alone is enough reason to spend the money on one if you can afford it. You’ll be glad you did!
  • Minimize the sky. Frame the shot with the least amount of sky if it is going to be an ugly white color. Also, put the subject in full light and make it as large as possible.
  • Use HDR software either in your camera or on your computer to even out the light so everything is properly exposed. This almost always means taking multiple shots of the same scene with the camera on a tripod and then using software to merge them together. Some cameras will do this as you take the shots–mine will.

Well, there are some tips to help you become a photographic artist. Telling you about them is much harder than actually doing them. Most of them are very simple and will greatly improve your photos although to be fair some are expensive and have a steep learning curve. Take the ones that work for your circumstances and give’m a try!

I took this shot in Yosemite Valley in the spring. After all the snow melts it leaves little ponds dotting the valley so I went exploring for one with a nice reflection. Two weeks before or two weeks after it would not be here. My feet found and took this picture. Notice it follows the Rule of Thirds and also the splash of  color at the bottom grabs your eye and then you follow the lines into the subject..

I took this shot in Yosemite Valley in the spring. After all the snow melts it leaves little ponds dotting the valley so I went exploring for one with a nice reflection. Two weeks before or two weeks after and it wouldn’t have been there. My feet found and took this picture. Notice it follows the Rule of Thirds and also the splash of color at the bottom grabs your eye and then you follow the lines into the subject. It’s all those little design touches that make the shot.


I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

28 comments on “Taking Better Pictures: Part 2
  1. Avatar tinycamper says:

    Thank you, Bob. The photo of the red rocks in the water in the foreground was worth 1000 words.

  2. Avatar Linda D. says:

    Bob, your photos are just wonderful! I especially love the one with the rocks in the foreground.

  3. Avatar Sameer says:

    Thank you for this post. I am going to buy a better camera. It would give me great joy to take pictures like I see here and the previous post. It would be helpful to see camera recommendations, low end to high end. Years ago I owned a Canon AE-1, I have no idea what kind of camera to consider. I do have a digital camera now, but it is very ‘automatic’, with no chance of artistic input from me. Thank you for my new hobby!
    Sameer recently posted…Taking Better Pictures: Part 2My Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Sameer, I’m a big fan of Canon cameras and generally recommend them. Of course I have a Nikon AW110 for an All-Weather camera and it’s what I recommend. For a digital SLR I’d get either a Canon T3i or T5i. You get a whole lot of camera for very little money.

      A high-end point and shoot is the Canon G series, I think they are up to G17. They are much smaller than a DSLR but give you 100% control over the camera.

      The main thing with a point and shoot is that it lets you easily set the Exposure Compensation. I don’t know enough about them to make a specific recomendation. If it lets you add a filter or add-on lenses that is a big plus!!

      Hope that helps,

  4. Avatar Calvin Rittenhouse says:

    Thanks for the teaching about how beautiful pictures work. The discussion of light and the last post will do much for my pictures with my tablet. (My cell phone does not take pictures.) Once I get a camera, an adult-ed class will help with the technology.

  5. Avatar Omar Storm says:

    Hi Bob,

    Great pictures as usual. Makes me want to hit the road with my camera in hand. My time is coming, soon.


  6. Avatar Ken Urenda says:

    Beautiful pictures Bob, I remind of the first time I drove from Kansas to California when I was “leave” from military service, 1973. I made a very good trip of it. I took the to see what was in my view and I in awe because some of the country I saw I had never seen before. I have pictures of it all, but they are from that lil’ tiny camera, 119. Keep “movin on” Bob, “es la vida”, its life.

    Thank You

  7. Avatar Ken Urenda says:

    Sorry for the bad grammar, I got a little ahead od myself. Just got a little excited. One “never” forgets those sights, never in whole life, once you have seen them.

  8. Avatar Lynnzie says:

    Spectacular!!! They would look great on any wall.
    I noticed they all involve water with reflection of an area. Thanks for the lessons Bob

  9. Avatar Karen says:

    Yes, Bob, I took the pictures of the Tetons you described, no foreground, etc. — certainly not representative of the majesty and beauty I saw all around me. Your photos are fabulous. Again, thanks. I’m beginning to see…

  10. Heh, I wonder if I will ever be willing to wade into a leech-infested pond for a great shot. Nah.
    LaVonne Ellis recently posted…I Like to WatchMy Profile

  11. Avatar Naomi says:

    Love this info. When you mentioned the leeches it reminded me of a scene in “The African Queen”. 🙂


  12. “I try to shoot only the opposite half of the sky away from the sun.”I prefer light from the side because it defines shapes better. For example, in the shot of you in the water, the light is coming from the right. Notice the folds in your shirt and in the lily pads. Those are great details. Meanwhile, the lily pads — and everything else — in the shot you took look more 2-dimensional, without contours. Also, a little light from behind can give very pleasing rim light, separating objects from what’s behind them.

    “Minimize the sky.” Unless the sky is the story. For example, if you want to show vast the plains or desert are, nothing does it better than lots of sky. On the other hand, there are many times sky is unnecessary, or even detracting to the composition.
    Al Christensen recently posted…Macrophotography morningMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Al, I understand your point but in this case the shot I took was at a 90 degree angle to the sun. I know because I prefer that for the maximum affect of the polarizer occurs at 90 degrees. The shot of me taking the pix was nearly directly into the sun. Notice how my hair is blown out on top but my face is in the shade.

      But it’s just a matter of taste. I greatly dislike the light of the shot of me, the only reason I would ever post a shot like that is if it was a teaching shot and I had no choice. We all have different tastes and none are right or wrong!!

      • Avatar Ming says:

        I do miss having an SLR for the ability to use the polarizer and other filters. Holding the point and shoot with one hand and the circular polarizer with the other is a juggling act. I’ve also made a cardboard “snoot” for a Canon G4 to tape filters and magnifying lenses to. It died of old age, otherwise I second your opinion on how nice that line of point and shoots is.

        I like your descriptions on how you got every shot in this post, great for people to learn from!

        • Bob Bob says:

          Ming, I think a Polarizer is totally essential for nature photography.

          I had a Canon G15 and by then they added an adapter that lets you attach filters to the camera. It’s one of the reasons I recommend it.

  13. Avatar jonthebru says:

    I really like the one with the rocks in the lake going back to the snowcapped mountain. All good!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.