Through the Gadling Lens: The 7 most common questions from new photographers

Last week, I mentioned that i was in New York City on a holiday. Part of the reason we chose New York is because my cousin got married their last weekend. Whenever I’m invited to a wedding, my standard wedding gift is an album of photographs that I take of the event, so as is often the case when I’m a wedding guest, I found myself walking around with my camera and huge 70-200mm lens, snapping photos randomly. Also, as is so often the case when I’m a wedding guest (and, I assumed, because of the scene the large lens makes), many people came up to me asking (a) if I was the official photographer, (b) if I was a photographer in real life, and (c) why they could never get their photographs to look decent. And so this week, I thought I’d share some of the more common questions I received during the weekend, and my answers.

And so, on with the show:
1. Why are my pictures coming out blue/yellow/green?

One of the most common questions I often receive occurs after someone has shot several shots, and the images that result all have a strange hue — often yellow, but sometimes green, or even blue. This problem is usually an easy one to fix, related to the adjustment of the camera’s white balance.

In essence, different sources of light have different qualities. Natural sunlight tends to be the whitest of lights. Incandescent light (from standard lightbulbs) tends to have a yellow hue. Fluorescent light, on the other hand, has a greenish tone. In order to correct for this, check your camera’s manual on how to adjust your white balance — the camera’s ability to adjust for the light illuminating your subject. In other words, if you’re shooting indoors under mostly incandescent light, set your camera’s white balance for shooting under incandescent lightbulbs. If you’re shooting under fluorescent light, ditto. The colour tint problem should go away.

What if your pictures are blue? Well, that’s probably because you left your white balance adjusted for incandescent light, but you’re shooting in natural light. Again, simply adjust your white balance.

2. Why are my photographs so grainy?

Occasionally, I’ll get a question about the graininess of a photograph — the photograph, even though shot in bright light, looks grainy in texture. This is a common mistake, and one, I’m embarrassed to say, I still occasionally make.

This has to do with the ISO setting of your camera. You might remember that the ISO has to do with the number of “light catchers” your camera is employing — the darker the surroundings, the higher the ISO should be. Unfortunately, the downside to upping your ISO is that photographs tend to become more grainy.

To fix this, when shooting in bright light, make sure to lower your ISO as much as possible — if it’s a truly bright, sunny day, you probably don’t need more than 250 ISO, when handholding your camera. If your shooting in darker circumstances, to reduce graininess, you can either (a) keep the ISO low, but use a tripod, to reduce camera shake (see below), or (b) use a flash.

The moral of the story: Always check your ISO before shooting.

3. How do I stop my subjects from getting red eye?

You know the issue: you’re taking what you’re hoping is a stellar portrait of someone, only to have the image return with a demonic red glow in your subject’s eyes. This is because either (a) your subject is possessed, or (b) the light from your flash reflected in your subject’s pupils, causing a red eye effect (and for some reason, this is more common in people with lighter coloured eyes, than darker ones). It’s annoying, but somewhat easily fixable.

To reduce red eye, you can do one of the following:

a) Turn off your flash. Make sure you actually need your flash before you turn it on — it could be that you just need to nudge your ISO setting up a bit (see #2, above).

b) “Bounce” your flash. If you can adjust the direction that your flash points, then point it up, to the side, even behind you — any direction except directly at your subject.

c) Less effective, but still often works: have your subject look slightly away from the lens, and not directly at the camera, when you’re using your flash.

4. I look at other people’s photographs, and they’re always so impressive. Mine are so blah. Why?

Your framing looks great. Your subject looks beautiful. You checked things like ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and they’re all appropriately set. So why does the resulting photograph look so blah, when other photographers can get images that truly captivate.

Chances are it’s all in the post-processing, my friend.

I’ve mentioned before that my views of Photoshop have changed — when I first started shooting, I thought that Photoshop was deceptive, a tool primarily used for making subjects look thinner, or less grey, or remove them from the image altogether. It wasn’t until a kindly camera shop employee taught me that really, Photoshop is just a 21st Century darkroom, and can be used accordingly, to simply enhance what you’ve captured on film. An example:

The following shot was taken straight out of the camera:

A decent enough shot, but not necessarily one I’d write home about.

Now, take a look at it after about 15 seconds of post-processing:

See how much warmer it is? And all I did was (a) sharpen it a little, (b) bump up the contrast a bit, and (c) add a bit of vignetting (i.e., making the outer edges of the image slightly warmer and darker). I didn’t remove any pixels or anything “deceptive” — I just used Photoshop to enhance the image in a way that conveys what I found beautiful about this bloom in real life.

Moral: don’t be afraid of post-camera processing. Photoshop is a common choice, but there are many, many tools out there to process photos, some of them online and free. See this earlier Gadling post for tips, tricks and a few other tools for processing.

And a warning: once you’ve become comfortable with post-processing, however, be careful not to fall into the trap of #5, below:

5. Can’t I just Photoshop it later?

Once you’ve seen the magic of post-camera processing, there’s a danger that you begin to use it as a crutch: you stop checking your white balance on your camera, thinking you can “Photoshop it later,” for example. Or you notice some ugly electric company lines in the background before you take the shot, and think, “oh I’ll just Photoshop them out when I get in front of my computer.”

My advice: fix the issue before you squeeze the shutter. Yes, you can adjust a lot of things during post-camera processing, but in my experience, it’s a lot more work to do it then, and frankly, I’m never as happy with the results as if I’d just ad
dressed the problem in the first place. So, before you squeeze the shutter, note the following:

a) Is the horizon straight? Nothing can ruin a good sunset-over-the-ocean shot like a crooked horizon. Fix it prior to taking the shot, it’ll take a lot less time.

b) Are all the vertical lines (building walls, etc.) vertical?

c) Is there anything cluttering the background that you don’t want? In other words, if there are electrical lines running through the background, or trash, or whatever, then adjust accordingly — you can simply move so that they’re no longer in the frame, or when you get really good, you can even play with your aperture setting, to ensure the background is out of focus — whatever. But fixing it ahead of time will be a lot quicker (and feel less deceptive) than trying to erase pixels on your computer.

6. Why isn’t the focus on my image sharp?

This can be the most frustrating thing about taking a shot — when you upload it onto your computer, the image is out of focus. Just so you know, I’ve been shooting for over 15 years, and this *still* happens to me. There are a couple of causes for this:

a) You’re camera isn’t set on auto-focus. Sometimes this happens — I have a couple of vintage lenses that are fully manual, and I think I’ve focused properly, but it turns out I didn’t. It happens. But if your camera autofocuses, by all means, use it. It’s just one less thing you’ll have to think about.

b) You didn’t focus the shot on the proper subject. Sometimes what you want to do is focus on something that isn’t actually in the centre of your frame — you’re trying to focus on something off-centre, or in the foreground. There are two ways to do this: first, you can read your camera manual to see how to adjust your camera to focus on something off-centre (most SLRs will allow you to change the point of focus pretty easily), or secondly, in some point-and-shoots, you can put what you want to focus on in the centre of the frame, push the shutter release halfway down to get it to focus, and then without lifting your finger, move the subject to the part of the frame you want it to be, and then continue to push the shutter all the way down to take the shot.

The upshot: check your camera’s manual to see how to manipulate the autofocus. But rely on the autofocus.

And now, a caveat: sometimes focus is overrated. Two of my very favourite shots I’ve ever taken were accidents, and completely out of focus:

See? So the moral here is: even when you take a shot that’s out of focus, try to look at it objectively. It might actually be the shot you never realized you wanted.

7. Why can’t I take a decent portrait?

Usually the way to take a decent portrait is to just practice, practice, practice. But a couple of tricks that I use to help enhance my portrait shots:

a) Get in close. One of the biggest mistakes that I see people make is that they don’t get close enough to the subject to really take a lovely portrait. Fill your frame with as much of your subject as your lens will allow. And note that a lens in the range of 85-110mm tends to take the most lovely, magazine-cover-type tight portraits.

And finally, my favourite portrait trick:

b) Shoot a lot of photographs at one time. Often the reason portraits result in less-than-favourable images is because the subject isn’t entirely comfortable with having their shot taken. So one of my favourite tricks is to just take a ton of shots: let the subject pose, and take the shot. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. Usually, by this time, your subject will say something like, “Oh my GOSH! HOW MANY ARE YOU TAKING!” and start laughing. At this point, TAKE A FEW MORE. This is when you’ll end up getting the most natural shot.

Works every time.

So I hope the above tips help. As always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.