Monday, August 30, 2010

Focal Length, Stay Focused!

In this blog I will discuss the subject of focal length. Before you start thinking that this can’t apply to you because you don’t have a fancy professional DSLR camera, let me assure you that any camera with a zoom feature can take advantage this phenomenon (sorry cell phone camera users, and those with only a digital zoom).

What is focal length?
For those who have trouble sleeping, here’s the technical definition (otherwise skip to the next section):
The focal length of an optical system is a measure of how strongly the system converges (focuses) or diverges (defocuses) light. For an optical system in air, it is the distance over which initially collimated rays are brought to a focus. A system with a shorter focal length has greater optical power than one with a long focal length; that is, it bends the rays more strongly, bringing them to a focus in a shorter distance.

To put it simply, focal length is the amount of distance it takes the lens to focus light into an image.

Why care about this?
If the image is in focus, shouldn’t that be all that matters?
If you understand the effects different focal lengths have on an image, you will yield better control of how your images appear, giving you more control of the final photograph, and more control means more artistic freedom and expression.

Practical Use:
A longer focal length will compress the background and foreground, decreasing the perception of distance and scale.

Another effect of using a longer focal length is reduced viewing angle (opposite of wide angle). The amount of visible space surrounding the subject is decreased. If there are objects near the edge of the frame that detract from the composition, using a longer focal length will push them out of frame, reducing the need to correct in post.

On the other side of the coin, sometimes you want to capture as much area as possible, or demonstrate the perception of distance. In this instance, using a shortest possible focal length is required. Using a very short focal length creates a ‘wide angle’ effect.

How to use focal length on any camera, even a simple point and shoot:
It’s so easy, it should be a crime. To obtain a longer focal length, simply take several steps back, and use your camera’s zoom. The more you zoom in, the longer the focal length. If you require a wide angle and(or) the perception of distance, set zoom at zero, and get up close to your subject.

Experimenting with different aperture settings (focal plane of distance) in conjunction with focal length can yield vastly different results, and open up some creative doors.

An experiment you can try for yourself.
See if you can generate an example like the one I have provided below.

I used three small plants and a piece of 3'x3' white foam core board for this example. I placed the plants about 18" apart, and slightly off axis, with the foam core board about 2' behind the last plant.
The above image was shot with no zoom. The
short focal length generates a "Wide Angle" effect.
Here is the first shot. The camera is about 1' away from the plant in front (left), the zoom is set to zero. In this image, the distance between the front, center, and back plant is very obvious. The foam core board seems drastically undersized to be effective as a back drop. With the zoom set at zero, you can see a "Wide Angle" effect, with much of the surroundings in the frame.

While there are many situations where this prospective would be very desirable, for this situation, I think it's safe to say, it is not.

This photo was shot by taking several steps back,
applying a generous amount of zoom.

Believe it or not, the plants were NOT moved for this shot, nor was the foam core board. The setup was untouched. I moved the camera back about 15 feet, and zoomed in (about 14x zoom). The zoom increased the focal length, generating a very different image.

Notice how the plants appear almost next to each other, and the foam core board fills the entire background. In this instance, taking several steps back and using the zoom generated a much nicer image.

Things To Consider:
  • If you want the whole image to appear in focus, set the aperture at it's highest setting (usually f8 on point and shoot cameras, however f22 is common on DSLR lenses).
  • Because of the limited aperture range in most point and shoot cameras, your results may vary. Objects in the foreground, and (or) the background may appear slightly out of focus.
  • Often, having a background that is out of focus, while the subject it in perfect focus, is very appealing so experiment by dropping the aperture to it's lowest settings!
  • You may need a tripod to avoid movement when using zoom at close range. keep an extra one in the trunk of your car!
  • Because you are moving away from the subject, the camera's flash may be ineffective in low light situations. A tripod, longer shutter, and (or) higher ISO setting can give you a perfect exposer (Yes, these settings are adjustable on most point and shoot cameras)
  • Try using the timer to avoid touching the camera, to avoid shaking and vibrations when zoomed in (tripod).
To see some additional tips visit my other post:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Curves aren't just attractive on woman. Photograph Composition Technique

In this post I'll be discussing a photograph compositional technique involving curves (otherwise known as arch). Just like my last post where I discussed the "rule of thirds", this compositional concept is based on how the human eye naturally scans an image. Unlike the rule of thirds, the "Arch" or "Curve" creates direction, and leads the eye in a particular direction.

(Taken at Sunset Cliffs San Diego, CA)

Here is a good example of an image with a nice curve in it. Take a second to look at it. Where do your eyes go? Do your eyes follow the curve? How about the shore line?

Now lets see how this image was composed. I have added the rule of thirds grid, and traced the curve. Notice how the curve avoids the center. Also, notice how the shore line and the top of the cliff are aligned using the rule of thirds. the curve brings your eye round the image.

(Taken at Sunset Cliffs, San Diego, CA)

Since it was a great day when I shot these photos, I managed to capture another example.

In this example you can also see that the curve avoids the center grid. Also, notice how the curve almost intersects with the intersection lines of the grid. This is not a steadfast rule, but in this example, it works.

The most pleasing, and hardest to find curve is the coveted "S-Curve". Learning to identify, and photograph these curves is a challenge for any photographer.

(Taken in Hawaii by Crystal)

Here's a great example of an image containing an S-Curve. Can you see the curve? Would you be able to notice this curve before looking through the viewfinder?

I hope these examples help unlock the creative photographer in you!

To see more of my tips, visit my other blog entries:

Great product photos using the camera you already have.
Grain and ISO.
Shutter speed, shutter WHAT?
Aperture, and the size of your hole.
Rule of Thirds (sometimes).

My Artfire page:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

One Rule You Need To Know Before Breaking!

While I prefer not too think about composition “Rules” when I shoot, knowing the basics is important. Today I will cover one of the most basic compositional techniques, known as the Rule Of Thirds.

Rule of what?
Basically, the rules of thirds is based on how your eye naturally scans an image. History has shown that there are areas of an image the human eye is drawn to naturally, so placing a point of interest in these areas can make your photographs more compelling.
Draw a grid over your image, dividing it in to 9 equal parts, 3 equal parts vertically, and 3 equal parts horizontally. The area where the horizontal lines cross the vertical lines are areas the human eye is naturally drawn to, so the rule of thirds suggest that a focal point of your image be located at one of these intersections.
When photographing a landscape horizon, align the top grid line to the horizon to highlight the foreground, like this image above.When photographing a landscape horizon, use the bottom grid line to line up the horizon to make the sky the focal point.

Quick Tip:
Some cameras will display the rule of thirds grid right on the LCD screen so that the photographer can line up their shot, relying less on cropping in post editing.

Rule of Not Thirds?
One variation to this rule involves the application of the “Golden Ratio”. Instead of dividing the image into 9 equal parts when making the grid, a ratio of 1.61:1 is used to divide the image and choose the focal point. The concept of the “Golden Ratio” is far too extensive to discuss in this blog but more information can be found here.
In this image, the grid is created using the "Golden Ratio". Notice the grid lines are slightly closer to center.Here is example of an image that was cropped to match the grid. This grid was also created using the "Golden Ratio".

As I’ve said before, the first thing one should do after learning an established method, is to forget it completely. Many times while I’m shooting, I ignore this technique, and let my eyes find my composition. I am surprised during post editing, when I find that I am following the Rule Of thirds without even knowing it.

For more information, tips, tricks, and techniques, visit some of my other blogs.
Examples of my work are available for sale at:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ever Wonder Why Most Artist Are Starving?

Washington Post social experiment
A Violinist in the Metro

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

*Note from Eric (blog owner): Several years ago a record lable rep. gave me an arm full of CDs to listen to. Most of the music they were promoting could be considered crap, but mixed in the stack was a single CD of a performance By Joshua Bell. When I got home and played it, my love for music became obvious to me again. Not only was the perfromance insperational, but the recording was first rate. My sound system came to life.

When one is exposed to thousands apon thousands of artist, only the truly bright stand out, and this was one of them.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Your background Is Blurry For A Reason.

In my previous blogs I discussed ISO, and shutter speed. This week, I will explain Aperture and how to apply this concept to your photography.

Just as the human eye can change the size of it’s pupil in different lighting, your camera can change it’s own pupil. Inside many nicer pro-soumer, and every SLR camera (Lens) is an adjustable pupil. The sizes of the opening, allowing light to enter the camera when the shutter is open is known as Aperture. Aperture is adjusted to alter the amount of light allowed to enter the camera. Just like shutter speed, and ISO, Aperture can be used to obtain a perfectly exposed image. But, unique to this adjustment, Aperture also impacts the depth of field of the image you are shooting.

How to apply Aperture?
Aperture is referred to as “F-Stop”. The lower the F-Stop number, the wider the Aperture size, the higher the “F-Stop” number, the smaller the aperture size, or opening. As mentioned above, Aperture has two effects. The first and more obvious, is exposure. Using a wide open aperture in low light will help you maintain a lower ISO, and faster shutter speed. In bright conditions, you can also open the aperture to use extremely fast shutter speeds to capture fast action shots with minimal of blur. (Note: Using the lowest F-Stop is referred to as “Wide open”).

So why would you ever want to increase F-Stop?
The answer to this involves Depth of field. Depth of field (DOF) is the portion of a scene that appears sharp over the plane of distance. While a larger aperture (Low F-Stop) will allow more light to expose the image, it will reduce the Depth of field of the image you are capturing. A Higher F-Stop (smaller Aperture), reduces the volume of light, but increases the dept of field allowing more of the foreground and background to appear sharp.

A landscape image would benefit more if the entire image appears sharp no matter the distance from the lens. For this reason a high F-Stop is required. Many photographers use a tripod when shooting a landscape even though daylight usually permits a relatively fast shutter. Because, they are using a very high F-Stop, and low ISO, a longer shutter is required, even in daylight.
(This plant is only a few inches tall yet the top of the plant is out of focus while the bottom is in perfect focus. The low depth of field is caused by the Aperture (F-Stop) being set very low, or "Wide Open")


In many close-up images, the photographer prefers that the subject be in perfect focus while the background is blurry. This helps prevent the background from distracting the viewers, and keeps attention on the subject. To achieve this, a low aperture is required. Since a low F-Stop, also permits a faster shutter, many nature photographs are shot in this fashion.

Just as in ISO, and shutter speed, many cameras have an “Aperture mode” that allows you to set the Aperture manually, while the camera will adjust the ISO and shutter speed automatically to obtain a well exposed image. Just turn that dial to the “A” to select this mode.

About the images shown: All the these images were shot close up "Wide Open". The plants were only a few inches in size. Notice that even though there is small difference in distance, in some cases approximately only an inch, portions of the image are out of focus. All images were shot with relatively fast shutter, in day light with an ISO of 80.

Please feel free to comment. If you have any tips or insight on Aperture, also, feel free to share!

For more information, tips, tricks, and techniques, visit some of my other blogs.
Examples of my work are available for sale at:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

If Dinosaurs became Birds, Geese must have evolved from the Velociraptor.

Yesterday Crystal and I decided to visit the lake. Maybe I could get a few new photographs. I grab the left over stale French bread, cut it into small squares so I would have something to feed the ducks, and off we went.

I found myself a nice shady spot on the Shore, set up my tripod, legs collapsed to make a mini tripod that I could operate while sitting. I started to fling the bread into the water to attract the local wild life.With in a few minutes I hear the noisy racket of 4 very large geese as they crossed the lake towards the very spot were I sat. Then I hear a man whistling off in the distance behind me, and I realized that the geese were making their way towards him.
My first thought was “Great, there goes my shots, until this guy runs out of food”. To my surprise, the man, after noticing my attempt to photograph, walked up to me and handed me a whole head of lettuce. Lettuce?, I thought to myself. Ducks and geese eat plain old lettuce? I quickly found out that not only do they eat lettuce, they go crazy for it. I thanked Rick for giving me the lettuce, and offered to email him a copy of any of the photos, if any were good, but sadly, he did not have email. He wished me luck as he walked back towards the parking area. When I turned around from waving him off, I came face to face with four hungry monsters, as they circled around me, eying me face to face.

I began tearing off pieces of the lettuce and distributing them, and they just became more anxious. I felt a poke on my back from one goose, while I was busy handing out food to another. One of them kept poking his beak on my knee. All of a sudden, It dawned on me that I was, in no way, in control here. These birds are fearless when it comes to lettuce.

Every now and then I would place the head of lettuce on my lap to adjust the camera, and the two birds flanking my right and left side would attempt to make a move, un-phased by my waving hands. They would have their lettuce………….and they knew it.

For the next half hour I fed the monsters, and tried to photograph them, Then, all of a sudden, as if a whistle blew, they all started walking past me, up the bank, towards Crystal, who was sitting quietly on the nearby park bench. They start to stare her down, making loud noises, and within a few minutes, made their way to a patch of grass, as the sun began setting. One lone black goose remained, and accepted the last of the lettuce.

Since the sun was setting, I made my way to another area of the lake, to photograph the sun setting behind the hill, across the lake. With my tripod, and the addition of my polarizing filter, I began to snap away. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen in a while. The water could have been made of gold.

Like most photographers, it’s incredibly difficult to walk away from a beautiful site. It was now 8:05pm, 5 minutes after park closing time, and Crystal was getting anxious, as she didn’t want them to lock the gates, with my car still there. At 8:30, we drove off for the exit, my car approached a locked gate. Needless to say, I found a way to get my car out of that parking lot. In the end, it was more then worth it.

For more information, tips, tricks, and techniques, visit some of my other blogs.
Examples of my work are available for sale at:

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What Makes Fireworks Special?

I can gauge my progress in photography by simply reviewing the fireworks photographs I take every year. While Independence day provides a great opportunity to shoot, you only get one chance a year, and only minutes at that.

(Taken at lake Murry La Mesa, CA 2009)

Of course, after the grand finale, on the drive to Denny's, all of the things I "Should" have done start to creep up in my mind. This time, in a brilliant flash (like fire works) it dawned on me that I should have used more then one camera.

(Taken at lake Murry, La Mesa, CA 2009)

Digital cameras require processing time when using a long shutter, so a 10 second shutter becomes 20 seconds down time. A second camera could have been used to capture, while the first one was processing the image. I think to myself, BRILLIANT! Sadly, I have 364 days before I can try this idea.

(Taken at lake Murry, la Mesa CA 2009)

This year, I have a newer tool that I feel no photographer should be without. My GPS once again proved it's usefulness, allowing us to leave the house only 30 minutes before the fireworks started, and find a great location. In addition, we had the freedom to take the road less traveled to get home (to avoid the traffic) with no fear of getting lost. GPS gives me the freedom to explore unfamiliar territory, with no fear of losing direction or getting lost. Being able to see the lake on the screen, and knowing I'm only a few yards away made life easier. It was a very nice bonus to view my photos at the Denny's on the GPS's five inch screen.
(While this may appear to be a couple of flowers at first, a closer inspection reveales the subjects as fire works. Taken at Lake Murry, La Mesa, CA 2009)

One should not discount the meaning of Independence day, and how it directly applies to the art and profession of photography. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the Freedom of speech, and that cannot be appreciated enough, as a picture is worth a thousand words (Fred R. Barnard). Thankfully, we are free to express those thousand words, and a million more.
(Notice how the blue lines cross to make a sort of grid)
(Taken at Lake Murry, La Mesa CA 2009)

I hope Independence day was enjoyed by all this year, despite the many current challenges we have faced over this last year.


About the images shown: These photographs were all taken July fourth, 2009. ISO 80, shutter speeds varied from 8 to 15 (8"-15") seconds, Aperture F8.0. Auto focus was disabled to save time, manual focus was set to infinity. A circular polarizing filter was used. And, of course, a tripod (from the trunk of my car).

For more information, tips, tricks, and techniques, visit some of my other blogs.
Examples of my work are available for sale at: