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Takin my best shot...

Over the years I've become an increasingly serious amateur photographer. Recently I've received some professional photography training which I'd like to share. My photography class shots are updated often on Flickr at Although all of the ideas and techniques below have been covered extensively elsewhere on the web, this page offers my perspective on a practical, learning approach for anyone who wants to move from the bounds of point-and-shoot to the first level of digital single lens reflex photography. Welcome to my photography page.

"Photographer at class, at rest"

Nikon D5000 62mm f22 1/200s ISO100


by Phyllis

Controlling exposure

Exposure is how much light is captured by the camera's sensor. Three things control camera exposure: aperture, shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. Aperture is how wide the lens opens to let light in, measured in "F numbers". Shutter speed is how fast the shutter opens and closes, measured in fractions of seconds or seconds. ISO is the sensor's relative sensitivity to light, aka film speed back in ancient times. All three interact with each other and have different effects on the shot.

"Bug in the garden" Nature close-up unpolarized

Nikon D300 35mm f1.8 1/2500s ISO200 @.35m

"Plant burst" Shallow depth of field in nature

Nikon D300 35mm f1.8 1/2500s ISO200 @.42m

"Charlie's eyes" Wide aperture model close-up

Nikon D300 35mm f2.5 ISO200 1/50s @.3m

"Smoke & mirrors" Light far out of focus looks like smoke

Nikon D300 35mm f1.8 ISO200 1/500s @.35m

A camera's aperture is analogous to the pupil of your eye - getting bigger to let in more light and smaller to let in less. Aperture is confusing because of the way it is described in F numbers and F stops. An F number is the ratio of the lens focal length to the lens opening diameter, so a larger aperture corresponds to a smaller F number. F stops are standard values of F numbers and seem to be on a weird numbered scale until you dredge up your old geometry formulas and realize that's because they are driven by the area inside of a circle. F 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8 etc., are known as "full stop" increments, each representing one half of the light transmitted of the previous one. Aperture is also a driving force of "depth of field", which is the amount of the picture that is in focus in front of and behind the camera's single focus point. A smaller F number means a shallower depth of field and a wider aperture. A larger F number means a deeper depth of field and a narrower aperture. Yes, F numbers and F stops make understanding aperture much more confusing than it ever had to be. For visual examples, the four pictures above were taken with a low F number (wide aperture / shallow depth of field) to blur out everything but the main focal point while the three pictures below were taken with higher F numbers (narrow aperture / deep depth of field) to keep as much of the shot in focus as possible.

"Prague Castle & the Charles Bridge panorama at dusk" Canon S90 11mm f4 ISO80 2.2s @65m

"Long neck guitar" Close wide angle perspective

Nikon D300 10mm f22 1/80s ISO320 @.25m

"Talking trees" Ground up perspective

Nikon D300 11mm f25 1/80s ISO450 @.79m

A camera's shutter speed is much easier to understand. Press the button, the shutter opens and a short time later it closes. Using shutter speed to get a great shot is more challenging. A very short shutter speed "freezes" action while a long shutter speed smoothes action. As far as interactions go, given an equal amount of light available, a quicker shutter speed will require a wider aperture and vice versa. Very slow shutter speeds require the use of a tripod because small movements of your hand holding the camera will blur the image. If you have a steady hand, as a rule of thumb any shutter speed slower than 1/(the lens focal length) requires a tripod. So if I'm shooting with a 50mm lens, the slowest shutter speed I can shoot handheld is 1/50 second. Optically stabilized lenses or cameras give handheld shooting a useful lift. The two pictures below, "ASU fountain at night" and "Fountain drips", illustrate the effects of a very long and a short shutter speed. To force a wider aperture for that silky waterfall effect (below left) when the ambient light is high, like mid-day, use a neutral density filter of optical density .9 (ND8) or 1.2 (ND16) that lets in only 12.5% or 6.25% of the light respectively.

"ASU fountain at night" Slow shutter water smoothing

Canon S90 11mm f3.2 10s ISO160 EV+.7 @5.8m

"Fountain drips" Fast shutter water stop action

Nikon D300 200mm f8 1/250s ISO200 @1.7m

A camera's ISO sensitivity is very straightforward. Digital cameras have an optimal sensitivity setting based on the electronics and mechanics of their sensor. My Nikon D700 and D300 are best at ISO 200 while my Canon S90, Nikon D800E and most other digital cameras are best at ISO 100. The most important thing to remember about ISO is to keep it as low as practical, because higher ISO settings increase "noise", which is the grainy pattern that shows up in photo details. Better cameras with larger sensors have a higher tolerance for high ISOs. My D300 takes acceptable pictures set as high as ISO1600 while my D800E takes acceptable pictures all the way up to ISO6400. Unless driven by a particular effect I'm going for, I keep the ISO setting at the optimal number and use aperture and shutter speed to regulate light. To do that, I set the "auto ISO" setting to manual or to strict high level limits. I float the ISO up only when the widest aperture coupled with the longest shutter speed won't do the job.

"Over the pier" Jumping sunset silhouette

Nikon D300 55mm f13 1/640s ISO200 @6m

"Charlie on white" High key lighting

Nikon D300 50mm f3.5 1/50s ISO200 EV+1 @1m

Getting the right perspective

Perspective is the next hurdle to getting a great shot. Perspective has many elements including framing, running lines out of corners and applying the "rule of thirds". Proper framing is often the difference between a boring shot and an interesting one. In western cultures, our eyes follow pictures the way they read books, from upper left to lower right. We also tend to see the brightest spot in a picture first. A picture that tells an interesting story generally doesn't fight this directional tendency and rarely will have its main subject parked alone in its center. Another very simple perspective method I learned is that if there are straight lines in the frame that run from the near field to the far field, better pictures will run those lines out of the corners. The "rule of thirds" is a simple perspective approach to better place key objects in the shot. Imagine a stretched tic-tac-toe board superimposed over the shot dividing the frame into thirds in vertical and horizontal directions. Major lines of the subject should be along any of those those tic-tac-toe lines and major points should be at their intersection.


Perspective is also effected by lens type. A simple way to think about it is that given the same distance from a subject, a wide angle lens will exaggerate distances between subject elements while a telephoto lens will compress them. "Long neck guitar" and "Talking trees" shots earlier on this page illustrate using a wide angle lens to exaggerate subject distance, while "Over the pier" above illustrates compressing subject distances together. A common wide angle lens mistake is to use its wide angle trying to get more into the frame. Wide angle lenses are much better applied to getting very close to a subject, including the rest of the picture in perspective to it. There's much more to perspective, but following just these basic concepts makes a significant difference.

Going into the light

Playing with light is a photographer's game. The first picture above is called a jumping sunset silhouette, demonstrating that even at sunset as ambient light fades, a quick shutter and a ground up perspective can freeze a subject and give an interesting effect. I took this shot, "Over the pier", laying on the sand pointing the camera up with my model about 20 feet away jumping up about 18 inches. High key lighting is a lighting effect where subject and space are defined by the lack of light rather than its presence. The second picture above, "Charlie on white" defines Charlie (my Great Pyrenees) only by his black nose, eyes and lips. At the opposite end of high key lighting is mood lighting where only part of the subject is lit and shadows are long. "Leo's evil eye" below lights only a part of Leo's (my Borzoi) body and the reflection in his left eye from the candles sets the eerie overall tone. Panning is a technique where the camera is moving at the speed of a subject to freeze their motion but blur everything else. In "Paws in the action" below, Charlie is moving at the same speed that I'm turning the camera, while Leo is running faster and the ground is stationary. Notice that both dogs have only two paws on the ground, further conveying the feeling of speed. A simple trick I learned in panning is to make sure to keep the camera moving while pressing the shutter release.

"Leo's evil eye" Mood lighting

Nikon D300 50mm f1.8 1/2s ISO200 EV-1 @1.5m

"Paws in the action" Panning

Nikon D300 46mm f9 1/320s ISO200 @6m

Working with models

A fascinating part of my photography class almost every week is to set-up and do amateur model shoots. I learned a lot about establishing and keeping the rhythm of the shoot going. Models do what you tell them or show them to do, otherwise they just stand there looking at you. I learned to be prepared by getting the all the lights, backgrounds and camera settings done first and then to build a rapport with the model before starting the shoot. My model shots below of Jenna, Jaclyn, Katie, Jurgen, Tony, Pirate, Jamie, Hanna, Elizabeth and Sunny covered a wide variety of subjects and types of direction needed. With models, technical accuracy can still result in boring shots unless the pose also captures the essence of who they are. The confident serenity that works for Tony the biker would be terrible for exuberant Jenna the 5 year old. Jaclyn the rocker girl has "attitude" while Katie and Jamie are elegant and stylish. For Elizabeth, I emphasized her distinctive ethnicity. For Hanna, I brought out her youth and for Sunny, her maturity and golfer persona.

"Jenna flies" White background

Nikon D300 27mm f18 1/100s ISO200

"Jaclyn kneels" White background

Nikon D300 26mm f14 1/160s ISO100

"Katie flips" White background

Nikon D300 50mm f13 1/125s ISO100

"Jaclyn's attitude" White background

Nikon D300 36mm f16 1/160s ISO100

"Katie spins" Black background

Nikon D300 36mm f9 1/200s ISO100

"Jurgen blows" White background

Nikon D300 35mm f13 1/125s ISO100

"Tony serene" Black background

Nikon D300 35mm f13 1/160s ISO100

"Pirate stands" Grey background

Nikon D300 50mm f16 1/160s ISO100

"Jamie laid back" Black background, Fresnel strobe

Nikon D300 105mm f20 1/125s ISO200

"Wavy Jamie" Black background, Fresnel strobe

Nikon D300 70mm f20 1/125s ISO200

"Elizabeth close-up" White seamless background

Nikon D300 42mm f20 1/125s ISO200

"Elizabeth's look" Black background

Nikon D300 34mm f20 1/125s ISO200

"Hanna's smile" Grey crush background

Nikon D300 35mm f2.5 1/125s ISO200

 "Sunny's toss" Black backlight background

Nikon D300 29mm f20 1/125s ISO200

Taking your temperature

Light has a "temperature" measured in Kelvin which is used in camera white balance. Morning light and evening light are generally more flattering to subjects than mid-day light. Artificial lights each have their own color temperature. The camera's auto white balance will do its best to adjust for the incoming light, but can be easily fooled, casting a colored shade over the subject. This is often apparent in overly pink or brown flesh tones. The table below right shows some of the more common color temperatures. A grey card can be used to fix white balance problems either in the camera or more easily in post-processing. A grey card is simply a card with a neutral grey printed on it that serves as the standard for white balance. Once you know or have set-up what the light will be for what you're shooting, take a picture of a grey card at the exact point where the subject will be. In the first picture below I asked Katie to hold my portable Opteka grey card while we were goofing around before the session. Using the grey card picture in Photoshop during post-processing, I color corrected all of the shots from that background and lighting set-up.

Color Temperature Light Source
1000-2000 K  Candlelight
2500-3500 K  Tungsten Bulb (household variety)
3000-4000 K  Sunrise/Sunset (clear sky)
4000-5000 K  Fluorescent Lamps
5000-5500 K  Electronic Flash
5000-6500 K  Daylight with Clear Sky (sun overhead)
6500-8000 K  Moderately Overcast Sky
9000-10000 K  Shade or Heavily Overcast Sky

Equipment, gadgets and books

My current compliment of DSLRs includes a Nikon D800E, D700 and a D300 with a good complement of lenses. My auxiliary/remote flashes are the Nikon SB-600 & SB-700 speedlights. I have eight Rosco colored gels and a Lumiquest FXtra to attach them to the speedlights. I also have two small point and shoot cameras - a 10 megapixel Canon S90 (along with its underwater enclosure) and a 21 megapixel Sony RX100. I do my post-production work in Lightroom 4.3, Photoshop CS5, Portrait Professional 4 and Photomatix Pro 4.2 (for HDR). I print at home in super B size (13"x19") using an Epson R1900. My best source for quality paper for prints is Red River Paper.


I standardized early on 77mm filters (along with step-up rings for my smaller lenses): a Hoya HD circular polarizer (brings out richer colors and controls reflections - the one filter that's always in my camera bag), a Tiffen graduated .6 neutral density (for sunsets), a bunch of neutral densities (for that silky waterfall effect in daylight) and a Tiffen North Star (special effect). Digital cameras don't need color filters like film cameras did. I use six(!) different tripods for various needs. Two are very stable for big cameras with big lenses, yet still travel small - the Benro Travel Angel TRCB-069 with an Acratech GP-s ballhead and the Joby Gorillapod Focus with it's Ballhead X. I've got arca-swiss compatible plates on my DSLRs and on my long lenses. Less stable, but lighter and smaller are the Vanguard Tourist 5 and Joby Gorillapod SLR with it's BH-1 ballhead. The pocketable Joby GP1 and Flip Video Action are used with my point and shoot & small video cameras.


I have a (way too) large cadre of cases, each best for particular types of shoots. My walk-around minimal case is a Thinktank Holster 20 with a Thinktank lens changer 35 attached that holds my DSLR with a lens attached along with another lens in tow. I have three back/ sling packs: A ThinkTank Sling-O-Matic 10, a Kata 3n1-11 and a Lowepro Slingshot 102 that hold my DSLR with any two or three of my lenses and most of my filters. I also have a Thinktank Speed Demon - an oversized fanny pack that carries my DSLR with one lens attached, a couple more lenses in tow and a bunch of accessories. Getting even larger, I have a LowePro Slingshot 300AW that carries my DSLR along with 4 or 5 lenses and looks like a lopsided backpack. My largest case is a LowePro Stealth Reporter 550AW which carries my DSLR, all my lenses and accessories along with my portable computer - way too big to carry around on location, but makes for a good travel and storage case.


Finally, and definitely in the category of gadgets, is my Columbus nGPS GPS which, when attached, automatically feeds exact location information to the camera that is stored with the shot. This is useful when traveling outside of easily identified locations. A quick double click of the GPS information tile in Lightroom or Photoshop and a Google map pops up showing exactly where the shot was taken.


I highly recommend some books on photography from which I have learned a lot: David duChemin's "Within the Frame", Brenda Tharp's "Creative Nature and Outdoor Photography", Galen Rowell's "Inner Game of Outdoor Photography" and, specific to my cameras: David Busch's "Nikon D300", "Nikon D700" and "Nikon D800".

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