Composition Tips

Here are some photos I took at the San Diego Safari Park, or what used to be called the San Diego Wild Animal Park.



You might want to click to view the larger size to see the difference. Which of the first two do you like better? Why?

Well, in this case they are both from the same photograph. In the Before photo, the subject is dead center. There is a composition rule in photography called “Rule of Thirds” which says a photograph will be more interesting if the subject is in a third of the photograph. In order to visualize this, picture a tic-tac-toe grid is laid over what you see through your viewfinder. If you put your subject at any intersection points of your grid, you’re following the rule of thirds. Some cameras have the ability to show this grid while you’re taking the photo.

In this case, I didn’t follow this rule when I took the photo. When I was looking at this on my computer, I thought it was showing too much background. Another tip, is to fill the frame with your subject. I decided to crop this photo, as shown in the After, to both remove some of the background and move the subject to the the right third of the frame



Another “rule” is that the eye is attracted to the lightest part of the photograph first. In this Before photo of a mother & child, the lightest part of the photograph is the ground and right side of the mother. This brightness is a result of taking the photograph at noon on a sunny day. If I had taken this either earlier in the day or closer to sunset, the light would have been different. This is why you often hear that the best time to photograph outside is around sunrise or sunset. It is not always possible so you’re left with trying to fix it with post processing. I cropped this photograph to remove as much of the bright side of the photo as I could. I also used my photo editing software to darker that side.



In this before photo, the subject is the gorilla, but I’ve got branches from a tree popping into the edges. If there was more of the tree visible, than it it would look like an intentional part of the gorilla’s environment. Instead it’s a distraction. It is a good idea before clicking the shutter button, to look around the edges of the frame to make sure there are no distracting elements. I could have cropped this so that I eliminated just the branches, but what I really wanted was the face.



In this before photo, I had boosted my exposure compensation (topic for another time) to get detail in the black animals, but it results in the rocks and background being very over exposed. My initial plan was to crop the bottom of the photo to remove the bright rocks, but when I zoomed in on the baby and saw it’s eyes, I knew that was what I wanted my subject to be.

To see more photos from the day, checkout my SmugMug gallery

Behind Bars

Lion f3.5, 1/8000, ISO 640 Click for larger view

What do you think these two photographs have in common?

La Brea Tar Pits f5.6, 1/500 sec, ISO 200 Click for larger view

The subject matter of both is potentially dangerous, but that’s not it. The clue is in the title. Both subjects are behind a chain link fence.

The trick to eliminating the fence is a combination of the following.

  • Get as close to the fence as you can
  • The subject will need to be further from the fence that you are
  • Use the widest aperture that you can. If you’re using a DSLR that will be dependent on the lens you are using. It may be f 5.6, f3 or if you’re really lucky a f2.8. The easiest way to do this is to use Aperture Priority mode and dial it to the smallest number it will go to. The smallest number actually represents the widest aperture or shutter opening. What the smaller number is the bigger aperture? 😉  Yeah it’s a math thing. The aperture, expressed as an f stop like f5.6, is actually a fraction so f2.8 is bigger than say f11. If you are using a point and shoot camera where you can’t control the aperture, try using the portrait mode.
  • I have found the most critical piece though is to use manual focus. In autofocus mode your camera is mostly likely to focus on the fence because it’s closer to you than your subject.

The Need for Speed

I don’t usually remember movie quotes but I think there is a quote in Top Gun that goes something like “I feel the need…the need for speed”.

Learning to control speed is an important aspect of photography. In order to capture a fast moving subject without motion blur you need to have a fast shutter speed and if you want to capture movement you need to have a slow shutter speed. There are a couple of ways to do this and it does not involve the automatic setting of my camera.

Blue Angels
ISO 200, Aperture Priority, F5.6, 1/2000 sec.
Click for larger view

When I went to the 2010 Miramar NAS airshow, I knew I needed a fast shutter speed to capture the speedy Blue Angels in flight. I rented a 100-400mm lenses to be able to zoom in and set my camera so that I would have a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec. I did that by first setting my ISO to 200, then used Aperture Priority mode to set my aperture to f5.6 so that the camera choose a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec. That worked great for this shot of the Blue Angels…..


F-22, P-51 Mustang, F-16
ISO 200, Aperture Priority, f5.0, 1/3200.
Click for larger view

…but not so much on this shot. With aircraft with propellers like helicopters and prop planes a frozen propeller makes it look like it’s not moving. This photograph could be of planes hanging from my ceiling (no I don’t have planes hanging from my ceiling 🙂 ) rather than a live airshow. I should have used a shutter speed much lower than the 1/3200 this was at.

For the 2011 Miramar NAS airshow, my number one goal was to get the “prop blur”. The day before I was to go to the airshow, Kelby Training released, and I watched, a training video from Moose Peterson on Aviation Photography (perfect timing or what)

Using the recommendations from the video, I used a very slow shutter speed to get this late afternoon shot of Fat Albert (Blue Angels C-130 support plane) getting ready to taxi to the runway. To get this shot I used Shutter Priority to set my shutter speed to 1/50 sec, waited under the propellers were at full speed and moved so that I had the tower in the background.

Click for larger view

Fat Albert
ISO 100, Shutter Priority, f8.0, 1/50 sec.
Click for larger view

So what are Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and why did I use them rather than the Automatic mode?

Aperture Priority is a camera setting on the mode dial (AV) of the camera that allows you to select the aperture or f-stop and the camera selects the shutter speed. Shutter priority (TV on the mode dial) allows you to control the shutter speed and the camera selects the aperture. In the case of Aperture Priority mode, I selected an aperture and focused the camera and looked to see what shutter speed was selected. I repeated that process until I had chosen an aperture that gave me the shutter speed I wanted.

Whether I was using Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority I was taking control of the camera to insure I got the effect I wanted. If I had used Automatic, the camera would have selected an aperture and shutter speed to get what the camera considers a proper exposure. The camera doesn’t evaluate the subject before it, to know that a faster or slower shutter speed, would make a more interesting photograph. Automatic mode may have captured the shots with the Blue Angels, but it’s unlikely it would have chosen a shutter speed slow enough to get the prop blur on Fat Albert.


Intro to HDR – High Dynamic Range

I think one of the most challenging aspects of photography is understanding that the camera doesn’t see the same thing that I do.  My brain (and yours) can compensate for what it sees in ways a camera can’t.

I took these three photographs using different shutter speeds, by setting my camera on Aperture Priority at f11 and using exposure compensation at -2, 0, +2.

If you click on the first, it will bring up a larger size in a shadowbox window and allow you to scroll through the 3 photographs. Also note that I’ve labeled them with either a 0 -2 or + 2 exposure compensation.

The 0 is what the camera takes as it’s normal exposure, the -2 is underexposed by two stops and the +2 is overexposed by two stops.

Notice on the 0 exposure that you can see detail under the roof of the building but you don’t see a lot of detail away from the building. The – 2 exposure (underexposed) is dark under the roof, but the area away from the building has more detail than the 0 exposure. The +2 has a lot of detail under the roof and the rest is blown out. None of them on their own is ideal.

What these 3 photographs illustrate is that this scene had a contrast range too great for the camera to capture in a single photograph meaning the difference between the darkest shadows and the brightest highlights was too big.

In comes HDR technology to the rescue. In Photoshop, I used HDR Pro which took the 3 photographs and produced a single image. I couldn’t really explain the secret sauce behind what it does, but it ends with the best parts (exposure wise) of each photo.

This was my end result which looks the way I remember it.

Train Station – HDR

Lessons Learned:

  • The camera doesn’t see the same thing as your brain and eyes do
  • Sometimes the contrast range is too great to capture in a single image
  • HDR is a way to compensate for a high contrast scene
  • There are several software programs that will process HDR photos
  • You don’t need an DSLR to do HDR photography. Some point-and-shoot cameras and camera photos have the ability to create an HDR photo in camera


  • Read about Exposure compensation in your camera manual
  • Check your software, does it include the ability to process HDR
  • If you have a point and shoot or camera phone, learn if it has the ability to do HDR.
  • Check out the resources below. Even if you don’t want to tackle HDR yourself, there are some people who produce some amazing results with it


  • Stuck in Customs Trey Ratcliff specializes in HDR and travels the world to do it. This link is to his portfolio, but his website also includes how-to tutorials and videos
  • Places to Explore Talke Photography was some cool motorcross photos along with landscapes
  • AboutRC Not everything on Photoshop Guy’s blog is HDR, but he did write a book about HDR.

Creating a Slide Show

I had some photos I took at the Huntington Beach Civil War Days that I wanted to combine with some audio from a video I took at the same event.

The photo part was easy as I had already selected my “pics” and post processed them to give them on old look (see my previous posts).

The tricky part was how to separate the audio from the video as I didn’t like the video portion but thought I could use the audio portion to bring in the sound of the gun battle.

I brought the video into Adobe Premiere Elements and after looking around the menus and help,  found that there are a couple of ways to export only the audio. In my case, in order to get the file format that I needed, selecting Share>Personal Computer>MPEG allowed me to export the audio from my video in mp3 format.

My plan was to import my photos from Lightroom to Animoto and have their software create a slideshow for me using my audio as my music choice. Normally Animoto creates a great slideshow faster (it only takes their software a few minutes to generate) and better than I could. Here’s the result

In typical Animoto style, it looks great except for one thing. It didn’t use all the photographs I had selected. It used my photos until my music stopped. I went back to check the settings to see if there was anything I could do but I didn’t find an option to repeat the music. I really wanted all the photographs to be used so…..

I went back to Lightroom and created a slideshow from there. It doesn’t have the fancy transitions that Animoto does but I could control the pace better and Lightroom allows you to repeat your music. I then uploaded to YouTube in order to share it.

Lessons Learned:

  • Use can use the audio from a video without using the visual portion ..if you have software that will do that for you.
  • When using “music” with a slideshow, the length of your “music” can affect your resulting slideshow. I put “music” in quotes, because you may be using other audio like I did in place of a song.
  • Lightroom’s slideshows can be exported to PDF as well as video. The PDF version, however,  doesn’t include the audio.


  • Check if your software has the ability to create a slideshow and read up on how to do it
  • Create a slideshow using either your own software or give Animoto a try. You can get a 30 second video for free.

Post Processing – Civil War Era Look

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I attended the Huntington Beach Civil War Days Reenactment on Labor Day weekend.

One of the things I wanted to accomplish was to make the photographs look like they were taken in the Civil War era. Well, first off, I don’t consider myself on expert on what Civil War era photographs would look like, but I envisioned that converting the photographs to a sepia tone would do the trick.

The method I chose to do this was the Develop module of Adobe Lightroom. I admit, I’m not that patient about trying different adjustments to see the affect on my photographs so I’m all about the presets.

Lightroom comes with some presets, you can create you own or you can get them from third-parties. In Lightroom you can hover your mouse over a preset and it will show you in the Navigator window what the photograph would look like if you chose that preset.  Once you choose a preset you can either stop there or adjust further if you like.

I found a preset I really liked and applied it to all the photographs that I wanted to publish to my SmugMug gallery as I wanted them to have a consistent look. The photographs below show a before and after

Lesson Learned:

  • Creating a photograph doesn’t always stop with the click of the shutter
  • How you post process a photograph can have a big impact on the final result. Is the first photograph (original) as interesting as the second (processed)?
  • Using presets can take a lot of trial and error out of processing a photograph..meaning it can be faster and easier.


  • Look at the software you use. Does it allow you to make adjustments to your photographs?
  • Does your software include presets?
  • Try converting a photograph or a copy of a photograph to sepia

Sources for Lightroom Presets (to name a few)


On Labor Day weekend, I attended the Huntington Beach Civil War Days Living History and Reenactment.  Before I took a single picture, I had two things in mind. One I wanted to photograph the battle while sitting and the second was all the photographs would be black & white to fit the civil war era.

So for the first battle, I sat on the ground so that I could get a low field level view.

Civl War Days Battle 1

Click photo for a larger view


For the second battle, we had moved to a new location where I couldn’t sit without my view being blocked, so I stood.

Civil War Days Battle 2

Click photo for a larger view

Look closely at the two photographs and notice how the two perspectives affect what you see and feel. They are similar in that both show the fallen soldiers with the battles continuing behind them. But the first one makes you focus on the fallen, while the second makes you focus on the background. The first one brings you in and the second feels more editorial or objective.

Lessons Learned:

  • Changing your angle can have a big impact on your photograph
  • Don’t stop with one angle, try many.  In this case, I used two angles, standing & sitting from one location. I could of and maybe should have moved to different parts of the field as well


  • Larry Becker of NAPP issued an assignment on a past episode of DTown TV, to take 40 pictures of one subject. I admit I haven’t tried it yet, but I think it would be a great exercise to understand that the first view or angle may not be the best and you may be missing something if you stop at your first shot

In my next blog post, I discuss how I post processed my photographs so that they look like they were taken in the Civil War era. The photographs above do not reflect that post processing

Oh, In case you were wondering, the Confederate army won the first battle and the Union won the second

Pretty Isn’t A Subject

vertical Yosemite

Click to view larger size

I attended a photography workshop in Yosemite last May hosted by Samy’s Camera. You would think in a place like Yosemite, it would be hard to take a bad photograph, when every direction you turn is more scenic than the last. At the end of the workshop we were able to submit 5 photographs for critique by Jennifer Wu, a Canon explorer of Light, one of the instructors for the workshop. One of the images I submitted was this one. Of all the photographs I took that weekend, I don’t remember exactly why I wanted to submit this one. Maybe it was the pretty blue sky, green forest, running water, and a hint of cloud…what’s not to like 😉 Jennifer’s response was that she didn’t know what the subject of the photograph was. That comment left me kind of speechless..because I didn’t know either… it was just pretty. As a photographer you need to decide what you want to communicate to the viewer and compose the image accordingly.


Click to view larger size

She also said a horizontal view that incorporated more of the scene might help. Turns out I had such a photograph. The composition on this photograph is better because it has a foreground element (the water), a middle element (the sandbar) and a background (the trees and mountain) This type of composition gives depth to the photograph and leads the viewer in. The first photograph doesn’t do that.

Lessons Learned:

  • Decide what the subject is and compose the photograph accordingly
  • Think before you shoot


Creating My Own Website


A website of another sort

I’ve long thought it would be fun to learn how to design a website. To that end I took most of the required classes for a Specialized Studies Certificate in Web Technologies from UCI Extension. That means I’ve taken a class in HTML, Web Graphics using Photoshop, Javascript and Designing and Developing Web content. None of these classes, however, addressed the process of actually setting up a website. I’d been thinking I should put some of this education to work and was thinking about a photography related site.

When I saw that “Photoshop Guy” Rafael “RC” Concepcion wrote a book titled “Get Your Photography On The Web”, I couldn’t wait to get it. I thought it would get me from just thinking about it to just doing it..and it did.

The book walks you though the process of registering a domain name, setting up a hosting site from and installing WordPress to manage your content. WordPress gives you the ability to design a website without having to program it yourself. The book describes the process of picking a theme, adding plug-ins and widgets for additional functionality and how to create pages and posts. While approximately half the book is about the actual setup of a website, the other half is about preparing your images and web galleries for posting on your website.

What I liked about the book, is that it told me what to do. 🙂 It didn’t present all the registrars you could register a domain with or the many hosting sites you could choose from. I didn’t get bogged down with having to make a lot of decisions, well almost, before creating my own website.

My website is still a work-in-process, but so far the most difficult part of the process has been choosing a theme. There are a ton of free options, and I kept changing my mind about which I liked. Deciding what I wanted it to look like has taken longer than creating the actual framework.

Now it’s time to work on the content!

Lessons Learned:

  • With help from RC’s book and a tool like WordPress, creating a website is the easy part. Deciding how you want it to look and what you want to include is more difficult