5 Common Post-Processing Mistakes to Avoid

For today’s photographer, post-processing is a critical element of image making. Sure, when you first get started with digital photography, you might shoot in JPG mode and allow the camera to make decisions about things like color and contrast. But when you’re ready to take control of your images, it’s time to shoot in RAW format and make the important decisions about how you want your final image to look yourself.

Estuary in Campbell River BC by Anne McKinnell - 5 Common Post-Processing Mistakes to Avoid

When you first start shooting in RAW, you might think your images look a bit gray and bland. That’s because the decisions that the camera was making before are now left up to you. That can be a bit daunting! But here are some tips to help you avoid the most common post-processing mistakes and make sure you are helping your images and not hurting them.

Remember, the purpose of post-processing is not to fix bad photos, but to bring out the best in good photos.

Mistake #1 – Lightening shadows too much

Always try to get the best exposure possible in camera. You’ll get a better result when you start out with a good exposure rather than relying on the highlights and shadows sliders in post-processing to balance it.

That said, sometimes you will still want to use the shadows slider to lighten your shadows to bring more detail in the darker areas of your image. Just be careful not to overdo it, or you’ll end up with an image that no longer looks natural.

This is overdone, the shadows have been pulled too far here and it no longer looks natural. Notice it also introduced noise into the sky.

Convict Lake, California by Anne McKinnell - 5 Common Post-Processing Mistakes to Avoid

Shadow adjustment in moderation is better.

If you try to equalize the brightness of the highlights and shadows, you’ll end up with a photo that not only looks unnatural, but the lack of contrast will make the image look boring. Contrast is a good thing! This is especially true when you have a scene with a reflection. The reflection should always be darker than the scene it is reflecting, as it is in nature.

Mistake #2 – Over saturation

Another way to create an unnatural looking image is to over saturate everything. It’s a tempting thing to do because a little bump in saturation and vibrance makes such a big difference. Again, just don’t overdo it. A little goes a long way.

Before you touch those sliders, spend a bit of time thinking about your image and the colors in it. Sometimes adding saturation globally is not the best idea, especially if you have a scene that contains many different colors. Instead, consider using the HSL (Hue/Saturation/Luminosity) panel, choose Saturation, and use the target tool to add saturation to one color in your scene. For example, you might want to add saturation to the main subject to draw attention to it.

Over saturation leaves the colors looking odd.

Yellow flower with bee by Anne McKinnell - 5 Common Post-Processing Mistakes to Avoid

Better saturation levels.

Mistake #3 – Over sharpening

First of all, never use sharpening to try to fix a photo that is out of focus. It just doesn’t work. Sharpening cannot fix blur. However, if you have an image that is in focus, adding a bit of sharpening can make it extra crisp and realistic.

Again, consider adding sharpening locally (to one select area) not globally, especially if you have areas of your scene that are purposely out of focus, such as when you have a shallow depth of field. Also, the sky usually looks better when it is smooth, so you don’t want to add sharpening there. Keep in mind that adding sharpening will increase noise, which is another reason not to add it globally. Rather, just add it to the main subject or areas of your scene with a lot of detail.

This has been over sharpened, you can see artifacts throughout the image here.

Deer by Anne McKinnell - 5 Common Post-Processing Mistakes to Avoid

Better level of sharpening.

In Adobe Camera Raw, use the Detail panel to add sharpening. Then, hold down the option (or alt) key and use the masking slider. As you move the slider, the areas that appear black do not have sharpening applied and areas that are white do. This is an effective way to add sharpening to the areas of your image that have details. Another option is to use the adjustment brush to brush sharpening on where you want it.

Mistake #4 – Over cropping

The crop tool is a handy way to refine your composition, remove unwanted elements on the edges of the frame, and make sure your horizon line is straight. But don’t use it to remove all the “negative space” in your scene.

You don’t need to fill the frame with your subject. A little breathing room keeps the image interesting. Think about creating a balance between the space taken up by your subject and the space around it. This is not necessarily an equal balance.

Cropped too tight on the subject.

Bisti Badlands, New Mexico by Anne McKinnell - 5 Common Post-Processing Mistakes to Avoid

Cropped to leave negative space and lead your eye to the subject.

Mistake #5 – Too much Noise Reduction

Sometimes the nature of the light requires the use of a high ISO. Perhaps you need both a small aperture and a high shutter speed for your scene, so increasing the ISO is the only way to get a good exposure. That’s okay. The noise caused by using a high ISO can be reduced in post-processing using the noise reduction slider.

But nobody said that all images must have no noise. Not all images have to be perfectly smooth looking. Especially if there is a lot of detail and texture in your subject. Using too much noise reduction can create blurry splotches in areas that were previously sharp.

Too much noise reduction has been applied here and overall the image now looks blurry.

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona by Anne McKinnell - 5 Common Post-Processing Mistakes to Avoid

Noise reduction scaled back.

You may have noticed a theme in these common mistakes. Don’t over do it! Small adjustments go a long way to bringing out the best qualities of your images, but taking it too far can just as easily ruin them.

After you process your image, take a break from it and look at something else. Maybe even give it a day to settle. Then, when you look at it again, it will be more obvious if you have taken the processing too far.

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How to Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

Since the camera was invented, we have tried to copy one of the greatest wonders of our body; the human eye. Unfortunately, despite being over 100 years since the first time that we captured light, we are still far from overcoming Mother Nature.

Why? Because in the visible spectrum your eye sees much better than your camera.

How to Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

Dynamic Range

The parameter that describes this behavior is called Dynamic Range. This basically defines the difference between the minimum and maximum value of brightness that a device (like your eye or the sensor of your camera) is able to record. In the real world, Dynamic Range defines the ability of your camera to see details in very dark areas and very clear (bright) areas of the scene.

If you’re wondering how much more your eye sees, the answer is staggering. Your eyes have about twice as much range that they can see and capture.

How to Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

The problem

That’s why when you look at a marvelous sunset with your eyes you’re able to see all the details in the scene (in both the sky and the land). But as soon as you try to capture it with your camera, you’ll get an overexposed sky or a underexposed foreground. The Dynamic Range of your camera is only able to capture detail in one of those areas so you have to choose.

But if even the best cameras have a Dynamic Range which is only half that of the human eye. So how can we hope to shoot a beautiful sunset or a wonderful sunrise and capture all the marvelous details?

There are different methods to overcome this problem, but my favorite is the use of Graduated Neutral Density filters (GND).

graduated neutral density filters

What is a Graduated Neutral Density Filter?

A Graduated Neutral Density Filter is one made of two distinct parts; a completely transparent area, and a darker section. By setting the darkest part of the filter to correspond with the brightest portion of the scene, you can reduce the exposure difference (dynamic range) in the frame.

To reduce the exposure difference is to reduce the dynamic range of the scene, and thus allow your camera to simultaneously capture detail in both bright and dark areas of the scene. Basically, to make an analogy, GND filters are like a kind of sunglasses for your camera.

Types of GND filters

Graduated Neutral Density Filters are typically distinguished by the type of transition that exists between the transparent and dark areas of the filter. For this reason, we can identify three families of GNDs:

  1. Hard-edge filters, which are characterized by a clear boundary (it’s obvious where one begins and the other ends) between the transparent and dark areas. They are therefore used when the separation between the bright and dark areas of your scene is very defined, such as the horizon at sea.
  2. Soft-edge filters are characterized by a soft transition (they change from light to dark more gradually) and are therefore used when the transition between light and dark areas is not so clear. A classic example is a shot in a mountainous area.
  3. Reverse filters, which are nothing more than hard-edge GNDs with the dark area that fades away the more you move from the line of separation to the upper border of the filter (meaning it’s darker in the middle than on the edge). Basically, they were invented to better manage sunrises and sunsets, where the light is more intense on the horizon line (middle). If you love seascapes like me, this filter will be one of your best friends forever!

How to Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

Which to buy?

Another distinction is between filters is the construction material. Higher quality filters are made of optical glass. Putting an inexpensive resin filter in front of a lens worth hundreds (or thousands) of dollars is not a great idea.

Finally, GND filters are distinguished by graduation, or their ability to block light through the darkest area. Essentially how dark they are at the extreme. Normally in landscape photography, this difference is between one and four stops during sunset and sunrise, depending on weather conditions. This is the reason why you will find these gradations almost exclusively on the market.

Shop for Graduated Neutral Density filters on Amazon.com or on B&H Photo Video’s site (they ship worldwide).

How to use a GND filter in the field

The use of GND filters in the field is very simple; try to take exposure readings in the darkest and in the brightest areas of the scene (usually the sky). The exposure difference will indicate the intensity of the filter to be used. Let’s assume that the light meter reading for the sky is 1/250th, and the one for the rocks in the foreground is 1/30th. The difference between those readings is three stops (250th > 125th > 60th > 30th), so to balance the exposure you must use a 0.9 (3-stop) GND.

At this point, just mount the filter with its dark side over the brightest part of the scene. This is why a GND screw-in filter does not make sense. You would not have the possibility to align the dark area in accordance with the scene as well as a drop-in style filter.

How to Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

To avoid having to hold the filter with your hands (that could be a problem if you are going to use them together with other filters) you can buy a holder, that once mounted in front of your lens will do the job for you. There are many valid solutions on the market, but the best one (in my opinion) is the V5 Pro Holder by NiSi filters. This is the only one that lets you simultaneously install three different filters and a polarizer without any vignetting issues (as wide as 16mm on full frame cameras).

At this point, the limited Dynamic Range of your image will be just a bad memory!

How to Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

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An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

Last month I sat down and reread Michael Freeman’s book, “The Photographer’s Mind.” which I do occasionally. I find that by revisiting the words of other photographers I remind myself of the multitude of tools available to us. There’s so much we can do to create fresh and amazing photographs.

One of those ways is to push our skills and update our thinking. I think I’ve read through Freeman’s book about two or three times now. Every few years I take it off the shelf again. His books are insightful and interesting to read. Freeman offers up unique ideas for composition using both conventional and unconventional techniques. The books are readily available. You can also check out our review of one of Freeman’s other books here; “The Photographer’s Eye”. In this article, let’s journey through one of the concepts he discusses in his book, “Engineered Disorder”.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

The details of the image are broken up into sections by the heavy shadows.

What is Engineered Disorder?

Freeman explains that Engineered Disorder is the active effort of a photographer to use non-conventional methods of composing photographs. Essentially, we are breaking the rules to create interesting images. Engineered Disorder means that we forget about conventional methods like unifying elements within the frame. We might allow ourselves to create uncluttered compositions. In one chapter Freeman talks about different methods of creating Engineered Disorder and bucking the system. He mentions using techniques such as disconnects, disruptive foreground, breaking the frame, superimposed layers and extremes of contrast. Maybe these terms sound complicated and a little too complex to understand, but they don’t have to be.

Let’s break down one of these techniques and see what’s involved in creating Engineered Disorder. We will discuss the use of extreme lighting or chiaroscuro to create disconnect within an image. It’s one of my favorite techniques. I love to include deep blacks and bright highlights in my compositions.


Chiaroscuro – chi·a·ro·scu·ro – the treatment of light and shade in drawing, painting, and photography.

Using this technique means that we employ very hard lighting to break up the unity of a composition. The image becomes a series of pieces that communicate meaning but are broken up by dark shadows and bright highlights. Conventional composition techniques would say that using this type of technique makes for a bad photograph, but remember we are pushing the elements of composition.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

The strong shadows in this image hide some details from the viewer. The leaf can only be viewed in pieces. This means a viewer has to pause and take in each part of the image separately and then piece together the whole scene. Making a viewer stop and study your image is important. Given the number of photographs out there you want to make viewers take some time to digest your images rather than scan through and move on. 


Experimenting with dark and light

Consider my careful experimentation with Chiaroscuro. This image portrays the common Canada goose in a much more unique fashion. In the opening moments of golden hours, these geese become elegant shadows. The different sections of light and dark create interesting graphic qualities within the image.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

In this second image, I’ve used auto tone to create a more conventional image. While the actual shot is very similar, these two different treatments create considerably different photographs. Which one do you prefer?

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

A more conventional exposure.

Other examples

Here’s another example of Chiaroscuro. This is a photograph of a unique area near my home. Everyone calls this place The Badlands. The red and gray clay create these beautiful graphic designs which draw visitors to the area. The hills are in danger of being destroyed by visitors, but the area is truly beautiful. The shadows and the light create beautiful diagonal lines in this particular image.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

This are is now off limits to visitors because of the damage caused by walking on the hills.

In this final image, the light and darks highlight different circular objects. Perhaps this image isn’t as disconnected as the others but it still presents a unique treatment for the door of a fishing boat. The image focuses on graphic design elements of the boat rather than the uses of the vessel. The image has been turned into an abstract and most viewers will need to analyze the image before they can determine the exact subject matter.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

Conclusion – your turn

Experimenting with different techniques is never a bad thing. You can learn and improve your photos by playing with unconventional techniques. Creating these images certainly pushed the dynamic capabilities of my camera. Exposing for deep shadows can be a challenge all on its own, but it’s a lot of fun to try out these different techniques.

While we’ve only discussed one of the methods for creating Engineered Disorder, these three examples clearly highlight the technique. It’s better to fully understand just one compositional method rather than scratching the surface of several techniques. Give it a try, and go a little bit extreme. Break away from the conventional and search for ways to compose images that harness the power of Engineered Disorder in your photography. Please share your results in the comments below.

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7 Tips For Photographing Strangers

For a lot of photographers (even some of the pros), photographing complete strangers is a struggle and they try to avoid doing it. For the majority, it comes down to fear, but for some who are fearless, they fail to capture photos that really do the subject justice. Some of the most recognizable photographs in the world are photos of complete strangers. It might seem like a contradiction, but photographing people, in general, is easy but also challenging at the same time. Here are seven tips for photographing strangers.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers Venice

#1 – Overcoming fear

Without a doubt, for most new photographers, the greatest barrier is fear. For some reason, people find it difficult to approach strangers to take their photo. The question you must ask yourself is, “What’s the worst that could happen?”. The person could say “No” and that’s it. In fact, you are less likely to encounter problems if you ask people before taking their photo so the only thing that is stopping you is plucking up the courage to ask.

If you struggle to do so because of your fear or shyness, simply set yourself a target that you will approach just one person every time you are out photographing. Then once you are confident enough with one, try two, three and so on until you don’t even think about it. A good trick is to always offer to email the person a copy of the photo for their personal use and most people will be flattered that you want to take their photo.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers Vietnam

Obviously, there are times when you have to just take the photo because you are trying to capture something spontaneous and the moment will be lost if you stop to ask. You need to assess what the situation is and how to approach it before and after. For example, if you are taking a photograph of a street performer you probably won’t need to ask permission, but on the other hand, they would probably expect some form of money in return. Whereas if you are photographing children, you would be wise to ask permission from their parents first.

The only way to completely overcome this fear is to get out there and do it. The more you approach people and the more you photograph them, the easier it becomes.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers Instanbul

#2 – Be prepared

Okay, so you have plucked up the courage to ask someone and they have agreed, so what next? The last thing you would want if you are not confident in approaching people is to be messing around trying to find the right lens or settings. The only thing that will happen is that the subject will begin to get impatient and you will rush a photo that simply won’t work or worst, is blurred.

If you are new to this the first thing you should do before you approach someone is to get your camera settings ready, and as close to what you think you will need. While there is never a hard and fast rule of settings for any situation, photographing people is fairly straight forward outdoors in comparison to other branches of photography.

So to aid yourself, think about the scene and the settings you will need and have these set before you approach your subject. You can tweak these when taking the photo, but it is easier to change your depth of field than having to change batteries or lenses. Preparation is always the key to good photography.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers

#3 – Keep your composition simple

I get a lot of requests from people to critique their portfolios and the majority of the people photos that I see often suffer from the same issue – over complex scenes where the hero or the main message gets lost. Whether it’s an environmental portrait or just a simple head and shoulders portrait, the main focal point should be the person you are framing your photo around. So don’t try to overcomplicate it, keep the composition simple.

Always remember the message you are trying to convey and don’t get distracted by what’s happening around it. If the subject or the action they are performing isn’t the most interesting thing that is happening in that scene, you are photographing the wrong thing.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers Cappadoccia

#4 – Think about the background

One of the key techniques for keeping the composition simple is your background. Try to keep your background clear and uncluttered so that it doesn’t distract the viewer. When out and about, find a wall or some bushes that can work well as a backdrop for your portraits.

If you do find yourself in a busy place and can’t simplify the background, use a wide aperture to blur the background in order to focus on the main subject. Keep a look out for what’s happening behind your model, as unwanted elements such as power lines, garbage cans, and building works seem to draw attention.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers

#5 – Sharp eyes

The eyes are the most important part of a portrait and they need to be sharp otherwise, the entire photo looks soft and doesn’t work. But the eyes are also a glimpse into that person and can really make the difference between an acceptable photo and a fantastic one. One look at the great photograph of the “Afghan Girl” by world-renowned photographer Steve McCurry and you are immediately told so much about the young girl’s life. It is crucial you make sure you have focused correctly on the eyes of the person.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers

#6 – The conditions

One of the downsides of photographing people outdoors rather than a studio is that you can’t control the elements and more importantly, the light. But fear not, photographing outdoors is usually not that difficult. The best place to photograph people outdoors is in the shade as you won’t end up with harsh shadows on their face.

But if you do find yourself with the scenario of sunlight producing shadows on someone’s face, this is where your flash can come in really handy. Most people make the mistake of using their flash just at night, whereas using your flash to fill in the shadows can help you capture great portraits in sunlight.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers

#7 – Camera settings

As I mentioned above, there are no hard rules for photographing people and it really depends on the situation. For example, if you want to freeze the action you want a fast shutter speed whereas if you want to show movement you will need a slower one. Depending on the situation and how steady you can hold a camera, you may be able to go to as slow as 1/60th of a second but to be safe I generally shoot at 1/100th or faster.

If you are photographing the person moving, you will need to set your shutter speed much faster. Sometimes this may not be possible without raising your ISO. Raise it too high and your photo will end up with too much unwanted noise and it will look soft. Just remember to get yourself setup before you approach your subject.

7 Tips For Photographing Strangers


The fear of having to communicate with strangers often stops newbie photographers from photographing people. This is a real shame as people often offer some of the most unique photo opportunities in a way that landmarks and landscapes can’t. Fortunately, with a bit of courage and dedication, you can capture great photographs of people, even if they are total strangers.

Do you struggle with photographing strangers? Share your experiences, tips, and advice below.

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Quick Review of the Kupo Click Stackable Light Stand

I’ve recently started using a pair of Jinbei HD600 studio lights for my photography and what I love about them is that they are self-contained units. They don’t have any requirements for power cables, etc., as they’re battery powered, wireless studio lights. What was starting to bug me, though, was that I only had heavy light stands to mount them on. Not a problem when you’re working in a studio, but when you have to visit a client to do a headshot or a quick portrait of someone, having to take a C-Stand along isn’t always ideal (especially if you’re on public transport).

I wanted to stick with Kupo gear as I’m very happy with the quality and innovation of their products, so I asked the crew at ProTog what my options were. They suggested I hold out for the Kupo CLICK stackable lighting stands. I did and I’m very happy I did. Here’s my review…

Check out the Kupo Click Light Stands on Amazon or on B&H Photo’s website.

Kupo click light stand

My wish list

I had a few simple ideal specs for the stands that I was after:

  • I wanted them to be light enough to sling over my shoulder when I was on the go.
  • They need to not suffer from bad build quality due to being light weight.
  • I wanted to be able to quickly use them for either a well-placed strobe on an outdoor shoot, a quick portrait in an office or studio, and maybe even to mount a GoPro on to run a quick timelapse of a session.

Features of the Kupo Click

The Kupo Click had everything I wanted in a portable light stand. Let’s take a look through the feature list.

  • Coming in at 1.3kg (2.9 pounds), the weight was just fine, easily able to attach a pair of stands to the side of my ThinkTank Airport TakeOff roller.
  • In terms of load, the diminutive stands were capable of holding a 5kg (11 pounds) payload, more than I’d need to place atop the aluminum light-weights.
  • The tubes are also double pinned to the threaded ends, this makes them a lot less likely to fail when compared with my old stands, after a few months of heavy use, the stands haven’t loosened up in the slightest.

Kupo click light stand

Kupo click light stand

The Click

The Kupo Click light stands allow you to click them together either side by side or on top of each other. So you can essentially have one of them flat on each side of your bag with some little attachment straps, or you can have them side by side (above) and sitting in the tripod cup on your rolling camera bag, or you can use a strap (sold separately, I didn’t get one as I used a regular strap with a clip attached to sling mine over my shoulder, see below)

Kupo click light stand

Kupo click light stand

Kupo click light stand

The stands have a sweet built-in air damper that prevents damage to your lights if you accidentally undo the locks by cushioning the column on release. I have tested this and it works. The midsection is better than the top section at slowing descent, but it certainly does slow down the inevitable crash and ultimately a replaced flash tube!

Attaching your lights

The stands are equipped with a 5/8″ top stud with a 3/8″ threaded, plus a removable 1/4″-20 threaded top, this lets you mount a whole raft of lighting gear, as well as Sony ActionCam / GoPro mounts (The 1/4 20″ adaptor) which I like to use often on a shoot, or just to pop a camera up high for some reason or other – you can attach a regular ball head and mount your camera on that.

Kupo click light stand

Kupo click light stand

Kupo click light stand

Bottom line

I’ve had these stands a few months now and have had many chances to use them and abuse them. They pack away well, they’re all the things I was after in a light stand. I can’t fault these stands and for the price, I’d say they’re one of the best on the market and well worth your hard earned coin. Five stars.

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4 Beginner Tips for Creating Dramatic Portraits with One Flash

In this article, I will explain how you can use a transmitter/receiver, or transceiver system to achieve simple dramatic portraits using only one flash. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to get you started.


I used to fear using anything other than natural light. One of the reasons was that I had a notion that using artificial lights such as off-camera flash and strobes is too difficult and requires deep technical knowledge. Well, yes and no. To master it, you have to understand lighting ratios and learn to make mental calculations of light from various sources and suchlike. But to start using it, not really.

My first experience of off-camera flash was using the Creative Lighting System (Nikon) capability between my speedlight and my camera. Most of my early attempts were unsuccessful especially with the limitations of the line of sight infrared system. It was unreliable too, especially when shooting under pressure or caught on the hoof. I also used overexposed my light with my very untrained and inexperienced eye when I was just starting out.

4 Beginner Tips for Creating Dramatic Portraits with One Flash

Wireless triggers

Enter wireless radio transmitters and receivers (or transceivers) such as the Pocket Wizard, CyberSyncs, brand’s own (Nikon and Canon) and the super affordable Yongnous. A transmitter which is connected to your camera sends the message to the receiver which is attached to the flash unit. Transceiver units, on the other hand, can act as both receiver and transmitter so that you can use them on either the camera or the speedlight but you would still need one unit to attach to each piece of equipment.

These wireless transceivers are a game changer without a doubt. They are simple to use and are reliable most of the time as well. I use Cybersyncs for my studio strobes and Yongnous for my speedlights and find the Yongnous are incredibly reliable and user-friendly with hardly any misses. However, the Yongnous cannot be used for strobes.

#1 Choose the look and mood for your portrait

Do you want super dramatic low key portraits or the other end of the spectrum – high key, bright and airy? The mood of your picture will dictate your background and of course the camera and flash settings. I have chosen a black background for these portraits to achieve a high contrast between the brightest parts of the image and the shadows. This will keep the overall mood dramatic and the lighting low key with plenty of black areas.

#2 Set up your equipment

If you have transmitter and receiver units, attach the transmitter to the hotshoe of your camera while the receiver needs to be attached to the flash (speedlight or strobe). If you have a transceiver, this can go on either camera or flash but you still need two units, one on each piece of equipment.

It’s also a good idea to put your flash unit on a light stand. I used a studio strobe mounted on a light stand but attached it to a boom arm for more flexibility in angling the light. Note: A boom arm is not necessary at all for a simple beginner setup. Without a light stand, you can always mount your flash on a cabinet or steady surface, making sure it doesn’t topple over. Most speedlights come with little plastic feet that are handy for this purpose.

4 Beginner Tips for Creating Dramatic Portraits with One Flash

#3 Modify your light

One of my rules is to always modify the light. The only time I shoot with a bare flash is when I use it as a kicker light at wedding receptions or to light a backdrop. At all other times, I will always modify it somehow or bounce it to maximize the softness of the light or to minimize the harshness depending on the situation.

For this look, I wanted the flash to point directly at the subject, in a narrow beam and not have any spill onto the background. A gridded snoot would do the job controlling the light direction, but I didn’t have one. Plus I probably would have found that the light was still a bit harsh without further modification. I ended up McGyvering my own modified snoot using a black card and the diffuser panel of a 5-in-1 reflector. I twisted the reflector (like you would when putting it away) so that it was only a fraction of its size and I then had a 3-layer diffusion panel. This was taped to the strobe and with black card wrapped around it to direct the light onto my subject like a beam.

There are two factors that are crucial for getting soft light; the distance between your subject and the light and the size of the light. The closer the light is to the subject, the softer it is. The larger your light source is, the softer it will be. My light source was not very big at all, so to leverage maximum softness I decreased the distance to the subject. The light was positioned about an arm’s length away from the subject, quite high up at a 45-degree angle. This was to mimic natural light coming from a high window.

#4 Try various settings

I wanted to shoot at f/8 so I metered the flash. You don’t require a handheld light meter to do this, by the way, you can just start with a few trial and error test shots to find the correct setting. I started off with the lowest power on my strobe but ended up cranking it up as the 3-layer diffusion cut out quite a lot of the light. My settings for these were: f/8, 1/60th,  ISO 400 and my strobe power high at 7. The strobe settings will vary depending on the brand you are using.

4 Beginner Tips for Creating Dramatic Portraits with One Flash

This is just one of the many ways you can create portraits with one flash. Try it and experiment with other angles, moods, and light settings and you may be amazed at what one light can do!

Share your portraits here too in the comments below.

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How to Use Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto lenses are wonderful tools for almost any genre of photography, but they aren’t necessarily easy to use. In particular, telephoto lenses will magnify any camera shake and provide a much thinner depth of field compared to wide angles. Don’t let that stop you, though. Telephotos have a unique way of showcasing the world — one which may be ideal for your photos. In this article, I’ll go in detail about telephoto lenses, including some of their benefits, possible ways to use them, and tips for dealing with their unique challenges. Although I personally tend to take landscape photos, the techniques in this article apply no matter what subjects you like to capture.

1) Focus on Details

Not surprisingly, telephoto lenses are very useful if you want to focus on smaller details in a given scene.

Because telephoto lenses have such a narrow field of view, they make it easier to capture just a thin slice of the world. In everything from dense forests to wide-open overlooks, a telephoto lens lets you isolate details far more easily than a medium or wide angle lens. (That’s not to say you can’t capture small details with a wide angle; some of my favorite images do just that. However, the narrow field of view that telephotos have typically makes it easier.)

What sorts of details? That depends upon the type of photography that you like to do. If you’re a portrait photographer, you can capture someone’s face more easily, without any surrounding elements. For landscape photography, you can focus on a single mountain peak and make it the most prominent item in your image. Also, don’t forget macro lenses, which are typically telephotos; they let you photograph even the tiniest of scenes.

This is perhaps the most important way in which I use telephoto lenses. It isn’t true in every landscape, but — more often than many people think — a single detail can be more impressive than an expansive scene. You just need to keep an eye out and a telephoto handy.


NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 185mm, ISO 100, 8/10, f/16.0

2) Create Abstract Photos

One of my personal favorite reasons to use a telephoto lens is to create abstract or semi-abstract photos.

Since telephotos can isolate details so well, in certain landscapes, you’ll be able to capture a small sliver of the scene that completely removes context — the definition of an abstract image. Other times, even if you can’t remove the context completely, you’ll still end up with a photo that focuses on shapes and patterns rather than a perfectly-literal image of a scene.

I’m a fan of abstract photos. They’re all about the basics: light, color, shapes, and composition. If your viewer can’t tell what a photo actually depicts, then the image becomes more about its underlying aesthetic qualities. For example, if you take an abstract photo at Yosemite, people’s first reactions will be “Wow, those shapes are really interesting” rather than “Cool, I also went to Yosemite!”

Of course, not all photos need to be abstract, and not all abstract photos must be taken with a telephoto lens. You can still capture abstracts with a wide-angle, particularly if you are able to position your camera very close to your subject. However, if abstracts are what you want to photograph, you should keep a long lens handy. It’s one of the best ways to isolate the shapes and forms of a scene.


NIKON D810 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm, ISO 400, 1/500, f/5.6

2) Show a Sense of Scale

If you’re standing close to a tree with mountains in the distance, and you use a wide angle lens, the tree will appear quite large compared to the background:


NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/4, f/16.0

This has to do with perspective. The closer that you are to an item, the larger it appears relative to its background. Although it may seem like it, this effect actually has nothing to do with the lens you use — it’s all about your camera position. However, if you are positioned very close to something and use a wide angle lens, then your field of view will be so wide that this relationship is much more obvious to viewers. (If this is confusing, Elizabeth wrote a full tutorial on lens compression and Nasim has an article about focal length and subject distortion that you should consider reading.)

The flip side of this coin is when you use a telephoto lens and stand much farther back. Then, items start to look their actual relative sizes. People in front of a mountain will appear huge if you stand two feet away from them and use a wide angle lens, but they’ll be tiny if you stand back and zoom in; instead, the mountain will appear larger.

When I took the photo above, I wanted to focus on the interesting patterns in this tree. However, I soon realized that this perspective didn’t show the extreme scale of the mountains in the distance. So, I switched from my 20mm lens to my 70-200mm, and I walked farther back. Ultimately, I was able to capture this photo instead, which has a very different sense of scale:


NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 70mm, ISO 100, 6/10, f/16.0

This technique can be valuable in a number of different situations, from landscapes to sports, and everything in between. If I ever capture a mountain that doesn’t have enough power in an image, I always zoom in; or, if one of my foreground elements appears too large, I’ll step back and use a telephoto.

The extra sense of scale in these photos isn’t directly caused by your longer lens, but it indirectly is an important factor. Your photo’s perspective is determined by your camera position — which, if you use a telephoto, can be farther back than normal.

This effect is often used by portrait photographers in order to “flatten” their subject’s face and make their features look more like normal. See the comparison below (photos by Nasim):


Here, although the photographer’s position is what really caused the change in perspective, the 300mm telephoto lens made it possible to capture a head-and-shoulders portrait (without cropping) that had realistic proportions. The 14mm image, by comparison — where the photographer was only a couple feet from the model — looks much more exaggerated.

If your goal is to show the real-life relative sizes of the elements in your image as accurately as possible, your task is simple: zoom in, stand back, and compose your photo. Compared to a wide-angle at close range, you’ll notice a clear difference.

3) Getting Enough Depth of Field

As you zoom in, your depth of field will shrink dramatically.

With an ultra-wide lens — something like 14mm — it is incredibly easy to capture an entire landscape within your depth of field. Even a moderate aperture like f/5.6 will render the entire scene with extremely high levels of detail from eight feet to infinity.

However, just by zooming into 50mm — by most standards, not even a telephoto yet — you’d need an aperture of roughly f/22 in order to capture the same depth of field. (I got these numbers from my article on choosing the sharpest aperture.)

Telephoto lenses are amazing for landscape photography, but your subject needs to be quite far away if you want the whole scene to be sharp! You can sometimes focus stack if you don’t get quite what you want, but that can be a time-consuming technique, and it isn’t possible for some quickly-moving landscapes.

How do you get around this issue? If a small aperture like f/11 or f/16 doesn’t provide the depth of field you need, and you aren’t able to focus stack, you’re mostly out of options. Definitely try moving farther back, if possible, although that won’t be feasible everywhere.

Still, don’t let this stop you from taking landscape photos with a telephoto lens! I find that most telephoto-worthy landscapes are far enough away that depth of field isn’t a big issue — and, for most of the others, you’ll be able to focus stack instead.

4) Using Shallow Depth of Field to Your Advantage

Worst-case scenario — or, if you’re optimistic, best-case scenario — you’ll have to work with a shallow depth of field.

A shallow depth of field is one of the most compelling parts about photography, and, simultaneously, most annoying parts about telephoto lenses. If you want everything in your photo to appear sharp, this thin depth of field can be a headache; if you want to capture a softly-blurred background, it’s perfect.

As a landscape photographer, it’s typically unusual to capture photos of grand landscapes with an out-of-focus background. However, if you ever take pictures of wildlife or small details, it can be a great tool:


NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 175mm, ISO 100, 1/250, f/4.0

A shallow depth of field simplifies your photos. By highlighting your subject, it tells your viewer’s eye exactly where to look.

Since telephoto lenses have a naturally thinner depth of field (assuming that you stand in the same position), they are perfect for this type of photography. Use a wide aperture like f/2.8, get close to your subject, and zoom in. You’ll end up with a beautifully-blurred background.

5) Watch for Camera Shake

Telephoto lenses have an unfortunate habit of magnifying the camera-shake problems in your image.

For example, if you’re handholding a lens with poor technique, a wide angle lens may never show the problem — but a telephoto lens could reveal it immediately. Or, more difficult to control (but still fixable), a tripod shaking in the wind may cause blurry photos with a telephoto even when wider angles seem to be completely sharp.

If you use a telephoto, you need to be particularly careful with your overall setup. Any slight bit of shake will be magnified, and the problem only worsens as you use longer and longer lenses.

How do you remedy this problem? With a long lens, be willing to use a tripod to stabilize things as much as possible. Or, if you’re shooting something like sports or wildlife — where you may need to move your camera more quickly than a tripod allows — consider using a monopod instead. If it’s windy, try lowering the thinnest sections of the tripod to see if that improves your stability.

Most of all, check occasionally to make sure that your shots are sharp. Review your photo and zoom in all the way. Does the photo look good? If not, try to find places where you can eliminate blur from your setup. It won’t always be easy, but telephoto lenses provide such an interesting perspective that they are worth the effort.

6) Conclusion

Clearly, telephoto lenses are fantastic tools that can provide exactly the look you’re after, depending upon the scene.

People always seem surprised when I describe my 70-200mm as, perhaps, my favorite landscape lens. Some photographers simply don’t think of telephotos as a tool for nature photography — if it’s not a wide angle, it isn’t worth using. If this has been your outlook on things, you may be overlooking some beautiful potential images.

Of course, you don’t have to be a landscape photographer to enjoy using telephoto lenses. Portrait photographers often employ the “zoom in, stand back” rule in order to capture their subjects’ faces in a more flattering way. Or, if you’re a sports/wildlife photographer, a telephoto lens can help you focus on the smallest details of your scene, bringing your viewer face-to-face with a distant subject.

Telephoto lenses don’t work for every image, though. If you want to show a wide field of view, they certainly don’t work (unless you resort to a multi-row panorama). Or, if you’re trying to exaggerate the size of nearby objects — such as the foreground in a landscape — there are typically better tools for the job.

However, if you want to show people the details and scale of a distant scene or isolate your subject with a shallow depth of field, a telephoto should be at the top of your list. For many people, it will be the most-used lens in your kit.

(If you enjoyed this article, you may also want to read How to Use Wide Angle Lenses.)

The post How to Use Telephoto Lenses appeared first on Photography Life.

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Senior Perspectives on Photography

It has been a few years now that I’ve qualified for a senior’s discount at various retailers. Of course the rules for such discounts do vary by store. Some start offering them at 55. Others at 60. And, at many they don’t kick in until that magic age of 65.

PL senior 1

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 48mm, ISO 160, 1/250, f/5.6

Well, I’m the ‘old dog’ here at Photography Life. I haven’t officially passed that milestone of a 65th birthday quite yet. It is inching ever closer and will happen this year. That gave me cause to think about photography and how one’s perspectives on the subject can change over time. I’ve included a somewhat eclectic mix of some of my favourite, recent images to serve as visual breaks. I suppose some of them may be signs of me having some ‘senior moments’ and may elicit the question, “What was he thinking?”. One of the advantages of aging is to use it as an excuse to say “I don’t remember”…even when you do.

PL senior 2

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 92.8mm, ISO 400, 1/320, f/8.0

For some seniors their interest in photography declines as they age. They no longer feel the creative juice flowing as strongly in their veins as they once did. Like a flower wilting at the end of blossom season their passion for photography slowly dries up and eventually dies. Whether it ever gets rekindled in them depends on the individual.

PL senior 3

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 25.7mm, ISO 400, 1/80, f/8.0

Some older folks find digital photography intimidating. The idea of working on images with a computer in post is a weird ‘brave new digital world’. They would much rather get 4”x6” prints done at a local store just like they did as young parents when they took plenty of snapshots of their children. If they still take photographs today depends in part on the ease of use of the camera. Whether it’s a point-and-shoot or perhaps a phone.

PL senior 4a

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 31.9mm, ISO 160, 1/125, f/5.6

Sometimes the outlook a senior has on the world around them can grow narrow and hard over time. They see nothing in their everyday world worth photographing. Everything, it seems, has become a burden to them. Life is cold. Dark. Meaningless. If they ever did take photographs they are probably now found in some old dusty albums on the top shelf in a closet, or in long forgotten slide trays.

PL senior 5

NIKON 1 J5 + 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7mm, ISO 400, 1/20, f/8.0

Other seniors are excited about learning something new and somewhat complex. They find it invigorating and mentally stimulating to pursue photography. I find it interesting that there actually is some research done by the University of Texas at Dallas that showed there was a significant increase in the memory of seniors who took up digital photography. Perhaps there is still hope for my old, porous brain!

PL senior 6

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKON CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, ISO 360, 1/3200, f/5.6

I get quite a few emails and calls at the office from older folks who are intrigued with the idea of smaller, lighter camera gear. Many are considering ‘downsizing’ their DSLR gear and switching over to Micro 4/3rds and other smaller format systems. Some want the convenience of a bridge camera.

PL senior 7

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 100mm, ISO 800, 1/1600, f/5.6

And, there are some seniors who are embarking on a fresh, new journey with photography and are unsure what path to even begin to take.

PL senior 8

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 44.2mm, ISO 800, 1/160, f/7.1

Many older people mention back and neck issues and the need to face new physical realities. Some talk about moving away from their DSLRs for this specific reason. They often admit that it is used less and less with each passing year. For many the attachment is simply too great and they hang onto their current gear anyway, even though they acknowledge that it is too bulky and heavy for them physically. For many changing camera formats now would be akin to cheating on a long time marriage partner.

PL senior 9

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 18.1mm, ISO 800, 1/1000, f/8.0

Some seniors seem to go hog wild with their camera purchases, buying multiple bodies and a host of lenses. They realize that they have the freedom that comes with being empty nesters, and being at least semi-retired, they can pursue their interest in photography with real gusto.

PL senior 11

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 100mm, ISO 160, 1/100, f/5.6

For others budget concerns are a serious matter. They have more limited incomes, often fixed by pensions and annuities. They are very cautious about their gear purchases and want reassurances of quality and durability. They have little interest in upgrading every couple of years. While they are still interested in cameras their buying criteria has shifted to mainly being focused on value and longevity.

PL senior 12

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 91.5mm, ISO 160, 1/125, f/5.6

Many seniors take lots of family pictures and these are their most cherished images. The ability of a camera to capture very good quality photographs of children and grandchildren is paramount. Having a camera with good low light performance is a significant issue for many. After all, there are countless school events featuring their grandchildren to capture for posterity! Above all else the photographs that many seniors create represent a highly treasured family legacy.

PL senior 13

NIKON 1 J5 + 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7.3mm, ISO 400, 1/1000, f/8.0

Others find that the photographic subject matter in which they now have an interest is an extension of a hobby they enjoyed earlier in life. Gardeners can become avid photographers of flowers and trees.

PL senior 10

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 100mm, ISO 800, 1/1250, f/7.1

People who enjoyed camping and hiking often transition into being passionate wildlife and bird photographers.

PL senior 14

NIKON 1 J5 + 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 13mm, ISO 800, 1/40, f/8.0

Some seniors find that pursuing their interest in photography takes them in entirely new and unexpected directions. Much of it is fueled by their passion to create and explore something new. To more intensely experience the world around them while they still have the physical ability and some time left to do so. They will dive into macro photography, astrophotography or a host of other specialties.

PL senior 15

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 100mm, ISO 800, 1/640, f/5.6

On a personal basis I find that things have changed as I’ve aged in terms of my photographic interests. In my younger years my personal photography focused primarily on travel. There were a number of my mid-life years during which my interest in photography waned.

PL senior 16

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, ISO 160, 1/40, f/8.0

In retrospect it was the shift to digital photography that re-energized me. While I’d been around cameras for much of my adult life I always disliked using film. Digital photography was liberating.

PL senior 17

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, ISO 160, 1/400, f/5.6

I still love travel photography, but I am intrigued with a much broader array of subject matter than when I was younger. Years ago I couldn’t have imagined myself enjoying creating images of flowers and plants. Or capturing the intricacies of wedding dresses in a bridal studio as my daughter planned for her big day. Or using five extension tubes stacked together to discover how alien things like butterflies can appear.

PL senior 18

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, ISO 160, 1/160, f/8.0

It wasn’t until about 4 years ago that I started to capture images of birds with any kind of regularity. I now thoroughly enjoy the challenge of capturing birds-in-flight and it has become one of my favourite pastimes.

PL senior 19

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 62.3mm, ISO 320, 1/250, f/8.0

My wife still maintains, and rightly so, that I seldom create images that contain people. She has to remind me to do so regularly. Eventually it will sink into my thick brain. I think she is making progress though as I purchased a flash for my Nikon 1 gear earlier this year with the intent of doing more ‘people’ photographs, at least with family members.

PL senior 20

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 50mm, ISO 160, 1/320, f/5.6

I suppose when I sit back and think about photography at this ‘senior’ stage in my life a couple things are readily apparent. The first is that far too much emphasis is put on things like camera specifications, sensor performance debates, and choices in post processing software. All of these things are only of transient relevance. Within a few months, or a year at tops, some new technical wrinkle will overshadow what is now the latest buzz…making all of the effort spent debating such things rather pointless. These are only tool-related things that help a photographer create an image. The real power of photography lies in its potential to stimulate personal growth.

PL senior 21

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, ISO 800, 1/200, f/8.0

We grow when we put our work out for others to see. We grow when we follow our hearts, our passions, and flashes of inspiration when creating an image. We grow when we experiment, trying something new with our camera gear. We grow when we trust completely in ourselves and in our abilities. We grow when we push ourselves to explore more of the world around us, camera in hand. Our resulting images having the potential to live beyond our limited time here.

PL senior 22

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 19.2mm, ISO 800, 1/60, f/5.6

Living really is all about growth. All we need do is look at nature for proof of that fact. The precise moment at which the process of growth stops, the process of death and decay begins.

PL senior 23

NIKON 1 J5 + 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 100mm, ISO 800, 1/1600, f/5.6

Technical Note:
All images in this article were captured hand-held in available light while on a photography tour of New Zealand. Many of these images, as well as hundreds of others photographs (mainly landscape) will be featured in my upcoming New Zealand photography e-book. All photographs presented were created from RAW files using my standard process of OpticsPro 11, CS6 and Nik Suite.

Article Copyright 2017 Thomas Stirr. Images Copyright 2016 Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, adaptation or reproduction of any kind including electronic and digital is allowed without written permission. Photography Life is the only approved user of this article. If you see it reproduced anywhere else it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Posting comments on offending websites and calling out people who steal intellectual property is always appreciated!

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