Why the selfie works...

Flickr CC photo by Mark Willard.

Take a lesson from the self portrait for your next travel photo

You can't go anywhere these days without seeing someone posing, arm extended, taking a selfie. First time at the Lincoln Memorial? Pose for a selfie.

Why does it work? A travel photography tip provides insights.

When someone looks into the camera, they become the subject, even if they are in front of an iconic scene like the Reflecting Pool or the Eiffel Tower. Once someone looks into the camera and makes eye contact with the viewer, we have an irresistible urge to look back. We ignore the Eiffel Tower and wonder, "who is that looking at me?"

The selfie is a common scene these days.

It becomes a problem when you send your family member or friend to go stand next to the building and back up far enough to have the entire building in the frame. Your subject looks minuscule, and your viewers now have to squint to see who is looking at them.

Enter the selfie. You are never more than arm's length from the camera. That means you are always close enough to fill the frame and be the unmistakable subject.

What if you are photographing someone else? Pretend you are still in selfie mode. Move them away from the Monument. Get as close to the person as if they were taking a selfie and fill the frame with their face. You'll get the same effect as the selfie — and the same impact.


17 things you should know to win your next photo contest

“I’m sure I didn’t win this photo contest. I’ll just stop in to check as a formality,” I told myself as I pulled into the parking lot. 

I was a college student, fresh out of one of my first photography classes. Just for fun, I entered one of my photos into a local contest. It was an image I took of a New Orleans sunset on Lake Pontchartrain. Secretly, I really dug the photo, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the camera store that hosted the competition.

From beginner to professional photographers, the lure of a contest can be too tempting to resist. Winning a photo contest can be great as a validation of your skills, an excellent learning experience, and an incredible ego boost.

If you are considering entering a photo contest, here are some questions you should answer before shipping your entry.


Your initial research

Do you know the rules? For a contest organizer overwhelmed by entries, this is the easiest way to start cutting down the number of photos to review. If the rules say submit an 8x10, the first thing they will likely do is toss out all the non 8x10 photos without even looking at them. 

One of my old bosses used to say “on the first pass, we get rid of two types of entries: things that shouldn’t be here but are... and things things that are supposed to be here but aren’t.”

It was his way of saying ‘let’s not waste time with someone who can’t follow basic instructions.’

Did you follow the theme? Along the same vein as following the rules is staying within the theme. Don’t bother entering that great Fiji sunset photo in a Cherry Blossom contest. No one will even look at it.

What criteria will the judges use? Some photo contests are judged based on the quality of the photo, others are popularity contests. How will you win?

Who are the judges? It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the bio and portfolio of the contest judges. I like knowing what they think is good. Of course they are likely to recognize quality in genre outside of their expertise, but it can’t hurt to give them something familiar to consider.

What do the past winning entries look like? I’d scan the past winners for any patterns or clues to what typically makes the cut. Past performance isn’t always a guarantee of future results, but it is a heck of a hint.


Thinking strategically 

What does the organizer really want? Who is sponsoring the contest? What business are they in, and what might they really want from this contest? For instance, if a contest is hosted by your city’s travel bureau, you can infer that they are looking for images to showcase the city. Photographing in a travel magazine style might be a good strategy.

How much ownership will they take? Always be very clear how much control of your image you are willing to relinquish. Some contests will ask you to wave all ownership and rights to your image completely. This will allow them to use your photo in their own advertising or any other way they choose. If you are competing for exposure in a national publication, you might be willing to sign off on that approach. Some companies or ad agencies hold contests to get photography without having to pay fair market value. Are you okay with that? Make an informed decision.

What are the benefits of winning? Some contests are worth it for the chance to win money or camera gear. Some are worth it for the prestige or exposure. I have a friend who enters every contest she can because she just wants to have a long list of awards on her bio. What’s your motivation?

What are the costs? You can expect to pay a nominal fee to help the sponsors administer the contest. I’d be wary of exorbitant entry fees, especially from a sponsor with a track record you can’t verify.

Will you receive any feedback? For many photographers, good feedback from the judges is almost worth the price of admission. For me, nothing is more frustrating than getting a thumbs up or thumbs down without any further info on why. Of course, not all contests can respond with this level of detail to each entry. If you are entering contests to help learn and improve, it might be a good idea to focus on the ones that provide you more feedback.

Will you need model releases? Some contests will insist you provide model releases for any recognizable person in your photo. This is your first clue that they intend to use your photo commercially -- meaning, expect a winning photo to make it into the sponsor’s marketing and advertising. Even if the contest doesn’t require a release, you might still consider it. If an opportunity arises to license your photo, at least you will be prepared.


Submit your best photo

Is your subject obvious and in pin sharp focus? This is low hanging fruit for judges looking for reasons to discard entries. Make sure your subject is unambiguously clear to the viewer. Your judge is not going to work very hard to figure it out. 

Once your subject is clear, the judge will then want to know if it is sharp. Pay attention to camera shake or an auto focus that missed your focal point. 

Did you capture perfect exposure? The basics matter more than ever. You’d be surprised how many contests I’ve judged where the photographer didn’t take the time to get the basics right. It’s hard to win when you haven’t crossed that threshold.

Did you try a creative approach to the photo? This is a good time to let your creativity shine. You have to expect that judges will see plenty of photos taken from eye level or with no creative composition or storytelling. You are looking for an angle or an approach that will make your image stand out in a sea of sameness.

Did you name and describe your photo? This is a nice touch for me. A name and title completes a professional presentation of a photo. 

Did you get feedback from peers or mentors? After you have done all your own work in producing and selecting your best, get some feedback from other photographers you respect. Don’t just show them a photo and ask “do you like this or not?” I’d want honest feedback on the best photo and qualitative feedback on the strengths and weaknesses.

Start by showing your three favorites and ask them to choose the best one. In many cases, you will begin to see some trends. When you have a clear winner, ask for feedback on three things that work and three things that can be improved. Push for specifics rather than generalities.

Enter early. In the off chance judges begin looking at photos as they come in, you want to give yourself every opportunity to get careful consideration. Ideally you would expect them to look at all photos at the same time, but you can’t always count on that.

My first experience with a photo contest was a good one. The camera store selected my sunset as one of the winners and displayed it in their window for a month. Talk about an ego trip. That was really all I wanted.

Nobody wins every photo contest, however and neither have I. But throughout the wins, losses and learning opportunities, I’ve found that the clearer we are on the answers to these 17 questions, the better our chances of coming out on top.

'A photo a day keeps the staleness away'

I've been talking a lot about Project 365s — for obvious reasons. PictureCorrect helps to make the case in this post. One new idea I really like from this author is your 'best photo of the day.'

Best photo of the day - Shoot all day long, and at the end of the day, choose the one picture that has the most meaning to you.

Check out all their tips.

Project 365 idea - Choose your best photo of the day.

How to find interesting pictures when you’re overwhelmed

Julie paused in front of the Maga Design building and stared. She never raised her camera. Didn’t move around. Just stared.

On our Abstracts in Adams Morgan Photo Tour, most photographers stop in front this building. There is something that seems to draw most people in, but what attracts them differs with each person.

“What are you looking at,” I inquired?

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I can’t decide what I want to shoot here.”

I know the feeling. Sometimes it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You walk down an interesting street with your camera, and everything seems to clamor for your attention at once. 

Under the overwhelm, it’s easy to feel like shutting down. Like Julie, we stand there, stare and do nothing.

The next time you feel overwhelmed, try one of these approaches.


What’s the first thing you noticed?

“Stop for a moment and think. When you first decided to walk over here, what was the first thing you noticed?”

“I noticed the pattern in the balconies,” Julie said.

“Good, start there. Focus on the patterns and see what you can create.

In many instances, whenever you are drawn to a scene, there is something -- one thing -- there that grabbed your eye. If you take a moment to reflect, you are likely to pick it out. Start with it. That might be a satisfying way to begin.


Choose a theme

An easy way to avoid overwhelm is to decide on your theme or story first. Before you even head out to shoot, know what you plan to photograph. You can choose to focus on a color, texture, storyline, or anything. When you happen upon a scene with too many options, you can use your theme to determine where you start.


Sit still and wait

Sometimes our enemy is impatience. Maybe even a little creative ADD. 

In instances when there is too much going on, just sit still and wait. Patience can produce something interesting. In our webinar with Hannele Lahti, she shared that sometimes she will sit in one location for hours waiting for something interesting to happen. When it does, it is usually worth the wait.

If you have the time, pull up a chair and relax.


In the end, Julie decided to focus on the balconies and created some interesting images with the patterns. Overwhelm averted.

Webinar Recording: Creating black and white photography

How do you create great images in black and white? That’s the topic we tackled during our December 2013 Free Photo Webinar. In this presentation and discussion, you will learn:

  • Why shoot in black and white?
  • What principles should you follow for all your black and white photos?
  • What elements really make a black and white photo stand out?
  • We compare several photos in color & black and white and talk about the differences.
  • What should you know to convert your photos from color to black and white successfully?

Plus...we had a pretty good discussion about resources, gear, and shooting.


More resources

Credits - See the Flickr Creative Commons photos used in Black & White webinar gallery and Black and White webinar gallery 2.

In our Q&A section, someone asked about learning resources for strobe photography. I suggested:

...and I’m adding

Joe McNally's The Language of Light DVD

I also mentioned the ExpoDisc as a great tool for accurate white balance.

Creating photos in black and white

Flickr photo by misschristi1972. (Converted to black & white.)

What makes a box of crayons interesting? As I remember it, we judged Crayolas based on the numbers of colors. Whether your box had 8, 16, 32, or 64 crayons, we learned that with more options, we could create more nuance and impact in our drawings.

What if that same crayon box came with only shades of gray? How much fun would that be?

We might not be able to imagine enjoying monochrome crayons but stripping color from your pictures could add a whole new layer of impact to your photography.


A great black and white photo is first a great photo

Back when I learned to take pictures, we only used one kind of film -- black and white. My instructors taught us about all the principles of photography and gave assignments to help us understand the lessons better. Here’s what they never did -- taught us to see in black and white.

You know why? Many of the elements that make a strong black & white photo are the same principles that work in any photo -- color or not. Here are questions I ask when evaluating any photo.

Exposure -- Is the photograph exposed correctly? Is the subject well lit? Is there the proper amount of light to create the mood or tell the story? Are there any blown highlights or overexposed areas that are distracting? Are the darker or shadow areas so muddy that you lose detail?

Composition -- Is there a clear and compelling subject? Does everything else in the frame work to complement or lead the eye to the subject? Does the action lead my eye on a clear path around the photo? Are there any distracting elements in the photo?

Focus -- Is the subject or main part of the image sharply in focus? Is enough of the subject in focus? Is too much in focus? Is the image free of camera shake?

Impact -- Does it pass the ‘so what’ test? Is it clear what compelled you to take this photo, to save it, to share it? Is there a story?

Emotion -- What do I feel when I look at your photo? What are the subjects of your photo feeling? Can I sympathize? Empathize? What’s my reaction?

In any photograph -- black and white or color, you have to start with the basics.


What is unique to a black and white image?

When you strip away color from a photograph, the other characteristics become more noticeable. You might find yourself focusing on elements that might have been obscured by the splashes of red or green.

If you know these elements stand out, use them to create stronger images.

  • Shapes & Patterns -- Lines, shapes and patterns are a staple of great composition. Without the distractions of color, the geometry often becomes more prominent. In the black & white photo of the crayons, you might notice the repeating pattern. Would you have noticed it in color? Perhaps, but only after you took notice of each color. In monochrome, the pattern takes center stage. Find the shapes and patters.
  • Texture -- I wonder what that subject feels like? Does the photo make it easy for me to imagine? In a black and white photo, texture can become easier to visualize. Look for opportunities to show us how something feels.
  • Light & Shadows -- You usually find more impact focusing on the light or shadows of a scene in black and white photography. Your camera is designed to give you an average of the entire scene in its default mode. In black and white, you can create more impact by making either the light or shadow more prominent. Using spot metering can help.
  • Tonal Contrast -- The range of light to dark in an image is often called the tonal range. Without color, you can choose to use a more graduated range, with lots of gray tones in between. For more drama, you can also go for a stark difference between blacks and white. 


The why factor

One of the most important questions you can ask yourself is ‘why?’ Why is this photo in black and white? Is it important to the message? Was a color too distracting? Does it enhance the mood? Create an effect? Tell a story? Why are you doing this?

Some images need to be in black and white. Sometimes you choose it to mask technical flaws. Sometimes you just feel it makes the image right. Trust your artistic instinct for this one. Just be deliberate and intentional about your choices.

Once you’ve decided how to best express your vision, dip into your crayon box and pick your best gray. Color away.


Learn more about Creating Black & White photography in our Free Photo Webinar

Want to learn more about creating in black and white? Join my December 10, 2013 Free Photo Webinar. We’ll dig deeper into what makes a great black and white photo. We’ll look at some examples of how we use each of the principles above. We’ll talk about the best ways to convert a color image and the benefits of shooting straight to black and white. I’ll even have some resources to help you continue your learning path.

Register now to join us.

Your photo lifeline

There’s nothing worse than trying to shoot an image that just won’t come out right. Even if you have learned the basic photography principles, they can seem like a lot to remember when it’s time to push the shutter. 

Let’s simplify this. For most situations, I can coach you to a better shot in seven questions. I put them on your Photo Help Lifeline.

Take them with you as you shoot.If you are ever shooting and get stuck. These seven questions can help you diagnose most shooting problems and create great pictures.

These will make more sense to my DC Icons - 10 Steps to Great Pictures alums. We cover these principles and more during our half-day workshop. I think they are simple enough to provide the nudge most photographers will need.

If you have an iPhone, you can add this page to your home screen. This will make sure your advice is always a thumb tap away. 

Go to Your Photo Help Lifeline


Don't forget to save it to your home screen.

Your photo lifeline at your fingertips.

Telling great photo stories in your back yard

Tips for photo storytelling and a challenge to shoot wherever you are

I was jealous for a moment as I watched TED talks on photography. These were perspectives and photos by fascinating storytellers. They shared experiences in war zones, at the top of the Himalayas, or from news events that changed our times.

It almost seemed that I had to go somewhere exotic or dangerous to create an interesting or memorable story with my camera. That made me jealous. Why do they get to travel to faraway lands to take their pictures, and I am forced to create from mundane situations in my own back yard?

In my envy, I ignored a couple basic facts. Everywhere is someone's backyard, and every location or situation has the potential to be interesting. Sometimes it takes patience. Sometimes it just means you need to keep looking. Sometimes it requires better focus.

I find interesting stories around Washington, DC with my 100 Strangers projectFor instance, in the last few months I've met more than 30 interesting people, I might not have ever encountered without my camera. I'm working on a photo project called 100 Strangers. It's an interesting mix of art and life. Meet people you don't know. Find out a little about them. Take their photos. Tell their stories.

Suddenly, people I would normally just walk by became interesting. I had long, engaging conversations I couldn't even begin to capture in a short blog post. There were interesting people or situations, and they were not covered in ashes from Ground Zero or nursing dying orphans in Rwanda. They were interesting with their own stories. 

Interesting doesn't need to be in strangers. You can find it in the familiar. On Monday, someone is likely to ask you, "what did you do last weekend?" You will think for a moment and maybe relay a story of an encounter. It will be a story that you think is interesting enough to share, and it will have happened to you. Guess what, it will be interesting to others, too.

What will you do this weekend? Tomorrow? Today? How will you retell the story? Can you do it in pictures?

You don't have to go somewhere exotic to find your interesting story. If you decide to look, you can find it in your own 'back yard.'


Here's your challenge

Tell a story in photos from wherever you happen to be this weekend. You can tell it from between one to five images. It can be a person, place or thing, but keep these storytelling elements in mind.

Characters -- What or who is the story about? Remember the hero? Whether you photograph flowers, architecture, or people, make the story about something or someone.

Setting -- Where is it happening? Can you establish the location, time or mood?

Action -- What's the verb you will use when you describe the situation? The best stories are about something or someone doing something. Find the action.

Viewpoint -- Whose story is it? Will it be from your point of view or your subject's? What's the best placement to create that perspective?

Storytelling -- How will the story unfold? Will you tell it in chronological order? Reverse chronological? Geographic? Thematic?

Apply these elements and you can begin to make situations in your own back yard just as interesting as those exotic photojournalists.

Now tell your own photo story -- from wherever you happen to be. When you finish your story, post a link in the comments. I'd love to see it. I'll be working on my own version as well.


Best firework photography tips roundup

Flickr photo by Darshan Vaishnav.

This time of year, it seems every photo blog sends out their fireworks photography tips. If you are on as many photo lists as I am, the emails can last longer than your local fireworks show. Rather than add one more firework photography post to the universe, I'm offering a roundup of my favorites.

Here's the best of the lot. Try these to orient yourself before you head out on July 4.

Tom Wachs used a 300mm lens from the roof of the Folger Shakespeare Library to include the Capitol Dome and the Washington Monument with the fireworks.

Digital Photography School - How to Photograph Fireworks Displays

Darren Rowse has a pretty comprehensive post, as you would expect from one of the most popular photography blogs. I like how he has organized it, from equipment to settings. He also includes other readers' favorite tips.


PopPhoto.com - How to Photograph Fireworks

Pop Photo releases a version of this list every year, it seems. This roundup has the best overall view. You can follow these tips to walk you through the evening -- from picking your location to capturing the shot.


WikiHow - How to Photograph Fireworks

I like that WikiHow begins with this approach -- we are changing from treating light as illumination to treating it as a subject. That mindset shift alone can be helpful. WikiHow lays out useful steps, things you'll need, and tips & warnings. 


Amazon.com - Photographing July 4th Fireworks

Amazon features this list from one of my favorite photography authors, Michael Freeman.


Nikon Learn & Explore - Taking Pictures of Fireworks

Lindsay Silverman shares some of his best tips for firework photography. Yes, he references Nikon equipment. (It is on their site) Fear not Canon users, there's still some good info and a cool gallery of photos there.


Where is your favorite fireworks photography location? Share it in the comments. We promise not to show up and crowd you. :-)


Updated on July 2, 2014

Photographer’s guide to Creative Commons

Believe it or not, giving away your images for free can be the pathway to selling more photos and making more money -- when you use a licensing structure called Creative Commons.

Creative Commons allows photographers to share their work by pre-authorizing the types of uses you will allow. Here's how it works.

You make your work available in a pool of images used by individuals, bloggers, and companies. Some may just use the images for screen savers. Most will use the photos for blogs and marketing products. 

For each published use, the user gives you credit and links back to your site. If enough people use your work, you could drive significant traffic and exposure your way. With enough raving fans, you have the seeds of a thriving business.

Trey Ratcliff's Stuck in Customs travel blog is probably the most celebrated example of this approach. Trey says when he decided to go with the Creative Commons strategy, traffic surged to 150,000 photo views per day, making it the most trafficked photography blog. His business has also grown to 10 people, and he reports that they are profitable. Trey credits all this success to his decision to give away his work for noncommercial applications, and use licensing deals for commercial uses to make money.

How can it work for you? Creative Commons uses four elements to construct a license: 

  • Attribution - Every license has this component. If you use the work, you have to give credit. 
  • Commercial use - Can you use the work to make money? Decide if you want images only used on editorial or educational outlets like blogs or schools, or if you don't mind someone selling your images on T-shirts, for instance.
  • Derivatives - Can someone remix the work? Your images might inspire a designer to create something totally different. Are you okay with that?
  • Share alike - If someone creates a derivative, do you want them to use the same sharing licenses you did? You can instruct derivatives to be shared freely, if that's how you prefer your work to be used.

These four elements can be combined to create six licensing alternatives. It might seem like that can easily get confusing, but Creative Commons has a cool Help Me Choose function on their website that walks you through the key questions and produces the right option. It even gives you the HTML to embed into your site.

As a creative, you should know that your work is protected the moment you create it. You don't need to do anything for it to be covered by copyright. If you want to be able to collect damages, you will need to register each creation with the U.S. Copyright office. Registering costs only $35, but you will have the confidence that you can be compensated for any unauthorized use.

How will you know if someone uses your photo? You can include a request that the user send you a link for your records, but nothing will require them to comply. You will be relying on their willingness to take the extra step. 

The best way to make sure you find your images is purchasing a service that tracks the images for you. They will embed a digital signature into your file. These services then scour the internet to find any uses of the photo. When you get a hit, you can check to see that the work is being used as you outlined.

You will have to decide if it is worth the time and expense to go looking for use or misuse of your images. Trey Ratcliff's approach is not to worry about piracy and let karma sort out the good and bad. 

Worked out pretty well for him. Freebies and pirates helped him create a great life as a photographer. Do you think it can work for you? How might you use Creative Commons?

By the way, if you are interested in copyright issues, check out my interview with IP attorney Phil Marcus.

How to photograph the cherry blossoms

10 steps for taking beautiful pictures at the DC Cherry Blossom Festival

This week kicks off the 2013 National Cherry Blossom Festival, where millions of Washingtonians and tourists will flock down to the Tidal Basin to witness -- and photograph -- Japan’s gift to the United States.

While the blossoms are beautiful to behold, they can be tricky to photograph. You might leave frustrated because the scene the camera captured looks nothing like the beauty you just saw. Avoid this experience by keeping these 10 tips in mind.

1. Focus and simplify.

The first rule of composition is even more important at the Cherry Blossom Festival. Expect crowds of people and clusters of flowers. Your biggest enemy will be distraction -- in the frame. One is the magic number. Find one clear subject and work to eliminate everything else that does not lead your eye to it or help tell a story about it.

2. Try ESAD for creative composition.

Composition is key, so create something memorable by remembering ESAD:

  • Establishing shot - Take the post card shot first. This is the wide angle photo that shows your viewers your location.
  • Storytelling - Look for images that tell the story of the day for you. What were you seeing, smelling, feeling? Look for ways to tell those stories visually.
  • Angles - Experiment with extreme angles -- left to right, up and down. Nothing transforms a ho hum image like an extreme angle.
  • Details - Pick a detail and take extreme close ups of it. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and quite often, so is the impact. 

3. Create a shotlist.

You don’t want to get home and find you have a card full of the same kind of photo.  If you only shoot the wide shot or close up of the Cherry Blossom, you are missing a world of opportunities. Check out this shot list for ideas.

4. Light, light, light.

Realtors live by the location, location, location mantra. Photographers should feel the same way about light. Get there during the golden hours for best results. Use front light on the flowers for best color. Try back light on petals to show depth.

5. Watch out for winds.

It is almost always windy -- right when you are ready to take your shot. Flowers on thicker trunks might not sway as much as those at the end of thin branches. Use a clip or have someone steady the branch while you shoot your close up. Fast shutter speeds might be necessary to help stop the action of swaying flowers. In many cases, you might need to use a higher ISO to create faster shutter speeds.

6. Take a reflector.

A large reflector can do double duty. It can help shade or reflect light, and it can help shield some of the winds. This can be a very handy tool.

7. Try manual focus.

Your auto focus might have a hard time locking in on a petal that is swaying back and forth or one that lacks contrast. Use manual focus to make sure your focal point is always sharp. (If blurry photos continue to be a problem, read this post.)

8. Fill the frame with texture.

The flowers are beautiful, but the weathered trunks have their own character. Fill the frame with texture to show the contrast from the petals.

9. Take a background or prop.

Just because you are outdoors doesn’t mean you can’t create a studio effect. Take a background to place behind the petals and simplify the image. The Tulip garden behind the Tidal Basin Welcome Center is a good location to try this technique.

10. Look up.

Use the sky as a background to outline the flowers and create contrast.

Click to tweet! 


Here’s a bonus tip.

Go back. We can expect two to three weeks of blossoms and four weeks of the overall festival. You don’t have to get all your ideal shots in one setting. Plan to return at different times.

You don’t have to go it alone. 

You can shoot with a pro and get expert advice on creating your ideal shot. Join my PhotoTour DC Cherry Blossom Photo Tours around the Tidal Basin throughout the festival. 

Let me take you to great locations, help you create great photos, and teach you to master your camera.

You can learn more and register here.

Old school exposure trick: Sunny 16 Rule

One bright Sunday morning, Jill showed up at my Annapolis photo tour with a Pentax K1000, a vintage SLR. The camera is a classic for those of us who remember the film days. The last time I'd witnessed one was at B&H Photo Video behind a museum-like glass counter. I was getting excited about seeing one in use again when she told me it had one problem. The light meter didn't work.

A vintage light meter. An old school way of measuring light to determine your best shutter speed and aperture combination.

That means there was no way for Jill to look through the camera viewfinder and tell if her photo was going to be properly exposed. Without the instant feedback of a digital camera, she would never know what she had captured until she developed her photos. By then it would be too late to make adjustments.

This problem is much easier to solve today than it was years ago. I just asked Jill to download a light meter app for her iPhone. With the app, she was able to measure light accurately and predict the correct shutter speed and aperture in any light condition. But what if she didn't have the app?

The Sunny 16 Rule

The Sunny 16 Rule is an old school metering trick that Jill also could have used. Photographers turned to this technique when they didn't have a light meter and needed to judge the correct exposure quickly.

Here's how it works. On a sunny day, set your F-stop to f/16. Next, set your shutter speed to the fraction equivalent of your ISO. If you are shooting at ISO 100, then set your shutter speed to 1/100th of a second (or 1/125). What if your ISO is set to 200? Easy, set your shutter speed to 1/200th of a second (or 1/250). Using these settings should give you fairly accurate exposure.

Now we all know that every day we shoot won't be sunny, so how do we adjust in different lighting conditions? Use these guides:

  • Snowy/sandy, use f/22;
  • Overcast, use f/8;
  • Slightly overcast, use f/11;
  • Heavy overcast, use f/5.6; and
  • Sunset, use f/4.

You don't have to be stuck with a broken meter to use these shortcuts. I meet many photographers who want to begin shooting in manual mode, but they aren't sure where to start. Rather than being intimidated, use the Sunny 16 Rule to make sure you have correct exposure. You can make adjustments from there. 

Use these guides to calculate exposure based on the Sunny 16 Rule.

'Why are my pictures blurry?'

Why is my picture blurry? I'll tell you at the end of the post.

Sometimes the light is perfect, the moment is right, but when you get home you find out that your photo is blurry. Arrgh!


Why are my pictures blurry?

Well... it depends. There are two primary reasons your photo might be blurry -- your camera isn't focused properly or you are experiencing camera shake. Within each of these situations, there are several considerations.


Your camera isn't focused properly

No matter what a camera manufacturer tells you, your camera doesn't know what you have chosen as your subject. The camera can make an educated guess based on common scenarios or fancy algorithms, but only you really know.

If you understand that premise, it makes sense that there are times when your camera might choose to focus on the wrong element, leaving your true subject out of focus. Here are some questions to help you diagnose that situation.

Are you using the multi-point auto focus selection? In that option, the camera determines what it should use as a focal point. It chooses what looks most prominent in the frame and focuses there. If you decide your focal point is not one of the more obvious elements in the frame, your camera will focus on the wrong thing, and your subject will look blurry.

Are you using the manual selection of your auto focus point? Manual selection lets you tell the camera which focal point to use. Then you can make sure it is in the right place. 

What if you forget your focal point is in the lower left of your frame, while your new subject is in the upper right? Same problem. You will have the wrong thing in focus. Check to see which focal point is activated.

Is your camera is set on continuous focus? This is a problem if your subject isn't moving. Continuous focus (AFS-C on Nikon or AI Servo on Canon) is designed to be used when you are photographing a moving subject. 

If someone is riding a bicycle toward you, continuous focus will allow the camera to continue focusing on your subject as it approaches you. Your camera tracks your subject and then predicts where it will be when you finish depressing the shutter. 

While this is great for a subject in motion, it can lead to problems on a stationary object. As you compose the frame, the camera will continue focusing wherever the focal point is at the moment. That makes it easy for you to inadvertently focus on the wrong subject.

Is your camera or lens in manual focus? This is easier to overlook than you might think. You might put the camera in manual focus by accident. Then, no matter what you do, you won't get the camera to autofocus. Voila. Blurry pictures.


You have camera shake

When you depress your shutter, you move your camera. If the shutter speed is too slow, that movement shows up in your picture as camera shake. It looks like a blurry picture. To avoid camera shake, always use a shutter speed that equals your focal length or faster. For instance, if you are zooming to 50 mm, you should shoot at 1/50th second or faster. If your shutter speed is any slower, you should use a tripod. 

Some lenses have built-in stabilizers that correct camera shake. Nikon lenses call it Vibration Reduction (VR) and Canon lenses call it Image Stabilizer (IS). Turn this feature on to have the lens correct your camera shake. 

You can then cut the minimum shutter speed number in half. For instance, if you are zoomed to 50 mm and should normally shoot at 1/50th a second, you can slow your shutter to 1/25th a second with the stabilizer turned on. Some manufacturers claim as much as four stops. It's best to experiment and see how much you can slow down your shutter speed before you begin seeing camera shake.

Canon lenses use the Image Stabilizer feature to prevent camera shake. Nikon lenses call this feature Vibration Reduction. Flickr photo by Amy Dianna. 

Other issues to consider

What if you set up your autofocus properly, and your shutter speed is fast enough, and the lens still won't focus? Try these considerations.

You might be too close. Try backing away from your subject if you are very close. If you are too near the subject, it might prevent the camera from focusing accurately.

Your subject might not have enough contrast. Your image needs to have some detail that provides contrast. If you try to photograph a solid sheet of white, the camera can't compare adjacent pixels to determine focus. Use a point of contrast to allow the camera to focus.

You might have an extremely shallow depth of field. You can create shallow depth of field with a low aperture number, a long focal length or a short distance to your subject. Use all three or even one in extreme, and you can have a tiny part of the image area in focus. It can be so shallow you get the impression the entire photo is blurry.

Finally, you might have a bad lens. This is a final option because 99/100 times, the real issue will be user generated. That's right, it will be your fault. Before you blame the lens, put the camera on a tripod, select a fast shutter speed, use a large f-stop (long depth of field), in lots of light, with a very clear subject.

If you do all those things and the image is still blurry, you might have an equipment issue. 

In most cases, a blurry picture will be your fault -- either a setting or in execution. Go back to the top of this list and start your diagnoses all over again.

Somewhere in that process you should find the answer to your question why your pictures are blurry.

Note: In the example photo, I shot at 105 mm, f/3.5, 1/30th second. My photo is blurry because of camera shake.

10 Cherry Blossom Festival pictures you should take

An establishing shot taken during the PhotoTour DC Cherry Blossom Photo Tour.

Use this shot list for great photos around the Tidal Basin

There's a picture that almost everyone takes at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

You know it when you see it, and if you ever journeyed to the Tidal Basin for the annual celebration, you likely attempted it yourself. It's a classic, and that's why it endures. What is it? It's the first of 10 potentially great shots on my Cherry Blossom Shot List.

1. Establishing Shot -- One of the first shots you take in a travel photography setting is the picture that establishes your location. Videographers call this the establishing shot. At the Tidal Basin, a great establishing shot frames the Jefferson Memorial with the Cherry Blossoms. This is so classic, I call it the “official shot” of the festival. You’ve seen it a million times, yet every year we feel compelled to take it. Why shouldn't we? It works.

2. Detail/Close ups - Most photographers look for the wide shot, but another important approach is to focus on the details. Fill the frame with one flower or get even closer than that. Alternatively, you can showcase the weathered trunks. The closer you get to your subject, the more you encourage your viewer to marvel at the texture without the distractions of the background.

3. Art - photographers won't have the Tidal Basin to ourselves. Artists also punctuate the landscape. Dabbing into pink and green splotches of paint, they take an empty canvas and recreate the beauty of the flowers. Let life imitate art by documenting them during their process. Get close ups of the paint and brushes or the intense expressions as the artist focuses. Also try over the shoulder with the painting and Tidal Basin in the same frame.

4. Color - fill the frame with a single color for an easy theme. How many ways can you say pink with your camera? How about green?

5. Contrasts - A centennial celebration is bound to celebrate the old and the new. Colors work well in contrast. Families arrive with the old and young. How can you combine contrasts to create an interesting story?

6. Water/reflections - Right around sunset, you can capture some spectacular reflections in the Tidal Basin. The mirror effect is a classic approach. You can be even more creative by focusing exclusively on the reflection and cropping out the source of the reflection.

7. Icons - We all know Washington is a city of icons, but there are other icons around the Tidal Basin that tell the story of the festival. Find the markers of the Cherry Blossom gift. How might you use them to tell your own story?

8. History - What can you find to showcase the historical nature of the Cherry Blossom Festival? This might take some creativity. I might try to recreate a historic Cherry Blossom photo and display my update side by side with the original. Could you find a person who remembers the festival from years gone by? Photograph them at a location on the Tidal Basin where they can recall an old anecdote.

9. People - In any event, the best stories feature people. Each person you pass represents an opportunity to document the event from a different angle. Newspaper and magazine editors call this the human interest. Look for interesting individuals, and pay attention to the interactions of two or more people. When you feature people, you will find the most compelling stories.

10. Souvenirs & Crafts - I love photographing the trinkets on display at festivals. That tells its own story about the event. What are people buying this year? What will they use to remember this year? Weave that into your story.

Remember there are no shortage of approaches to capture your own unique view of the Cherry Blossom Festival. You can work the whole list as a scavenger hunt or pick just one tip and use it as a theme for a day’s shoot. Either way, you might find that a focused approach could lead to more creative pictures.


Download your pdf copy of the Cherry Blossom Shot List to photograph on your own or share with your friends.

Work this shot list with a professional photographer during the PhotoTour DC Cherry Blossom Photo Tour. Learn more.

9 accessories you need for your photography to go from good to great

iStockphoto by cheyennezj.The right tool is often the difference between a good result and a great result -- in life as well as photography.

This is one of the truths we encountered as we evaluated this month's Mentoring Club assignments. We were working on action and sports photography, and it was quickly apparent that having the right lenses made the difference in many situations.

It's not just lenses. You can get better results with a wide variety of camera accessories. Ranked in order from necessary to nice to have, here are tools every serious photographer should have. How many of these do you own or still "need"?

1. Fast prime lens - I put this in the 'every camera bag should have one' category. You need a lens that has a maximum aperture that lets in a lot of light. That's usually f/2.8 or wider. Unless you are prepared to part with a pile of cash, the most cost effective way to get that light is with a prime lens -- one that does not have zoom capability. You will zoom with your feet, but you will capture the most important ingredient, light. If you find yourself shooting indoors without a flash or needing to capture fast moving subjects in low light, this tool will be absolutely essential.

2. Sturdy tripod - A sturdy tripod is one of the best tools to ensure a sharper image. We typically use our tripods if we are in low light and trying to avoid camera shake. Even in situations where you might have more light available, a tripod can help you improve the quality of your photo.

3. Cable release or remote control - It's not enough to have the camera on a tripod because depressing the shutter is what creates camera shake. To help avoid that result, use a cable release or remote control when you take a photo. You can use your time delay, but if you want to have the ultimate control over when your camera takes the photo, you'll want to depress the shutter yourself.

4. White card - Once you have enough light, you will want to make sure you accurately capture the temperature of light - with white balance. Using a white card to create a custom white balance reading is the best way to capture the color of light accurately. Fill the frame with your white card and let the camera use that reference point to determine all the other colors.

For this tool, I prefer a disc that fits snugly over my lens. Expodisc is a great option to create custom white balance settings.

5. External flash - At some point, you will be in a shooting scenario where you will need more light to get your best shot. When that happens, I hope you don't have to rely on your pop-up flash. If red eye, harsh light, or distracting shadows aren't enough of a deterrent for you, consider this...almost nothing in nature will blast light directly onto your subject in that manner. It will be tough to get your subject to look natural with a built-in flash. Your light will look best when it is off of your camera, bounced or diffused. Sometimes you'll want all three. To best control your light, start with an external flash.

6. Spare batteries and memory cards - Once upon a time, I went on a photo shoot with two batteries and drained them both. There is no worse feeling than holding a camera with no juice, explaining to your subject that you have to end the shoot prematurely. Awkward! I vowed that would never happen to me again. I never leave home without three to four batteries. That's overkill for most situations -- unless you need them. Then you're a genius.

7. Circular polarizing and neutral density filters - You could make the argument that you can use software to recreate most filter effects except two, circular poloraizing and neutral density.

A circular polarizing filter will allow you to cut the reflection and glare from glass and water. As a bonus, it also increases the blue in sky and water. A neutral density filter will block the volume of light coming into the camera, so you can get longer shutter speeds. If you have ever tried to get the milky effect from waterfalls during a bright part of the day, you quickly realized it was hard to accomplish without over exposing your shot. Pack those two filters to help you create great effects you can only get in camera.

8. Battery pack - vertical grip - So this is a convenience issue... kinda. If you are shooting in the vertical format for an extended time -- a portrait shoot, for instance -- you will quickly appreciate the ability to hold the camera without having to wrap your arm awkwardly over the top. I will confess that I thought this was an overpriced convenience before using it. Now I can't imagine going back. Sort of like an iPhone or iPad, I guess.

9. Loupe - Add this to the list of things you didn't think you would need until you used it. The loupe blocks the extra light when you are viewing images on the back of your camera. The result, you can get a good look at your pictures even when you are outdoors in the sun.

The bottom line

Any tradesperson will tell you that the difference between them and an amateur is not just found in the skill but in their ability to quickly find and use the right tool for the right job.

Your photography will improve when you can reach into your toolbox and find the right tool with the same certainty.

Note: You can find a great discussion on camera gear in our December 2011 Free Photo Webinars discussion with B&H Photo Video's Henry Posner.

12 photo exercises to keep you shooting

Negative space creatively uses a large empty area to frame your subject.We were near the end of our Abstracts in Adams Morgan photo tour when Katie asked for some homework.

"Do you know where I can find a book of projects to use for practice?"

I must admit I love the concept, but I am offering a blog post rather than a book. Often we need ideas to motivate us to improve our craft. Here are 12 photo exercises to keep you shooting. 

  1. Panning - This is a technique used to show that your subject is moving. Pan with your moving object to freeze it and blur the background. For instance, if you are following someone riding a bicycle, keep the camera in sync with the rider while depressing the shutter. 
  2. Shallow depth of field/bokeh - This technique is popular with many photographers. Choose a low f-stop, zoom in to telephoto range and get close to your subject. Your depth of field drill is not just about creating soft backgrounds, use it as a tool to isolate your subject. You create a bokeh effect when you have soft plumes of out-of-focused lights in your background.
  3. Reflections - Here is a creative technique that's especially good for rainy days. Look for reflections in water, glass, metal or mirrors. How can you show the reflecting surface, the reflection, or both creatively?
  4. Negative space - Find photos where there is lots of empty space around your subject. Use that space creatively to balance against your subject. Make it part of the story.
  5. Emotion - One of the hallmarks of great photography is that it makes us 'feel'. Try to capture and portray an emotion -- happiness, love, anger, jealousy. Your pictures are strongest when you don't just show the emotion but make us empathize with your subject.
  6. Artificial light - Photography is all about manipulating light. One of our recent webinar speakers said that he starts with his subject in complete darkness and then adds artificial light to create the effect he wants. Try taking photographs where the major light source is artificial. Use your pop up or external flash, lamps, candles, or flashlights. Add single and multiple sources, and pay attention to the moods you create.
  7. A day in the life of... - Here is an opportunity to work on storytelling. Pick a person and follow him or her around, documenting the day. It might be interesting to try this concept with a pet.
  8. Textures - This is a great abstract photography technique. Take an extreme close up photo that showcases the texture of your subject. This works best when you get so close that there are no other distractions, and your viewer can focus primarily on the texture.
  9. Dominant color - Find a subject where a dominant color will be the star of the photo. Primary colors are usually bold enough to make this technique work. You can either fill the frame with your single color, or make your dominant color stand out by contrasting it against another muted tone.
  10. Weather - Rain, rain, don't go away. When everyone else is inside complaining about the weather, take your camera out and look for creative ways of capturing nature. How many ways can you communicate that it is raining, windy, snowing, etc. This is a great creativity drill.
  11. Create a client - Every try to shoot in a specific style? Find your favorite magazine or advertisement and study the style used in their photography. Pretend you are on assignment to create a photo for one of their stories or ads. How can you recreate the look and feel to maintain the style of your "client?"
  12. Mimic a master - Find a famous photo, and try to recreate it on your own. Maybe you even add your own interpretation. This is a good way to help master both the technical and creative aspects of photography.

Pick one or any of the photos on this list, and see how well you can create your own versions. When you do, either share your link in the comments of this blog post or add your photo to my PhotoTour DC Facebook page. I'd love to see what you created.

Get shooting, Katie.


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