I have been accused of being a lousy photographer

Truer words have never been spoken. In an effort to improve, I’ve taken a few sample photos, including some of the same plant that got me in trouble the first time. They are below the fold, because some will load slowly:


These are images that are 500 pixels wide to fit on this narrow blog.

The first two are just for fun: I stood on the dock and tracked a swallow that was flying circles around me. I shot about 15, and these are the two that one can see a bird in. The images have been sharpened and otherwise enhanced:




(I should note, this is a very windy day, so all the flowers are swaying and swinging around violently.)





These are images larger than the 500 pixel limit. Click on the thumbnail to see the larger image:

Colors altered:

Not enhanced:

View image


And finally, this:

View image

So, I know I still suck, but do I suck a little less? (Probably not)

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36 thoughts on “I have been accused of being a lousy photographer

  1. Obviously all these photos are fake, conjured up in photo-shop just like all the moon landing pictures 🙂

  2. I’d agree with the lower-ISO recommendation, to get rid of the grain. In the last one, I’m not sure anything is in focus, except maybe the nearest edge of shore. A narrower aperture, say f/8, would get more depth of field. Also, if you’re using a very automatic AF mode, the camera may be preferentially focusing on the nearest object; a mode where you chose the AF target would fix that.

  3. What does lowering my ISO setting do?

    The jpeg qauality is at zero compression for all of these. Regardingg resoulution, other than the bird shots, these are all shot at higher res than you are getting here for the non-blown up ones, and at the shot resolution for the ones you click on to see original, and those are shot at a fairly high resolution.

    None of these are raw. I usually shoot raw, but I’ve actually got only a tiny bit of room on my card (forget the empty card) so I’m shooting at 3K by 2K

  4. OK, my ISO is 200, and that’s the lowest. Could someone please explain to me why a digital camera has an ISO setting and why one would ever set it higher than the minimum? (And why is my minimum 200 and not less?)

    I now realize that some of these shots were shot on “vivid” (I’ve turned that off) and changing that to “regular” makes the images sharper. The allegedly “out of focus” tree is far enough that it should be shot at infinity, it is shot at infinity, etc but the “vivid” setting may have blurred it. A new shot without vivid is clearer.

    The depth off field issue is important, I’ll have to address that.

  5. Murray, did you click on the thumbnail to see the large scale image? The focus is rather uniform across the image.

  6. The ISO setting can be increased in low light conditions (often used in night photography) to increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light – the trade-off is that the image gets really grainy.

  7. I just realized that the grainer photos appear to have been sharpened based on your notes. I find that adding sharpening to JPEGs (as opposed to RAW files) makes them really grainy. JPEGs are already processed and don’t normally need to be sharpened – if your image seems fuzzy, then that’s usually because the photo is out of focus.

  8. Could someone please explain to me why a digital camera has an ISO setting and why one would ever set it higher than the minimum?(And why is my minimum 200 and not less?)

    First Question: The analog to film grain in a digital camera is electrical noise. To make the the sensor more sensitive to light the voltage applied to the sensor is raised, resulting in more noise, i.e., more grain in the image (This is from memory from a photomag a couple of years ago.) So, you want to use the lowest setting possible.

    Second Question: Example: I want to shoot something with a fast shutter speed to stop the action, say, a bird flying. In order to get the correct exposure I must lower the f-stop (open the aperture) which, in our hypothetical example, results in unacceptably shallow depth of field, (or my lens is too slow and doesn’t open wide enough). I can raise the ISO and then stop down the lens to get the depth of field I want. With a film camera the only way to do this was a)change the film (a real pain) or b) push the film, i.e. shoot at a higher ISO and develop the film accordingly (only works if you push the whole roll.) With digital you ‘push’ the exposure in the camera, so to speak, on a case by case basis.

    (I’m sure there are other photographers who can think of better examples and give better explanations. I’m very amateur.)

    Third question: It was probably cheaper. Low voltage, and hence low noise, electronics are more expensive. What camera are you using? I have a Canon 450D (Digital Rebel XSi in the US, I think) and it goes down to 100.

  9. The first photo (the bunch of small white flowers) is overexposed. Some of the white petals are “blown out” (ie, you can’t see any detail because the whole petal is maximally white). You’ve sliced a bit of white petal off the right edge. By shooting straight in line with the sun, you’ve made the subject look flat – you might get a more interesting picture, with some shadows and suggestion of 3-D curves of the flowers, by moving around about 45 degrees to your right. Pay more attention to overall composition.

    The closeup yellow flower is blurry all over. You called it – windy day. I use a “plamp” which in my case is an old coathanger with a clothespins on one end. One end of the plamp connects to my tripod, the other end holds the flower still. What, no tripod? It’s very hard to get crisp, clear closeup images without one. Try a white cardboard reflector to lighten up the shadow areas.

    The shot with 2 flowers is better – you’re further away so you have less magnification and the motion blur isn’t as bad. But again, some of the white parts are overexposed. The depth-of-field isn’t wide enough to get all of both flowers focused (the back tips of the petals in the top flower are out-of-focus).

    As for the landscape, I think the blurry pine tree is due to motion, from the wind. Other things in the photo both nearer and further away are in focus. So what you need there is a faster shutter speed. To get that, you either have to lower the aperature (loosing depth of field) or increase the ISO. In a well-exposed photo like this you should be able to raise the ISO well above 200. If you’re using a digital SLR, almost any brand should produce pretty good images in the properly exposed portions up to ISO 800. But this picture has no subject. Maybe if the brown tree were horizontally centered, and the image dropped a little so that the entire reflection of that tree was visible, the shot would be more interesting. If you moved lower to the water the reflection and the subject would be closer together. Alternatively, photos of lilly pads with ripples around them can be pretty compelling (you need a fast shutter speed, and more interesting lighting than just flat full sun). All landscape photos benefit from use of a tripod.

    I agree with most of the earlier comments about ISO and noise (“grain”). Noise is most noticeable in out-of-focus and dark background areas, as you see in your shots. Also, across the board, you’ve way way oversharpened. Look at high-contrast edges in your pictures, and notice how they have a guard-rail, or double-border appearance. Oversharpening particularly makes the most noisy parts of the picture look bad.

    Your lens has some chromatic aberration (the blue fringes along some of the white petal edges).

    As for the swallows-in-flight. Well. Even large slow birds are tough to shoot in-flight. Small birds are a real challenge. For instance, I can routinely get excellent shots of herons, hawks, or even ducks in flight. But swallows and similar size birds are very tough to shoot when they’re in motion. For every 100 good images of a flying duck I might have 1 decent shot of a small bird flying. Very challenging. If you look at magazines you’ll see lots of flying duck photos and very few flying small birds (excepting those which hover). You need a really long lens (say, 400mm) that focuses very very fast, you need to have a firm understanding of how to set exposure on the subject while it’s moving around (or a camera with a built-in spot meter, which is very expensive) and you need a lot of practice. A lot of practice.

    I recommend Peterson: Understanding Exposure.

    Hope this helps.

  10. Lindsay, are you sure JPEGs are necessarily sharpened? That may be a camera setting thing. On my old Olympus, lowering the in-camera sharpening and contrast enhancement improves results overall and avoids a lot of post-process (when needed) problems even on JPEGs.

    Of course, any JPEG compression will inject artifacts that tend to pop out after sharpening and contrast enhancement, so it’s a trade-off.

  11. Lindsay: The “unenhanced” photos (like the pic of the pond, one or more of the blow up plants, etc.) were not sharpened with software, but others were, giving that graininess.

  12. Stephanie, horizontally centered would be far better than the way it is now: The photo has no evident subject. The reflection of the brown tip is cut of by the bottom of the photo, and as far as I can tell, bits of the brown tree are visible all the way to the right edge (so maybe some of that is cut off there, as well). A discussion of whether a subject should be slightly off-center in a shot like this (I would say it depends on the balance of things to either side), but that is a far more subtle discussion than the level of defects in these photos merit. The first step in taking this kind of picture is identifying what the main subject is, how best to emphasize it. If you haven’t identified a subject, then it’s pointless to discuss whether the subject should be centered.

    In this case (though I can’t tell what’s further off to image right), it looks like the photo wouldn’t be boringly symmetric even if the brown tree were centered. To the left is a darker pine tree, further away; to the right is a brighter deciduous tree closer to the shore. So I say centered.

  13. David: Excellent suggestions.

    I should mention that we are having a steady 10 mph wind with gusts up to 40 mph.

    I should use a tripod more.

    Funny you mention lilly pads: Right after re-shooting the trees (not shown) I also shot the lilipads, they came out fairly nicely.

    Must get tripod.

    The swallows were flying about 300 miles per hour!

  14. about sharpening:

    Almost all digital camera sensors record one photosite per color (one red, one blue, one green), so each final “pixel” in your JPG image is a mix of neighboring photosites. That creates edge artifacts. The solution is sharpening. You really have to have at least a little sharpening. The question is how much, and that can be a hard one to answer.

    Best to shoot RAW, which is an unsharpened image, and control the amount of sharpening while you can study the image in detail on your computer. If you must shoot JPG, pick some medium sharpening setting on your camera, and then don’t sharpen it again. Resharpening an already sharpened image almost always looks bad.

  15. David, if the work you are intent on critiquing doesn’t “merit” the best simple advice you can give (and the Rule of Thirds is incredibly simple), then you don’t have any business giving the criticism. If you’re going to be that condescending, at least get things right. Untrained is not the same thing as unable to learn, by any measure, and there’s no excuse for acting as though it were.

  16. Carl: No; I was mostly concerned about the trees left and right of the dark opening in the center, which seemed soft compared to the nearer foliage around them.

  17. I usually shoot raw. Almost all the photos here, however, were shot with the camera at the highest res/lowest compression jpeg.

    But, when I shoot raw, and then mess with the photos, I tend to end up with jpegs anyway. I suppose I should be manipulating them as tiffs or something?

  18. Murray, Dave: Regarding the trees: I agree that these are “subjectless” … My intent was to experiment with lighting and sharpness/focus. But I thought the dead tree made it slightly more interesting. I agree with Stephanie that not center is better, but I also agree that having the whole reflection is better. Actually, all these shots are cropped, so I’m pretty sure I could fix that.

    Regarding sharpness/focus, I think the trees would work well if I gave them a caption like “Photograph of trees in hurricane force winds” …. thereby distracting the viewer a bit…

  19. My problem? I didn’t tell Greg to improve his picture by throwing out one of the cardinal rules (i.e., helpful guidelines) of composition. I also didn’t then get huffy about how his photos didn’t deserve any better when called on giving bad advice.

    So I’m standing in the kitchen this evening, chopping lettuce for a salad. We have two guests over. I say, “Greg asked for photography advice on his blog today. One commenter suggested he center the subject of one of his photos.” I immediately get a chorus of three “Center?!?”s.

    Luckily the knife was not in motion when I cracked up.

  20. By the way, Greg, my preference would be to include all of the reflection as well, plus a bit more lake if it exists at the bottom of the picture. I like the cropping on the lily pads. It’s reminiscent of some Japanese lily compositions.

  21. It’s my belief that, if I don’t know the intent of the artist, I’m not qualified to properly critique their work. On the other hand, If I don’t know the intent of the artist, their work is probably not living up to that intent, but again, I can’t really know that. Maybe that’s the intent in the first place.

    Depth of field, composition and exposure are all tools that can be used to create a wide variety of effects as are film grain and digital noise; the trick is to understand the tools and know how to use them to express your intent. Photographers have made great art with $20 plastic cameras and Polaroid Instamatics as well. They knew how to embrace their tools and make what they wanted to see and knew they could get.

    I agree with much of what’s already been said, but not all of it. That seems reasonable because we shouldn’t all have the same vision. If we did, there’d be no more room for artists. My first thought about the red tree is that it would look very bad centered (as would most subjects), but that I might have tried a different composition. (On the other hand, I wasn’t there so I don’t really know.) It’s entirely possible that centered would have been a good choice. My second thought is that, as Dave says, horizontally centered might not be so bad, but I’d have to see it to know. On the other hand, the subject of that photo is very clear to me.

    Some basic tips:
    Higher ISO = more noise but a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture.
    Smaller aperture = more depth of field but a slower shutter speed and more motion blur.
    Faster shutter speed = less motion blur but a larger aperture and less depth of field.

    Diagonal lines = usually good.
    Subject at 1/3 points in the frame = usually good.
    With digital, look at your histogram (funny graphy thing) and try not to have anything bumping right up against the left or right sides as this indicates loss of data in the dark or light areas. Sometimes this is impossible; learn to deal with it.
    Nearly all photos can benefit from a slight curves adjustment to increase the contrast.

    The cardinal rule of digital photography: Always. Shoot. RAW.
    With RAW, you have more control over the processing of your image: The file has more tonal range so you can control the contrast. The file has no color adjustment so you can control the white balance. The file has no lossy compression so you can control the artifacts (you’ll still end up with a jpeg, but you’ll want to keep the file RAW for as long as possible. Once it’s a jpeg, you can’t go back.) Store the image in RAW if you can, I use Lightroom (I think ShotWell does this, but I’m not sure).

    General thoughts on the actual photos:
    I like daises (or whatever) in the second from the bottom photo quite a bit (it feels like the left side is ‘up’). Your sharpening the upper few is more heavy-handed than I tend to like. Birds are hard.

    The ‘enhanded’ flower is a really interesting effect. Shifting the yellow to green and blowing out the white of the petals so there’s no detail really draws my attention to that one. It reminds me of an over-cooked hard-boiled egg.

    If you want to learn more about photography and reading is your thing (and I know it is), there are thousands of websites out there that are dedicated to just that. Here are a couple:

  22. ISO is just a standardized sensitivity to light. Don’t worry about what it’s standardized to. Just know that doubling the ISO means your twice as sensitive to light. But this also means you’re more sensitive to noise, and more noise will show up in your picture. Best to shoot at the lowest ISO you can get away with, but sometimes you have to turn it up – low light situations or even moderate light if your subject is moving too fast.

    Someone said the white flowers in the first pic are overexposed. True, but complicated because the stem looks well exposed, and if you lower the exposure for the flower it’s going to go dark. You can fix that in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR can handle JPG and TIF, not just RAW) by using the recovery slider to bring the white flowers down, or by shooting it exposed for the flowers and using the fill light slider to bring the stem up. Or, probably most simply, using a polarizing filter when you shoot it to cut the glare off the flower petals.

    I know you said you usually shoot in RAW, and several people have told you to shoot in RAW. Would it be redundant for me to tell you to shoot in RAW? 😛
    Digital cameras handle shadows better than highlights. The RAW file will contain a crazy amount of information in the shadows that you can’t see until you use something like Adobe Camera Raw to bring it out (fill light slider).
    Shoot in RAW, expose for the highlights, take care of the shadows on the computer.

  23. I lean towards frogs myself although certain identity has yet to be assuredly ascertained which is unusual given their commonality in these parts.

  24. Insects are hard! Usually very difficult to focus on, and you couldn’t find a less cooperative subject if you tried.

  25. For insects, your best bet is a long macro lens and a flash. A lot of photographers use a long telephoto with extension tubes so they can get closeup shots from 6-8 feet.

  26. I’ve got a long macro around here somewhere. I’m not sure if I’ve got the flash I want.

    I also am not above imprisoning them for periods of time. I’m thinking of doing something with a piece of glass and a green screen.

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