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5 Ways To Ruin a Picture (V)

Self Portrait in Ottawa

A lot of you have been asking me questions about photography and how to achieve certain effects. While I’m by no means an expert, I’m an avid photographer and I had to chance to experiment a lot. I’m also always a teacher at heart and yes, I like talking about photography, because I’m sure I can give you some tips and learn from you as well.

So I decided to start the Saturday Series again, this time with a focus on photography. A new “lesson” will be published every Saturday, for a total or ten posts. Enjoy the “Ten Photography Tips“!

When I got into photography, very little made me happy. Basically, as long as you could recognize what was portrayed, I was fine. Blurry? Meh. You can kind of see people’s faces, right? Oh, and this tiny black spot in the foreground —yes, that’s the beautiful insect I was telling you about! Look at this building… why would I straighten it? You can tilt your head, right?

Long gone are those days. Now, I take hundreds of pictures each month and maybe only 70% make it through my very own quality control parameters. I realized that if I wanted to improve my skills, I had to be hard on myself. Sure, I keep some not-so-great shots because they mean something to me. But I worked hard at eliminating my five pet peeves: camera shake, lack of focus, crooked shots, wrong colors and bad composition.

I looked into my archives and I found this picture, one of the first I took with the Kodak EasyShare, my first digital camera. This is one of my worse pictures and it illustrates the point.

Worst picture ever! What was I thinking...??

The idea was to capture the ice on the glass panel of the bus stop. First, I fired the flash and it reflected on the glass, you can see the two bursts of light. Second, because I use the “night” setting, the shutter was slow. I didn’t have a tripod so you can see camera shake, i.e. the picture is blurry. You also have no idea what I was trying to capture: I’m too far for a snow flack macro, but too close to show the whole glass panel covered in ice. And finally, the colors are way too yellowish. Phew.

Camera shake — Some blur, such as motion blur, can be artistic and convey a meaning: for instance, this tube train in London, or this kid drumming. But pure camera shake can ruin a picture. So don’t forget to keep your camera steady, especially when taking pictures in low-light conditions.

Lack of focus — I’ve been guilty of that one so many times, and didn’t even realize it. What should be the center of your picture is lost in the frame. See this cute little critter for instance? I should have come closer and fill the frame because when you see the picture, you don’t know where to look. See the difference with this Brazilian butterfly, which is clearly at the center of focus? Now that I have a DSLR, I can play with depth of field to single out something and throw the rest out of focus. For instance, this flower at the Tulip Festival, these little soldiers, a bee gathering pollen, the 9/11 commemorations or even laundry day.

Crooked shots — Once again, guilty as charged… Lens distortion is a combination of different factors and almost every lens has it. Normally you don’t notice it, unless your picture has straight horizontal or vertical lines, such as a building, a doorway, or even a product box. See this picture of Notre-Dame for instance? Sometimes, it adds to the picture: I like this perspective of the Eiffel Tower for example. But really, taking a few second to make sure the horizon is straight dramatically improves pictures and it took me a while to pay attention to that detail.

Wrong colors —If your exposure is too long, your picture will be overexposed (too bright). If your exposure is too short, it will be underexposed (too dark). Using natural light is almost always the best. Note that contrary to popular belief, the sun can actually ruins a picture: sometimes, the colors will look best under a cloudy sky, because the clouds are like a filter.

Plainness — Finally, something that can’t be fixed in Photoshop: plainness. When I look back at some of my pictures, I’m wondering what the hell I was thinking. Look at this picture I took a few years ago at the Tulip Festival: it screams “hey, I was there, by the flowers, and look, there are tons of them!”. But really, this shot is plain and boring. I like this one much better: it has more focus. Same here: which one looks the most appetizing, these pastries or these ones? As for this one… I don’t even know what I was trying to take. I’m looking at it now and falling asleep—that boring.

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