Since I took up photography again in 2007, I have taken over 250,000 pictures. Thankfully, many of them never escaped the Delete key on my computer. I didn’t abandon all of my atrocious photos, however. Some were so bad, I had to save them as lessons in humility.
“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”
― Plato, The Republic
As I began writing this post, I was reminded of a friend’s answer when I asked how he became such a good photographer: I only post my best photos. After a good laugh, I realized there was a bit of truth in his comment. If you want to become a better photographer, however, there are a few more tips and tricks I can suggest.
Camera Angle – Roll, Pitch, And Yaw
When I was learning how to fly, one of my first lessons concerned the orientation of the plane and how it rotated around its three axes. And for good reason: understanding these concepts could mean the difference between life and death.
Cemetery photography is certainly less risky than flying an airplane, but the same concepts from aviation — roll, pitch, and yaw — are applicable when aligning your camera to your subject.
The first rule of composition is to square your camera to the subject (note: this does not mean putting your subject in the center). This may seem overly simplistic, and yet failing to follow this rule is the most common mistake I notice on the various photography groups.
Roll mistakes are the most common and easiest to correct. Horizontal and vertical lines of mausoleums, gravestones, the base of statues, buildings, etc. can be checked against a variety of grids available to you in your DSLR, mirrorless camera, or smartphone.
Some of these grids are based on the Rule of Third concept (three lines dividing your screen into nine equal-sized blocks – more on this in the next post).
Even if your camera doesn’t have a Rule of Thirds grid, you can still use your existing grid to ensure your horizontal and vertical lines of your image are aligned with those in your camera. Many older cameras have grids that look something like the one below.
“Vertical and horizontal lines are the expression of two opposing forces; they exist everywhere and dominate everything; their reciprocal action constitutes ‘life’. I recognized that the equilibrium of any particular aspect of nature rests on the equivalence of its opposites.”
— Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), Dutch Painter
If I had a dollar for every time I saw a photo like the one below, I could easily have bought a new Canon R5 and 70-200mm f/4 lens. And many of these photos were mine! If you take away nothing else from this post, remembering to square your photos’ horizontal lines will go a long way toward ensuring your photos look more professional.
In most cases, pitch is also easily correctable if you pay attention to the vertical lines in your image.
While you may always get a bit of pitch distortion in your image, you should seek to minimize it by squaring the camera to your subject. Using a longer lens — allowing you to stand farther away from your subject — will usually be enough to reduce pitch distortion.
If you are using a wide-angle lens and standing close to your subject, however, it may be more difficult if not impossible to correct for pitch distortion. In some cases, however, you may not want to, as it can add a bit of drama to your photo, particularly if you are low to the ground.
Yaw is the trickiest to correct. For landscape shots, yaw isn’t particularly important, especially if the bulk of the background is a good distance away. If taking pictures of mausoleums or buildings from close distance, however, you want to ensure you get this right. Slight variations in yaw will make a noticeable difference in the vertical and horizontal lines in your photo.
How do you know when you need to correct for Yaw? Your image will look something like those below, where the vertical lines of the door are aligned with your camera’s grid, but the horizontal lines are not square. In the photo below, the door appears to be opening.
Here’s the original version I took with the correct yaw.
How do you get better at recognizing faults in each of these areas? Take a moment to rotate your camera around each of the three planes ever so slightly and observe how the image changes in your viewfinder. In particular, be mindful of any horizontal and vertical lines in your image and align them with those in your viewfinder.
The Color Of Light
Many people believe white light is neutral, but it indeed has color. This is most obvious when we see the golden or reddish tones of a sunrise or sunset. Those beautiful colors are not the same ones we see on a sunny June afternoon.
The color (or temperature of light) is measured in units of Kelvin.
Why is this important to obtain a good white balance reading? Because we want to present images as they actually appear, apart from some basic post-processing touches (a hint of Kodachrome, contrast, saturation, vibrance, sharpening, denoising, etc.).
“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”
― Oscar Wilde, Intentions
What Color Am I?
The Haserot Angel, located in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, is one of the most recognizable works of cemetery art in the world. If you search for images of this memorial using Bing, Google, or Duck Duck Go, you will find thousands of photos. What is the true color of the angel? Light Green? Lime Green? Olive, Aqua? Turquoise? Good luck answering the question. You certainly won’t find out by looking at the photos in the search results.
My answer is below. Of course, depending on the screen you are using to view this image (PC, Mac, smartphone, tablet, etc.), it may look different than what I see on my color-calibrated BenQ monitor.
If you are using a smartphone and have your display on “Vibrant,” I can guarantee you will not see the image below correctly. Unfortunately, many people use this popular setting, which, on most smartphones, grossly oversaturates colors. I will cover color settings in a future post.
Some of the differences you see in the many photos of the Haserot Angel may be due to the color of the light being different (morning, afternoon, or evening light) and the use of various in-camera or post-processing software presets. But it is far more likely that each person chose a different white balance setting or allowed their camera to automatically determine it.
“There really isn’t anything that you could call ‘bad’ color. It all has to do with the amount of color you use and in what context it appears.”
— Jay Maisel, Light, Gesture, and Color
Determining The Proper White Balance
Cameras enable you to select the white balance (As Shot, Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, Custom, etc.) for JPG images. If you shoot RAW files (which I recommend), no modifications are applied to the photo, but you can select a white balance setting to determine how the image will appear with one of your choosing. You can also select similar settings in post-processing software applications such as Adobe Lightroom.
I always use a white balance card to measure the light. White balance cards are a low-cost accessory that enables you to objectively measure the color of the light. Take a few snapshots of the white balance card throughout the day (the color of the light changes from dawn to dusk, sunny or cloudy, etc.), and you will take all the guesswork out of determining the correct colors of your photos.
While I always use the white balance setting as a guide, I don’t take it as an absolute. I’ve found that using the white balance from the card produces an image too yellow for my taste (more like the Cloudy white balance setting below). Thus, I will create a Custom setting moving the white balance setting toward the blue end of the Kelvin scale.
Here are the settings from the Adobe Lightroom panel above applied to one of my photos. For my Nikon D810, the As Shot or Auto settings are usually the closest to what I see, but that is not always the case, particularly if a scene involves different types of lighting sources.
Here’s the final image:
Avoid Distractions In The Background
“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”
— Sir John Lubbock (1834–1913), British Anthropologist
When I was listening to Jordan Peterson’s audio book, 12 Rules For Life, I became acquainted with the Gorilla psychological experiment. A researcher asked subjects to count the number of times basketball players wearing white or black shirts passed the ball. During the exercise, a gorilla who walked into a crowd of basketball players, paused, and beat his chest before sauntering off the court. 50% of the subjects failed to see the gorilla. If you have not seen the video, I strongly urge you to watch it.
Given the results of this experiment, it is not surprising that photographers, focusing intently on their subject, fail to notice some of the background elements that might detract (or sometimes add) to the quality of their photo.
In more cases than I can recall, I often didn’t notice such distractions until after I got home and loaded my photos into Adobe Lightroom. And while Photoshop’s Content Aware feature has improved dramatically, it can’t perform miracles. Yet…
While taking the photo below, I was so intent on the statue of James H. Wallace, in Allegheny Cemetery, I ignored a tree limb in the upper left hand corner.
Had I been paying more attention, I could have easily moved a few steps to the left, and still got a good photo of Mr. Wallace surveying the neighborhood just beyond the cemetery walls. I call this technique, “Composing with your feet.”
Use The Background To Enhance The Subject
Once you become comfortable eliminating distractions, you are ready to move onto using the background to enhance your subject. Having a zoom lens such as a 70-300mm helps, but is not a prerequisite.
There is no magic involved, just taking some time to walk around your subject, while observing how the background changes. This technique is especially helpful when statues are on pedestals or columns.
With a long lens, such as my Tamron 150-600mm G2, I may walk 25 to 50 yards around the subject. As I walk, I’m constantly looking at background of flowers, foliage, tree branches, and other sculptures.
Here’s a photo I took using this technique. I was fortunate to find a huge magnolia tree behind the statue, which, combined with the bokeh from my 600mm lens, provided a colorful backdrop.
This is the Google Earth view of the statue and my approximate location when I took the photo. As you can see, I could have traveled a very wide arc, evaluating how the background changed relative to the statue. Of course, some of your flexibility will be constrained by line-of-sight issues (trees, other statues, geography, etc.).
A Few More Examples
Here is another photo of the same statue from a different perspective. As you can see, the background can play a major role in your impression of the photograph.
I took the photo below using the same technique. The background was a good distance away from the statue, but with a long lens, the tree branches and red leaves appeared as if they were right behind the mourner.
This statue below had a nice background, one I would normally be satisfied with.
By changing my location, however, I was able to get a better composition, colors, and some background limbs that provided a nice frame.
“Our eyes are holden that we cannot see things that stare us in the face, until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened; then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not is like a dream.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Spiritual Laws
These easy-to-follow tips can make a huge difference in the quality of your photos. Remember:
- Pay attention to the angle of your camera relative to your subject. Take a few minutes to rotate the camera along its three axes, lining up the cameras viewfinder gridlines with the lines of your subject. Once you begin practicing this discipline, you will find yourself automatically aligning your camera appropriately for roll, pitch, and yaw.
- Measure the color of the light with a gray card, enabling you to know what white balance setting you should apply to your photos. Use this as the starting point for your post-processing activities.
- Once you find a subject to photograph, begin examining everything around it. Eliminate distracting elements by changing your position, camera angle, or both.
- Take some time to walk around your subject, noticing how the background adds or detracts from your photo. You may be surprised to find that moving a few feet in one direction or another adds an interesting background element(s) that enhance and accentuates your subject.
Coming up next – Exposure, Composition, and Post-Processing Dos/Don’ts.
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Those are great tips, Bob. It’s so easy to get excited and just start snapping indiscriminately, but all these suggestions will make for much better pics. I love your roll, pitch and yaw comparison to flying!!