Photographic Triggers in Portraiture


For most photography, there is a certain condition that the photographer sees in the viewfinder that triggers a shutter release. In portraiture, it may be a certain smile that you’re looking for, or a particular tilt of the head. The study of what triggers you to take a photograph is a way to gain some insight into your own artistic vision and the methods that you use to take pictures. For most photographers who are just starting to develop a style, there aren’t many rules involved in taking pictures. You find a suitable subject and take some pictures. Just as a writer develops a certain voice that they use in all their writing, a photographer develops a style and vision that is unique to their work. A unique style relies on several factors, but the trigger that causes you to take a picture plays a large role in the final image that you capture.

The timing of a photograph is governed by several things. Even in a Single Lens Reflex camera, there is some lag between the shutter release and the final image capture. That lag is minimal compared the human lag that every photographer experiences. Even the best hand/eye reflexes introduce a small delay between your intention to take a picture and an image capture. For most people, the lag between seeing a visual queue and translating that into a physical action is about 1/3 of a second. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but you’re trying to capture an image that’s also in the same time frame. Most photographs we take in day to day life have shutter speeds between 1/60th and 1/1000th of a second. When combined with human lag, the range of time between your intention to take a picture and the final image may take you past the instant you wanted to capture. Photography is about capturing that small instant of time. When we watch an event, each instant combines with all the others to create a stream of memory that we use to recall the event. In photography, we’re trying to capture and accentuate an instant pulled from that stream. The instant we choose to capture should speak to the whole event and emphasize some aspect of it.


This picture doesn’t capture the emotions of the event.  In this rally, the crowd was very energized by Hillary Clinton’s presence.  This picture captures an overly intense expression.

When you’re taking pictures of a person, the correct instant to capture an image varies from person to person. As humans, we’re pre disposed to evaluate subtle expressions in other people. The mechanical process of taking a picture can capture an instant where not all of the moving parts of a person’s face are aligned with the image you’re trying to capture. It’s relatively easy to capture a person making a strange face just by taking a picture. Even in an encounter where they’re smiling and interacting with other people, their face goes through a range of expressions that can mean different things in a photograph. Transitioning from a smile to a laugh can purse the lips in a seeming snarl. The act of talking also takes the face through a range of expressions that, if captured as an instant, don’t represent what the person was actually expressing. News sources have a lot of fun using these pictures to represent politicians in a way that may be contrary to the narrative of the event. In personal photographs, we usually want to capture an instant that is flattering or expressive. To find the specific trigger that will cause you to take the right picture, it’s important to study the way the subject’s face changes as they talk or pose. Even a stationary pose will change as the person expresses their thoughts in the muscles of their face. If you want to capture a smile, the right instant to push the shutter is as the person begins their smile. A smile changes as a person tries to maintain it. The longer a person has to hold an expression, the more forced it will appear in the final picture. Start by watching the way their expression changes as they talk. Don’t look at them through the viewfinder at this stage, you just want to watch how their face works. Each person’s face is unique. Even if you want to capture a smile, the expressions preceding it will be different for each person. Once you have identified the specific expression and facial angle that you feel would make the best picture, start using your viewfinder to time your photograph. Experiment with different times. The purse of a lip or the widening of an eye can be enough to trigger a photograph because it precedes the expression that you want to capture. Even though you can see the entire face in your viewfinder, it is very difficult to keep track of all the different parts of the face that contribute to an expression. Another aspect of human psychology is that we evaluate an entire facial expression but are unable to concentrate on the totality of a face. We focus our vision on a single part a person’s face and rely on our innate ability to understand expressions to fill in the rest of the information. In a photograph, we can evaluate the entire expression at our leisure instead of having to fill in the gaps like we do in real life. It takes some experimentation to capture the right combination of features that contribute to a good picture. Usually, the eyes are a good trigger to use for portraits. The eyes and mouth are the two parts of an expression that humans are drawn to when they look at a face. Eyebrows and cheeks act in conjunction with these two parts to create a whole facial expression. A subject looking directly into the lens can make a powerful picture, but it may not be the picture that portrays the subject in the way you want. A direct gaze can portray the subject in a confrontational or confident light. Looking down usually portrays the subject as contemplative or uncertain. An upward gaze can portray humor or imagination. Which expression you capture depends on the mouth. Since it’s very hard to track both features at the same time, use one as the trigger for your shutter, and cull out the shots that do not match the result you wanted to capture. This is the point where a photographer’s vision impacts the final result. A good photograph will match both parts of a face together to give some insight into the character of the subject. Upturned eyes combined with a wide grin create a whimsical, imaginative image.

SarahI used a low angle and a tilted frame in this portrait to create a sense of movement. Combining a low angle, which imparts a sense of dominance in the subject, with a whimsical expression is a juxtaposition that can convey several things in a picture.

One of the truly magical things about photography is our ability to capture an instant that is descriptive of the subject, but counter intuitive to our pre conceived notions of the subject’s character. The pictures we remember are the ones that reveal some hidden quality about the subject. Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue to the camera is an iconic picture because we always associate him with dour, complicated subjects that don’t lend themselves to levity. For the photographer, that unexpected trigger caused him to release the shutter because it was so far outside the range of expressions that he was expecting. He HAD to push the shutter button. In the midst of your study of the human face, be open to the unexpected. Creating a picture with a specific expression that matches your vision of the person, and quantifying the parts of the face that contribute to that expression are important in portraiture, but are not the end of people pictures. A strange picture doesn’t necessarily have to portray the subject in a negative light.


If your subject begins to stiffen and become more aware of your actions, try lightening the mood by joking around a little.  In a group, getting someone to do some “Moose ears” is a fun thing to do.

When you start a session with a subject, don’t start taking pictures right away. Keep your camera in plain sight, but don’t put the person into the role of a photographic subject right away. Build a rapport with them, first. Ask them about themselves and let them think about it in a natural way. They may have some specific things that they want to portray in a portrait. It’s not very often that we think about the way that our thoughts control our facial expressions. Usually, we only pay attention to the way our face is changing when we’re in an interview or other formal setting. If you have a very specific image in mind, having them control their expression is necessary. Otherwise, the best way to get a natural looking picture is to put the subject at ease. An interesting effect of portraiture is that the camera can eventually disappear in the mind of the subject. Even when I’m right in front of the subject, they will eventually see only me instead of the camera. It’s natural for them to focus on the camera at the beginning. It’s only in the interaction with the photographer that the camera becomes a background object in their mind. That’s the purpose of the initial stage where the camera is visible, but not an active part of the conversation. The effect is similar to the way we focus on a specific part of a face to evaluate an entire expression. The camera is part of their visual field, but if you engage them throughout the session, they will be forced to focus on you instead of the camera. If you feel that the session is becoming too formal, try telling a joke or having them strike a strange pose. When I feel that they are becoming too focused on the camera and stiffening their poses, I usually ask them to stick their tongue out or make another strange facial expression. You can also come out from behind the camera, block their view of it, and talk about something else for a few minutes. Another example is a group picture. When they’re starting to get painted expressions, I usually ask why no one has done any moose ears on the person next to them. It’s a fun joke that usually loosens up the group again.


I took this picture kneeling because I wanted to convey more power from the subject.

The angle of your photograph also determines a lot about the final image. Taking a picture with the lens below face level gives the subject more prominence. A picture taken from above gives them a vulnerable quality. The difference is only a matter of inches. When you line up your camera with a face, placing your center spot on their chin or forehead, then angling the lens to capture the face is enough to produce the effect. This can be used to create interesting final images. Taking a picture of a child from a low angle adds a weight to the subject that is often in congruent with our pre conceived notions of children. In real life, we view children from above, mostly. Giving the child more dominance in the image not only increases the importance felt by the viewer, but also adds a dimension that we’re not accustomed to seeing in our normal lives. In the same way, taking a picture of an important person from a slightly high angle gives them a vulnerability that you may not see in them every day. The position of the eyes in an angled shot also conveys a great deal about the subject’s character. In a low angle shot, having the subject look directly into the lens combines confidence with prominence, enhancing the overall effect. A picture taken from a higher angle with the eyes averted compounds the vulnerability of the subject and allows the viewer to connect with the subject in an emotional way. A straight on shot, with your center spot aligned with the subject’s nose creates a documentary style photograph, which can be a good technique when you’re photographing a naturally artistic person. It’s the disconnect between your photographic choices and the nature of the subject that creates a unique vision of them and reveals an aspect of the subject.


It’s not really possible to keep all of the rules of facial expressions in mind while you’re taking pictures. Thinking about the elements that make up the human face is a good exercise because photography is an intuitive art. Preparation for the photographic session influences the decisions you make while taking pictures. Photography is a mechanical process that describes an intuitive state of emotion. Because of this, you need to think about the mechanical aspects before you can really develop an intuitive style in your photography. The mechanics of facial expressions are something that we’re born to understand, so we don’t spend a lot of time examining how they work and what impact subtle changes in a face have on an image. Since the final image is static, the viewer can examine much more of it than they could in a fluid, real life situation. Developing a sense of the image that you want to portray before you start taking pictures will improve your final product.

Timing Action Photography


When we take action pictures, we’re trying to record an event. The instant that the photo physically represents is meant to describe the entire event. An “Event” isn’t a baseball game or tennis match, it’s an individual encounter between a batter and the ball or a tennis player hitting the ball. The storytelling limits of a photograph depend on how long the exchange is. In the case of a baseball pitch, it’s just as long as it takes for the ball to get from the pitcher to the batter. Once the batter hits the ball, or the catcher catches it, the event reaches a conclusion. In basic terms, you can break down an event into a couple discrete segments. Beginning, duration, conclusion. The image that the viewer sees is different for each phase of the event. Since the image doesn’t record the entire event, you rely on the viewer to create the rest of the event based on the image that you present them.


It took a bit of experimenting to get the timing of this picture correct.  I wanted a closeup of the catcher with the ball in frame.  Without a visual queue to trigger a picture, I had to estimate when the ball would be in the correct position.

As you take pictures of a game, you become attuned to the action, and can predict how each actor will react and how they participate. That point guard likes to shoot from the key, that pitcher tucks his arm in a little during his delivery. Once you have a good sense of the rhythms that the players use, you can begin to choose which part of the event you want to record, and what queues the player gives just before that instant. For a point guard, you can take the picture at the moment that he starts to jump, while he is in the air, just after he has released the ball, or when he is falling back to the court. Which stage of the shot you choose to capture determines how much tension or action your final image will have and what story you tell. Photographing the point guard as he is rising on his toes to make a jump shot captures a lot of tension, but not as much action. Photographing the shot after he releases the ball captures a lot of action, but less tension.

DSC_0233 DSC_0239

I focused with the right focus point in my viewfinder.  By leaving room in front of the pitcher, the viewer can see the ball enter that space, and it literally leaves more room for them to imagine the outcome.

In most photographs, people have more tension in their bodies before and during the event than they do afterward. Muscles are tense as the guard is jumping, but once the ball is released, he relaxes, and is just a falling object. All of the tension that he used to start the shot has been transferred to the ball. Photographing the guard just as he releases the ball, but before he starts to fall, is the point where action and tension converge. A lot depends on what you want to convey in your image, though.


Taking a picture when the player is in the air can convey more action to the photograph and allow the viewer to imagine several outcomes from the event.

The viewer creates the meaning of a photograph, the photographer just captures the image. There are some things that the photographer can do to increase or decrease the possibilities available to the viewer. The timing of a picture has a lot to do with how many imaginary paths are available to the viewer. When you think about a basketball player taking a shot, you inevitably construct the event from your memories. A “Basketball Shot” contains several movements and actions that you are expecting based on your memories of watching basketball games. Most people imagine a jump shot when they picture a basketball shot in their minds. The player jumps, releases the ball, and it goes into the basket. The choice of which instant to capture in the sequence determines what emphasis the photographer places on the entire event. The picture represents the entire memory that the viewer has, and can confirm or disrupt their preconceived notions of how the event plays out. A picture taken just as the player is starting to jump doesn’t have enough information to convey the entire event to a viewer. The player could be passing the ball, avoiding a defender, or taking a jump shot. It’s not until a little later in the sequence that a jump shot become inevitable. For the photographer, there is a short window where the jump shot is inevitable to the viewer. After that instant, the picture begins to lose energy as the shot progresses. The trick is to take the picture at the point where the shot is recognizable to the viewer, and the picture has enough energy to propel the viewer’s imagination to construct the rest of the event.


This picture is a miss.  I wasn’t able to get a fast enough shutter speed to stop the motion.  I keep it as a reminder of things to look for in an action sequence because the pose is so iconic.

The brute force way of getting the perfect shot is to set your camera to shoot continuously and just hold the shutter down while a player takes a jump shot. Then it’s just a matter of discarding all but the right shots. That’s a good technique when each event has to be captured perfectly, like professional sports photography. It doesn’t inform your photography at all, though. The other issue with continuous shooting is that most cameras lock the settings and focus at the beginning of the sequence. If you’re wrong at the beginning, all subsequent shots will be equally wrong. Also, the study of subjects, the way they interact with each other and their environment, is lost.


Capturing the instant before a goal is scored or the goalie makes a save leaves the outcome up to the imagination of the viewer.  This venue was very difficult to take pictures in.  The hue of the light was good, there just wasn’t enough of it, even when I bumped my ISO up to 800.

When I was learning how to play tennis, my coach emphasized the follow through. To me, it seemed like a useless part of the swing. What does it matter that my racket is in the wrong position when I’ve already struck the ball? The ball is on its way, but I’m still back there trying to make my wrist rotate in the proper way. The follow through is an important part of the swing because thinking about it shapes the rest of the swing, even though it doesn’t have much affect on the trajectory of the ball by itself. Thinking about the different parts of an action shot, and choosing which one to capture is similar. Observing the way that people move and the way they transfer energy gives your photography a new insight into your subjects. It’s not something that you can express overtly in your pictures, but it is something that viewers intuitively understand, because they experience it in their own lives. Since photography is an artificial way to record intuitive experiences, the photographer has to think about the moving parts of the picture in order to mimic what we all see naturally.

2008-01-04_139The trigger for this picture was the player in the foreground.  He was about to obscure the pass by moving in front of my lens.  Instead of waiting for the pass, I had to take the picture a little early.

The best way to start taking action pictures is to simply study the way that your subjects move and try to break those movements down into discrete parts. Look for the parts that convey the most tension in the player and the most action in the event. The confluence of tension and action in a photo can be different depending on your angle, so it’s important to reevaluate the best instant to capture whenever you go out to take pictures. Once you have identified the instant you want to capture, look for the queues that precede it. These queues become triggers that you can use to time your photographs. When I’m taking wedding pictures, especially group pictures, I don’t focus on all the subjects. Getting everyone to line up and smile at the same time is nearly impossible. Instead, I focus on a couple principle subjects, and take pictures whenever they are in the right positions. The groom and bride in the right position is enough of a trigger to make me take a picture. After the session, I can discard the ones where uncle is picking his nose. A basketball player, with all those moving parts, is similar to a group photo. Instead of trying to queue on the whole, find an individual part that can act as a photographic trigger. The motion that you’re waiting for will vary depending on your reflexes and the speed at which your camera can take a picture. Sometimes, one foot leaving the ground at the beginning of a jump shot can be a trigger, other times it’s the point where the player raises the ball above his head in the middle of the shot.


I positioned myself on the outside of a curve in this bicycle race because the cyclists coasted around the turn.  Their legs weren’t pedaling, so they show up better in blur/motion shots.  It’s important to be observant of the human mechanics involved in any sports photography.

It takes a bit of experimentation to find the triggers and the parts of the whole that produce the best pictures for you. Once you’ve identified photographic triggers, though, you’ll find that it makes the next photo session easier because you know the general movements that you’re looking for, and what part of the event sequence they occur in. As mechanical beings, our movements are similar to each others, but subtly unique. It’s the photographer’s job to illuminate the differences while maintaining the similarities. It’s the similarities in the way we move that provide a basis for the viewer to understand our pictures, but it’s the unique subtleties that make each picture special.



One of the features of new cameras that I find very annoying is the settings priority mode that doesn’t allow the camera to take a picture if it hasn’t achieved the proper settings. When you press the shutter button, the camera may or may not take a picture. I understand why the manufacturer’s put the feature into their cameras. Their product is quality images for their customers, and a camera that will trip the shutter without having the right settings leads to lower quality pictures for beginners. I’m willing to risk getting many terrible pictures in the hope of getting one unique shot, though. It’s one of the first things I turn off when I reset the settings on my camera.

2006-08-12_009 Reaching

Photography is a dynamic art form that relies on sub second timing on the part of the photographer to capture the right instant in a sequence. I was taking a series at the local zoo once. I found a butterfly garden with a small bridge over a pool of water. In the pool was a large ceramic plate, split in two, that had coins scattered around and in it. I was happily experimenting with different settings and angles when I noticed a woman at the end of the bridge trying to catch a monarch butterfly. She was trying to gently cup it in her hands. Without changing any settings, I zoomed in on her hands and dropped the shutter. It was a wild chance of a shot from which I didn’t expect any results. The moment I saw the preview, though, I knew it was a good shot. The focus and settings were close enough to get a good picture, but the camera would not have tripped the shutter if settings priority had been turned on. There is some grain in the final image. The exposure was only saved by the ambient light from outside the butterfly net. My settings had wandered a bit as I dialed them in for the dark pool.

DSC_0035 GreatEgret08

Even when I was using film in my cameras, I was learning not be afraid of a “wasted” frame. Film was the cheapest thing in photography, there was little penalty for taking a bad picture. Today, with digital cameras, the only penalty for taking a lousy shot is the second it takes to delete it off the memory card. Good photography relies on the operator being familiar with their camera and using that instrument to measure their world. It takes a long time to learn the intricacies and science of photography, but it can take just as long to learn how to let those rules go. After spending so much time poring over the manual and testing settings, it’s easy to become bound by that knowledge and miss opportunities. The satisfaction of tailoring your settings to a situation and getting a good result is one of the best feelings in photography. I used to play a game with my girlfriend at the time. She would point the camera at a car fender or a tree, and I would try to guess what settings the camera had chosen. I cheated sometimes by setting the camera to a spot meter… then it was just a matter of figuring out what she was pointing at. That’s the science of photography, knowing your instrument well enough to predict how it will react in most situations. I let the hubris of that familiarity keep me from winging it, though. That’s part of the art of photography, taking chances.

2009-11-27_003 SunPrincess26

For a long time, I had a mental settings priority. Unless I could configure the camera before taking a shot, I wouldn’t take the picture. I went on a cruise once that stopped in St Martin. I took an excursion on a boat to tour the harbor and the island. I took some satisfying pictures which have left little impact on me except to remind me of a fun day. The image that remains is one that I didn’t take. As we were taking the launch back to the boat, I was in line on a narrow dock. The line was moving forward at a steady clip. As I was reaching the boarding ramp, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a dinghy submerged next to the planks, with just its transom above the water. On the transom, in stark letters was the name “Titanic”. In the distance, I could see large modern cruise ships moored in the bay. I let the stream of passengers push me onto the launch, and didn’t get the picture. I remember thinking the camera is set up for telephoto, I have the wrong settings, I have the wrong lens on, they won’t let me stand here long enough to switch everything for this shot. I should have just pushed the button.

Using Perspective as a Compositional Tool


Photography is much like a sentence in that there is “grammar” and a set of rules surrounding it. Emphasizing the subject in a composition is akin to the proper Noun. Keeping the parts of the picture in a common ratio is like avoiding a run on sentence. There are different ways to emphasize the subject. You can make the subject very prominent in the frame, like a portrait. You can also use other elements in the picture to emphasize the subject (someone “holding up” the Tower of Pisa). This creates a pathway for the viewer’s vision to move along inside your picture. Using perspective lines in your photographs creates a visual framework that directs the viewer’s eyes to specific parts of your picture.

Microwave/Radio Tower

The building roof acts as perspective lines that draw the viewer’s eyes towards the center of the picture, then the tower directs the viewer up and out of the frame.  This creates a clean visual pathway for the viewer.

An internal frame in a photograph emphasizes the subject in the same way that a physical frame emphasizes the entire picture. The psychology of framing is the same, whether it’s physical or compositional. It not only reduces the “empty” space around the subject, it also draws the eye towards the subject. In single point perspective, the viewer’s eye runs along the perspective lines in a natural way because humans are predisposed to find patterns in everything they see. A line in a pictures will cause the viewer to unconsciously follow it until it reaches a subject that they can evaluate, or goes off the frame. As a photographer, you should try to understand this psychology and use it to manage the viewer’s vision path. This will make your pictures easier to view and more pleasing to that unspoken desire that everyone has.


The spiral is the subject in this picture.  The twigs extending on either side create a visual pathway for the viewer to enter the frame, evaluate the subject, then exit the frame in a natural way.

The desire to find meaningful lines in nature isn’t unique to humans. Animals will also associate themselves with breaks or lines in their environments. Fish gather at steep drop offs and weed lines, deer follow topographical breaks in their environment until their trails begin to look like lines on a map. Human vision follows the same instinctual lines as deer or fish, it just happens in our field of view instead of the larger world around us. A picture of a chain link fence is very rich in framing, but devoid of any subject. The viewer’s eyes follow the lines instinctively, but don’t find any subject to rest on. Together, framing and subject allow the user to naturally move their vision across the image towards your subject. The frame also redirects their view back to the subject if they stray. If you’ve ever found yourself drawn to one part of a picture over and over again, that’s the effect that framing and perspective have on your vision.

Eiffel Tower 2007-04-19_089

Left: the angle of the search light follows the existing perspective lines created by the street.  Right:  The search light is at an unnatural angle to the perspective lines, and disrupts the viewer’s visual path through the image.

Using perspective in your pictures isn’t just about creating a sense of depth. It’s also about managing the visual pathways in your image to emphasize certain aspects or regions of the picture. Pictures can still be good without using perspective. Sometimes, a chaotic image composition adds to the artistic value of the image. Using perspective is just another tool that allows you to nudge the viewer towards the meaning that you originally envisioned when you took the picture.

Architectural Photography


All pictures in photography have some distortion in them. Usually, we can’t perceive it because the image doesn’t have many straight lines or our perspective minimizes the effect. Buildings, roads and other subjects with straight lines show this distortion quite clearly. Perspective shift is the narrowing effect that you see in most architectural pictures. The parts of the picture that are furthest away from the lens are the narrowest parts of the picture. We’re used to this distortion because we see it with our eyes, so it doesn’t seem so strange when we see it in a photograph. The lens adds its own distortion to an image, so a picture of a building can have a pronounced effect. There are a couple ways to deal with this distortion.

2007-04-19_087 2009-11-23_005

Straight lines have a tendency to narrow in the distance of a photograph.  You can balance the perspective shift by centering the picture, or minimize it by adding elements into the foreground.

There are camera lens that correct for perspective shift called… perspective or tilt shift lenses. These lenses use special optics and shift the light path through the lens to correct for the narrowing effect. This is the most expensive choice, though. Most perspective shift lenses are very expensive because they serve a very specific photographic purpose and require sophisticated optics to achieve the effect. For most people, this is not a viable option. There are digital ways to correct for perspective shift. Photoshop has a tool that will correct the effect during a picture crop.

2009-11-23_051 Florence

Left: Taking a picture from a greater distance will minimize perspective shift. Right: Incorporating curves into your picture will also minimize perspective shift.

I don’t usually change my pictures beyond adjusting the color curves or brightness/contrast. I prefer to use perspective shift in my photography because it’s a natural visual effect, and much of photography is about presenting something familiar in a slightly different light to the viewer. You can diminish perspective shift by moving further away from you subject, or increase the effect by moving closer. If you can get to a height about halfway up the building, you can balance the perspective shift and minimize how much of a narrowing you get in the picture. Since the bending effect is balanced between the top and bottom of the building, it’s less evident in the final picture.

2007-04-22_306 2007-04-20_367

Left: Aligning your viewfinder with the side of a structure gives the picture an unnatural tilt.  Right: Rules are meant to be broken.

One of the things that makes architectural photography harder than other types is the smaller margin of error in composing the shot. In a normal picture, skewing the frame by a few degrees can convey a sense of motion and become part of the artistic statement. Since perspective shift is already changing the lines of a building, even a small change in alignment of the photo translates into a large perception of crookedness for the viewer. Many camera manufacturers have etched lines into the viewfinder to make a square shot easier to achieve. The most important alignment is at the base of the building. When you’re standing directly in front of the building, squaring the bottom of your viewfinder with the base of the building will balance each side of the building, and the picture will look more natural. Resist the temptation to align your viewfinder with the side of the building, that will give the picture a pronounced skew that doesn’t look as good. It’s not always possible to get right in front of a building to take a picture. In that case, it’s better to align the bottom of your viewfinder with the horizon. It’s also a good idea to include some other elements into an off center architectural picture. A tree or person in the frame gives the viewer something to reference, and straightens out the picture in their mind. It’s a tough picture to take. You’re metering and focusing for the building, but relying on the foreground subject to straighten the picture.

Sperry High School 2007-04-20_193

A very high or low angle creates more perspective shift than a picture taken at the middle height of a building.

Architectural pictures can be very challenging to take, but architecture represents so much in our society that it’s worth taking the time to master it. Buildings are more than just shelter, they combine our ambitions and technical expertise into one art form. The Parthenon was designed to counteract perspective shift by incorporating curved surfaces and pillars into its design. Most architects don’t account for perspective shift, so unless you’re in Greece, you’ll have to take some care when you take pictures of buildings.

Exposure Value


Exposure Value, or EV, is the mechanism on a camera that allows you to shift the exposure away from the value that the camera’s light sensor gets. When a camera manufacturer develops the light meter for a camera, they use several stock colors and images to fine tune the meter. Usually, there is a snow scene, a night scene, a neutral scene, and several others. Once the light meter in the camera is programmed with each scene, it can approximate what it’s looking at in the field by referencing the built in scenes and the values that the manufacturer has associated with them. The camera “recognizes” the scene by choosing the closest match in its memory. It then distills that scene into aperture and shutter speed values that it presents to the user.

2006-08-05_025 2006-08-12_077

Left: An even exposure Right: Underexposed

The problem with this method is that some scenes can fool the built in meter. If your picture has some elements of a pre programmed scene, the camera may choose those settings, even if the picture you’re taking is completely different. A bald eagle is a good example. Eagles have dark body feathers and white heads. If the meter places more weight on the head, the body will become underexposed. If the meter weights the dark body feathers, the head will be overexposed. EV is the manufacturer’s way of giving the photographer a method to compensate for these meter errors.

Positive EV will add exposure value to the settings that the camera calculates. In the bald eagle example, if you meter for the bird’s head and set the EV value to +1, the camera will add one stop worth of exposure to the internal value. The longer exposure will account for the darker feathers in the eagle’s body. It takes some experimentation to get an exposure that’s long enough to expose the dark feathers, but short enough to not overexpose the eagle’s head. A 1 stop compensation is a good place to start. If the camera’s internal meter reads a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, +1 EV will force the camera to the next stop, or 1/360th of a second.

2007-04-17_007 2007-04-06_016

Left: the camera’s meter was fooled by the light waterfall and underexposed the rest of the picture.  Right:  I used matrix/intelligent metering for this scene, which metered the entire scene.

The way that a camera sensor captures light is analogous to pressing a felt tipped pen onto a piece of paper. The longer you hold the pen on the paper, the more ink spreads over the surface. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light the sensor captures, and the more exposed that part of the image becomes. Light colored areas of a picture expose more quickly than dark areas, so pushing the exposure value too far will overexpose the light areas of the picture.

The exposure value that the camera calculates will also change based on which meter you use. A spot meter only reads a small area of the scene and chooses exposure values based solely on that. A center weighted meter adds a small area around the spot to the calculation. Usually, a camera will weight the spot at 75% and the small surrounding area at 25%. A matrix/intelligent meter will choose a value that properly exposes as much of the scene as possible. Each of these meters will give a different exposure value for the same scene. When you start experimenting with EV compensation, try the spot meter first. This is the simplest meter and will give you a good idea of how changes in the EV value will translate into changes in the finished picture. I usually like to start with the lightest part of the subject and add +EV until I get an exposure that covers the dark parts of the subject. Metering the dark areas of the scene and using -EV will work just as well.

Grace 2007-07-08_070-crop

Both of these pictures used center weighted metering.  The difference is in the position of the flash.  In the left picture, I held the flash close to the kitten because I wanted to overexpose parts of the kitten’s fur to emphasize the light falling on it.  In the right picture, I held the flash further away from the kitten to balance the light hitting it.

Flash EV works by regulating the amount of light that the flash puts out. Instead of changing the shutter speed, the flash pushes more or less light onto the sensor during the same exposure. There are subtle differences between shutter EV and flash EV. Too much +Flash EV can give a harsher light to the picture. -FlashEV is usually used in sunlight to provide fill light that illuminates a person’s face.  In bright environments, cameras will often be fooled into underexposing faces because of the large amount of ambient light in the scene.  I don’t use flash EV most of the time. I prefer to manually change the flash value by using a remote flash and changing the angle that I hold the flash at. This combines EV compensation with an artistic element. By changing the angle of the flash, I can achieve more light contrast in the picture while also changing the amount of light that’s hitting the subject.

2007-05-26_292 2007-05-26_199

Left: Even though this looks like a dynamic scene, to a camera meter it’s relatively bland and easy to meter because the EV values of the different colors aren’t that far apart and don’t change the exposure very much.  Right:  I metered for the balloon and let the rest of the scene overexpose because I wanted to emphasize that part of the picture.

EV compensation is a useful tool for a photographer because it provides a quick, dynamic way to push exposure values while still retaining the electronic metering assistance that the camera meter provides. The alternative is to meter the scene, then change the manual settings on the camera to the exposure you want. Modern cameras have very sophisticated meters in them. Even though the particular scene you’re photographing may not be properly metered in certain circumstances, the internal camera meter will usually put you within a stop or two of the correct value. Using EV lets you keep the advantages of the camera meter while tailoring the resulting picture to your tastes.

Photographic Timing

GFS-Tigers16 Ground Rule Double

Photography is a medium that condenses an event into an instant. Choosing which instant to capture has a great deal to do with the message that the image will convey. In the psychology of photography, anticipation usually has more power than result. Take a batter at the plate as an example. If you snap the picture just before the ball reaches the batter, you preserve all the outcomes of the event. The batter may strike out, hit a home run, or something in between. All of those possibilities remain in the final image. Capturing the ball just as it passes the batter excludes everything but a strike.

2007-07-14_453 Lynne and Steve

Even though you take the picture with a certain image in mind, it’s the imagination of the viewer that you are trying to touch. Taking pictures is about putting your vision of the event on record, but it’s in the viewer’s imagination that the image takes on significance. The best pictures leave several interpretations open, so the viewer can take something from it without feeling forced or cajoled. It’s not important that the viewer see what you saw, just that something in the picture touches a memory or feeling in the viewer. A picture of a kiss has more power if there is a tiny bit of space between their lips, not when they are locked together. It also preserves the anticipation in your subjects to take the picture just before. If you watch two people kiss, their body language changes in subtle ways after their lips meet. There is a tension in their stance as they approach each other that becomes relaxed after their lips meet. It’s not something that you could consciously pick out of a still image, but it’s something that we all recognize subconsciously from our past experiences. Tension is a driving force in photography. It’s the distance between imagination and result that drives the image and makes it important to the viewer.

2007-05-19_388 2007-05-19_043

All photographic rules are relative, though, and meant to be broken. Presenting a result to the viewer can sometimes be just as powerful as an anticipatory picture in some cases. In that case, the subject, not the artistic composition, provides the meaning of the picture. If the subject is compelling enough, you don’t even have to get the settings right to get a good picture. Most journalistic pictures are result driven, showing the aftermath of an event rather than conveying anticipation. Those pictures rely on the internal image of “before” that the viewer has in their mind when you present them with the “after”.

2006-11-04_16 2006-09-15_094

The hardest part of photography is in the mind of the photographer. The image in your mind that you’re trying to capture isn’t necessarily the image that the viewer will take away after viewing it. As a photographer, you have to accept that, and not try to impose your vision on the viewer. That means leaving as many possibilities in your images as possible, so that each viewer can take something from it. It’s easy to understand the artistic impulse to portray a powerful image with no equivocation and no room for interpretation. It’s your vision, after all. The power of an image is in the sharing, though, so it’s usually best to leave some wiggle room for the viewer.

The Sweet Exposure

2007-11-25_044 2007-06-30_004

I usually take pictures in Aperture Priority mode, it’s what I’m comfortable with.  I like to control the depth of field in my pictures and let the camera take care of the shutter speed.  For each picture, there is a range of settings that will result in a good picture.  F5.6 at 1/120 shutter speed is the same exposure as F6.4 at 1/90 shutter speed.  The pictures look different because you’re taking in more light faster at the lower F stop.  Getting a sweet exposure, where the capture of light matches up with the exposure settings is a tricky thing.  The range of settings that give that natural lighting is narrower than the range for a good shot.  I usually can’t get the effect by pushing an exposure in an image editor after the fact, so I have to get it on site.  The colors and objects in the picture seem righter or realer to the eye than a documentary picture.  The caboose picture on the right is overexposed.  I was trying to make the red really pop.  I kind of like the effect, but it’s not what I think of as a sweet exposure.  The kittens on the left have that natural, indirect light that makes it a sweet exposure, but it’s not just indirect lighting that creates the effect.

2008-10-12_046 2008-10-12_024

When I was taking pictures at Lollypop, I always wanted to create documentary pictures for the website.  The pictures that are displayed in the adoption pages are small, so I felt it was important to shoot everything at +1EV, F11 and push towards overexposing the pictures.  I wanted to keep the pictures bright, and make it easier for the viewers to see the cats.  I relied on the flash to  put out a ton of light to cover my exposure choices.  I used my flash to manually change the exposures when I wanted to take a second shot for myself.  I use an SB-600 speedlight with an infrared link, so I can hold the flash in my left hand while taking pictures with my right.  Like the old timey photographers, angling the flash gives more or less light on the subject.  On the left is a regular picture I took for the adoption website.  On the right, I’m pointing the flash mostly at the volunteer’s back instead of the cat.  Even though the camera is set to +1EV, I’m muting the flash(0EV) by pointing it away from the subject.  Using a remote flash is the easiest way to change the exposure you get.  Once you’re comfortable with the way your camera will react to a given scene, you can leave the settings on the camera alone for the most part, and change the light with the flash.

044 Patching the Patches

Getting a sweet exposure without a flash is a little harder.  Now, you’re relying on your ability to change your settings or bracket to get the sweet exposure.  I don’t usually bracket unless I’m at a fixed location with a tripod.  It’s a shortcoming of mine that springs from laziness.  I’m working on it.  The image on the left is a good example of a miss.  It’s a hard picture to get the right exposure on.  There is a lot of contrast in the scene.  No matter what exposure I used, I had to accept that the sky would be blown out so I could get the pipes at the right exposure.  I came within a stop of getting the sweet exposure on the pipes.  My thought was to use center weighted metering, combining the values for the dark pipes, and the lighter wall, and let the sky overexpose.  What I should have done is use a spot meter on the pipes, and push the EV -1.  It’s pretty close to what I did, but the camera is doing different things to get there.  In center weighted mode, the camera is using the pipes for 80% of the exposure value, and wall/pipes for 20% of the exposure value.  The value that the camera came up with was weighted towards the wall, and I underexposed this image by almost a full stop.  With a spot meter, the camera would only be using the pipes to calculate the exposure value, and I could make adjustments for the wall using my EV dial.  On the right is an example of a sweet exposure.  To me, the holes in the door are realer somehow, and the colors seem more natural.  This is a flat, low contrast scene, so the exposure is easier.  Center weighting with the spot covering a rust patch lowered the exposure enough to get it into the smaller range of really good exposures.  Another way to get there would be to spot meter the blue door, and adjust +EV a half stop or so to cover the rust.

Road From Canandaigua

There were way too many cool things to photograph at the Canandaigua Historic Car Show.  I couldn’t fit it all into one post.  Canandaigua is a great town on the North end of Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes.  It’s a town of details that are usually missing in bigger towns.  The stores are (mostly) local businesses.  With the car show in town, those details had details.

I usually only see classic cars in passing.  I get a few seconds to admire them before they’re gone.  Saturday, I got to see all the little things that make these cars so interesting.  I suppose it’s the little things more than the passing admiration that keeps a restorer interested.


I like the details of my hobby, too.  I’m interested in the technical part of photography.   Photography relies in equal parts on art and science to work.  Science in the sense that we use an instrument to measure the world around us.  How well you operate the camera has a lot to do with the quality of the results.  I have an annoying habit of rolling the selector in the wrong direction when I’m changing my meter from center weighted to spot.  I should know better by now, but I still do it every time.  That’s a flaw in my photographic technique.  I don’t mind so much.  I figure it has some unknown psychological cause.

Being artistic, that’s more difficult.  It has to do with angles and the nature of light.  You can only rely on the basics of color psychology, Culturally familiar shapes and lines, and improvisation.  Notice any of those traits in this post?


Blur and Motion Shots

Blurry shots are usually discards when I’m going through my pictures.  On occasion, though, I intentionally blur pictures to enhance an effect.  Usually, I’m trying to add a sense of motion to a picture.  It’s not hard to do, and it’s a great shot to have in your arsenal.

Essentially, you have to keep a moving subject in the same part of the frame throughout a long exposure.  The better you follow with your camera, the clearer the subject will be.  To start, set your camera to a slower shutter speed.  Get off Auto, you addicts!  Try 1/30 or 1/15th of a second to start. On a bright day, 1/125th may be a long shutter speed.

In the two pictures above, the motion is from right to left.  I’m facing a little to the left of frame, twisting to take the picture.  That way, as I take the picture, my body straightens out in time with the movement of the car or horse.

The hardest part of taking these pictures is precisely following while the mirror blocks your viewfinder and you can’t see.   What I do is put one of my focus points on a small part of the subject and follow it for a little bit before I take the picture.  That way, I have the tracking speed before I push the shutter release.  In the Citroen picture, I focused on the racing number.   The longer your shutter speed is, the more drift you’ll wind up with.  That adds blur to your subject. which you don’t want.

Good Shooting

EDIT 10-18-11: I also have blur and motion shots from the Rochester Twilight Criterium, a terrific, urban bicycle race that’s on hiatus due to the economy.  I hope they bring it back soon, it was some of the most exciting photography I’ve ever done.