Getting Fit For Photography

That’s right, I’m writing a fitness article in my photography blog.  Why?  The nice way to say it, is that we could all benefit from being in shape to chase after our kids and pets while snapping away with our camera.  The brutal truth is, we’re a country full of fat (I could say “over weight,” but fat is so much easier to type) people.  Some of us are a little fat, and some are more, but most all of us could stand to lose some weight.   I’m not an advocate for skinny people, but none of us need to be carrying around an extra 30 to 100 or more pounds.  It’s not my intent to offend, so if I have not yet upset you, read on and give me a few more opportunities.  I’m writing this because I was 50 pounds over-weight 2 years ago and decided I want to be around for my grand-kids.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t take 2 years to lose 50 pounds.  That’s just where/when I started.  I lost 30 pounds in the first 3 months while eating everything I wanted to eat.  Instead of gaining the weight right back, like you do on any diet, I continued to lose another 20 pounds over the next 4 to 5 months (still eating everything I wanted).  Then my body hit 175 to 180 (a normal weight for a 6′ 1″ male), and stayed there.

According to the CDC, more than one third of U.S. adults are obese (still more letters than “fat,” but that’s what the CDC calls it).  Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.  The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.  That’s a lot of dough!

So, how do you know if you’re fat?  Ask your spouse…not really, it’s in their best interest to lie.  It’s determined by your Body Mass Index, or BMI for short.  You can go here to find yours.  If your BMI is 25 to 29, you’re chubby.  Over 30, it’s official…you’re fat.

There might be a number of reasons that we gain weight.  There’s the official ones…a “thyroid problem”, or “my family has big bones.”  The thyroid thing might be true for maybe 1/10th of a percent of the population, but if you’re like me, the truth is, we have horrible eating habits and don’t get nearly enough exercise.  Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be about getting you on a diet.  Food deprivation never works.  You might lose a few pounds like that, but then you binge (from being deprived) and gain it all right back…then you quit.  This also is not about joining a gym and and trying to find an hour a day, seven days a week to lift weights and join a spin class.

Some of you might be thinking, “Well, Grey Darrah, where did you study fitness and nutrition?  Why should I listen to you?”  Here are my qualifications…I’m not a doctor, physical therapist, nutritionist, or even a professional trainer, but I have a brain.  That’s really all that’s required to know that if you eat too much and exercise too little, you’re going to gain weight.  The solution is just as simple as the problem.  I’m about to sum up (in 4 words) every book ever written about dieting and exercise…hundreds of books…thousands of pages and thousands of dollars.  I’m going to eliminate the need for every piece of exercise equipment you’ve seen advertised and forever rid you the need of a gym membership.  No pills, no drugs, no diets.  Ready?  Here it goes…


I know it sounds simple, but that’s really all you need to do to lose weight (all that you want to lose), stay healthy, and enjoy food.

First, let’s talk about the eating part.  So you know that I’m not a diet nut, here are some of the things I eat on a regular basis:

  • Ice Cream (with heavy whipping cream poured over it)
  • Chocolate
  • Red Meat (burgers, steaks)
  • Fried Chicken
  • Fried Fish
  • French Fries
  • Blueberry Muffins
  • Cake
  • Fudge
  • Cookies

I could go on and on, but basically, I eat anything I want.  That doesn’t mean this is all I eat, but I enjoy plenty.  I confess to having changed some of my eating habits.  I’ve cut back on the amount of sugar I consume.  Notice I didn’t say I cut out sugar…I just cut back.  What does that mean?  First, I pay attention to what I drink.  I got rid of most sugary drinks, including sodas, fruit juices and coffee sweeteners.  It’s amazing how much sugar we consume in liquid form.  Now I drink a lot of water.  Not as exciting, but the fact is, there’s nothing you can drink that’s better for you.  I’ve also reduced my portions a little.  Instead of a giant bowl of ice cream, I dish out a little less.  Instead of eating a candy bar, I eat a few Hershey kisses, or a granola bar, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Both peanut butter and jelly have way less sugar than other sweets, but taste good and satisfy your sweet tooth.  I also eat a lot of fruit.  It taste good, it’s good for you, and it does a great job of filling you up.  The biggest thing to take away from this, is that you don’t need to give anything up, just have a little less of it.

Now for the running part.  Before I get started, notice that I did not say walking.  You’ve got to run.  Walking is what doctors recommend because we have become so lazy, it’s the most they feel we can be persuaded to do.  The problem with walking is that it doesn’t work.  Want to question that?  Just think about the people you see walking in your neighborhood or near your office.  You’ve been seeing the same ones walking month after month and they look exactly the same as they did 6 months ago.  It might be better that sitting at home, but it’s such a minimal form of exercise, it’s not going to change your weight situation.  Let’s sum it up like this…if you can smoke a cigarette and eat an ice cream cone while doing something, it’s NOT exercise!

If you’re not a runner, then I’m guessing that the idea of running is not something that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  We’ve all done it before, probably in high school PE, and it most likely brings back unpleasant memories.  But the fact is, there is no other form of exercise that minute for minute, burns as many calories as running.  It’s also the easiest form of exercise a person can do.  Simple is good!  Complications make it too easy to quit.  Here’s how simple running is…put on running shoes, walk out your front door, run for 15 minutes in any direction you want, turn around and run back home.  That’s it.  The distance and speed (pace) that you run is irrelevant for now…just put in the time.  Run 30 minutes a day, 5 or six days per week (I like to run for 3 days in a row, then take one day off and repeat).  You don’t need to drive to a special running trail/track, that’s a complication (which makes it easy to quit).  You don’t need a trainer, or special equipment.  Walk out the door, run 15 minutes, then run back home.  Then eat whatever you want.  It can’t get more simple than that!  You don’t even need to learn any special running techniques.  You know how to run.  As Nike says, “Just do it.”  Will it be fun?  Probably not at first.  But as time goes on, the weight falls off (quickly), and you enjoy eating whatever you want to eat, you’ll find yourself liking it more and more.  In the beginning, you’re going to be sore.  Muscles will ache,  your knees hips and feet might hurt some, but it goes away…just keep running.  If you need to, run slower, take shorter steps, don’t lift your feet as high (kind of gliding along), do whatever you need to do, but keep running.  The pains go away, and so do the pounds.  Of course, if you’re experiencing severe pains, go see your doctor (I have to say stuff like that so you can’t pretend to be hurt and sue me).

The truth is, getting started running sucks.  In the  first 5 or 10 minutes, you can barely breathe and your legs hurt so bad, you’re certain that death is only a few seconds away.  But a few minutes later, still alive, you’re halfway finished, you turn around, head home, and already you’re feeling better…Woo Hoo!  The first couple of weeks are the hardest, but it gets better everyday and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the extra pounds falls off, even though you’re NOT dieting.  This is the biggest reward, although every day when your finish your run, you will feel fantastic!  It’s what they call the “runners high.”  Unfortunately, you have to suffer through the run to achieve it.

If you really want to find out how much you hate running, jump on the treadmill.  It has to be the most boring exercise device every created.  It can sound like a good idea…watching TV while running in a climate controlled room.  But it’s a trick.  The workout is not nearly as effective as running down the road and it’s far too easy to quit.  Despite the weather, get outside and enjoy the world.  See the trees, the city, your neighborhood, dogs pooping…anything is better than staring at a wall.  The only thing a treadmill is good for, is hanging a jacket on the hand rails.

Before you start coming up with some reasons (excuses) as to why you can’t do this, let’s address the most common:

Running is not bad for your knees.

Not only is running not bad for your knees, it actually stimulates cartilage growth, it increases bone density and reduces the incidence of arthritis in the knees.  If you want to do your own research, you can start here.  The number one cause of knee problems in the United States isn’t running, it’s obesity.  Will your knees hurt, maybe, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t run.  As your body sheds weight and becomes acclimated to the exercise, it gets better, just don’t quit.  In addition to being good for your bones and joints, running is good for lowering cholesterol, increasing lung function, boosting immunity, lowering the risk of certain types of cancer, lowering the risk of a heart attack, losing weight, relieving stress, eliminating depression, and prolonging life.

Before some of you get offended and start emailing me from high atop your soap-box (I don’t read past the first line of those emails anyway), I’m NOT promoting skinnyism.  If you’re overweight and love it, then, although I can’t imagine why you’ve read this in the first place, stay that way.  We all have the right to be the person we want to be.  But, if you’re tired of it…RUN.

So here’s the summary:

If you’re overweight and or in poor physical condition, eat less and run more.  Keep it simple.  Walk out your front door, run for 15 minutes, turn around and run home.  If you’re at a busy place in your life, get up 30 minutes earlier and make it happen.  Don’t worry about stretching or warming up (more relevant for longer distances at much faster paces), just walk out the door and run.  If you’re sore or tired, don’t stop, don’t walk, just run slower, but get your 30 minutes in.  Fire up those saggy butt cheeks and let them push you to feeling better.  Don’t wait for New Years or your birthday to get started, walk away from this screen right now, get out the door and run!  You’ll feel better, weigh less and be able to eat and enjoy all the things that normally make you feel guilty.  Plus…for the girls, there are a ton of really cute outfits!

Before I go, let me give you one last piece of information.  I’ve been running for three years now, so I can affirm something that all runners know…the first mile of every single run you do sucks.  It hurts the most and makes you constantly question why you’re doing this, as well as consider quitting more seriously with every step.  Don’t do it, don’t give in!  As your body loosens up and the endorphins start to flow, you feel better.  If nothing else, the weight you’re going to lose, combined with the great food you’re going to be able to eat are a great enough reward to suffer for a measly 30 minute a day.  I’m telling you this because it’s easier to deal with these negative feelings if you know what to expect.

If you’d like to know a little more about why we runners run, along with some comic relief, check out this site.

When Should You Use Your On-Board Flash?

Never!  Just in case that needs a little more explanation, Never, Ever!  It doesn’t matter if your using a cell phone camera, or a $5,000 DSLR, if you use the flash that’s on the camera, your picture will look like crap. If you’re close enough to a subject to actually use your flash (they typically work out to about 6 to 12 feet, so it always cracks me up when I see them going off in the bleachers of a stadium) then you flood them, straight on, with a ton of white light.  It’s a horribly lit, horribly flat shot.  The “flat” part means that it has no perception of depth, which is created by having some shadows.  This is why any time you’re photographed in a studio, you’ll notice that the photographer typically has a light set off at an angle to your face.  This creates a subtle shadow that gives us the perception of depth…letting our minds interpret the photograph into a 3 dimensional image of the captured subject.

The only thing your on-board flash is good for, is proving that a picture of someone was taken.  For example, if you decide to become a kidnapper, it would be perfect for taking a picture of your kidnap-ee holding up a newspaper to prove that you have them.  I guess you could also use it for taking mug-shots at the police station.  That’s it…it’s good for nothing else.  OK, maybe if you become a spy, it works well for photographing documents.  Notice how nothing it’s appropriate for is related to taking pictures you would want your friends to see.

So how, you might ask, can you take pictures indoors or under low light situations?  A semi-complicated solution is to buy an external flash unit, commonly referred to as a “speed light.”  You can set this up on a small light stand, off to the side of your camera, and fire it remotely to get away from that “flat” look.  The problems with this is that it adds $$$’s to your set up, extra gear to carry around, and a greater technical understanding that most people aren’t interested in.

Depending upon your camera, the best way to handle low light is to increase your ISO setting, increasing the cameras sensitivity to light.  Most cameras allow you to manually adjust your ISO.  Where a “normal” ISO setting would fall in the range of 100 to 400, many cameras can go as high as 3200, 6400, and even higher.  At these highest settings, you may start to see some noise in your images (also known as a “grainy” look), but that depends on the camera.  Some can go well above 3200 and show little to no noise.  Even with the “potential” noise, it may be worth it to get an overall better image that doesn’t resemble a mug shot.

So don’t wait until you need to get a low light shot to try this out…grab your camera, adjust the ISO higher (way higher), and take a few shots!

Let’s Get Out In That Snow And Shoot!

Put on something warm, get out in this weather and take some pictures!  Our little ones are no longer little, so it’s Heidi to the rescue for us.  I shot this with my CoolPix at f3.5 in macro focus mode to soften (blur) the background.  I sent it over to my phone and spent about 30 seconds editing it a little with Snapseed.  It was taken at a shutter speed of 1/50th (using Aperture Priority Mode to control the f-stop), so you can see the streaks left by the falling snow.  Heidi wasn’t really cold, but the scarf adds a nice splash of color.

 Here’s one more…



When It’s Time To Hire A Professional, Hire A Professional!

This site is all about teaching you how to take better photographs on your own, but there are times when you need a professional to create something special…that canvas wall portrait of the family, the children, or best of all, individual portraits (easier to pass down in the years to come, as our children become parents).  The reprint of the article below is a great example of why you don’t want to hire your sister’s best friend, that just bought a new camera and declared herself a photographer, to do the job.  I know it’s hard to pass up that great deal of 500 images on a CD for $75, but you get exactly what you pay for!  Way too many out of focus, poorly exposed images, and a bad experience for you and your children.  Read through the tips here, and I promise you’ll be taking better shots yourself – for free!  When it’s time for that serious portrait, hire a professional that really knows what they are doing.

A Slide Toward Mediocrity (reprinted from PPA Magazine December 2013 by Kalen Henderson)

It was only a matter of time.  A former customer called me the other day for some advice.  She had opted to have her annual family portrait taken by “a friend who has a nice camera and really wants to be a photographer.”

“You should see her work,” the client said.  “Her Facebook page is absolutely beautiful.  Her pictures are amazing.”

“Then what’s the problem?” I queried.  “When I took the disc she gave me to Walmart to have prints made, the photographs came back all blurry, not like they looked on Facebook, “ she said.  “I figure it’s a problem with Walmart’s printing and was hoping you could make the prints for me.”

Swallowing the temptation to say, “I told you so,” I agreed to take on the printing.  She mailed me the disc, and I slipped it into my computer drive.  Opening the images, I noted that the resolution was incredibly low on every one.

“I’m sorry, but the settings on the camera determine whether or not an image will look good as a print, and these can’t be printed much larger than a postage stamp, “ I explained.

“But she has so many “likes” on Facebook,” she said, exasperation in her voice.  “I just don’t understand.”

I sympathized with her for a few days before the larger context hit me.  We’re seeing a generation of hobbyists who want to be photographers and are gauging the quality of their work by the number of “likes” they receive on a social network.  They’re not necessarily interested in putting in the work required to get their prints hanging on clients’ walls or earning PPA (Professional Photographers of America) merits for image excellence.  They concentrate on conquering Instagram rather than the CPP (Certified Professional Photographer) exam.

Fun With Cupid

Cupid Image

We decided to have a little Valentine’s Day fun and ordered this Cupid set-up from  Here again, anytime you’re dealing with a small child (6 months in this case), remember to get down low to compose your shot.  I was lying on my stomach for this one.  I shot this in our studio, but you could also create a great shot like this at home in front of a window (preferably a large one).  Try setting your child up on a table (with a helper to make sure no one accidentally falls off the table…that really ruins the photographic mood for most kids) to get them centered in the window, and throw a clean sheet or two over the table to soften the image.  It’s best done in a well lit room, but you might try opening the front door to let more light in.  If you can get the table set up about 10 or 12 feet away from the window in the background, and use a wide open f stop (like f2.8 or 3.5), you’ll get a soft, beautiful blur behind your cupid.  Remember to try raising your ISO (to 2000 or more if available) to deal with having less available light.  That should help get your f stop as low as possible.

Shutter Priority Mode – Freezing Moving Objects

If you end up shooting a lot of images of your children playing that are blurry, this is the article for you.  When things are in motion, there are basically only two ways that you can capture them in a frozen, crisp, clear manor.  One is with a very bright flash of light and the other is by increasing your shutter speed.  We’ll talk about the bright flash of light at the end of this, because it’s the least desirable method to use.  And by the way, if you haven’t read our article on the basics of Understanding Exposure, you really need to go over it before reading this.

The shutter speed determines how long your camera’s sensor is exposed to the available light.  If it’s open for too long, the things that it records will show any movement that occurs as blurred.  “Too long,” is a funny way to phrase it, because we’re really talking about very small fractions of a second.  They are typically expressed in terms of 60 (for 1/60th of a second), 125 (for 1/125th of a second), 250 (for 1/250th of a second), and so on.  There are both faster and slower speeds than the few I just listed.  These fractions (shutter speeds) are adjustable on your camera and can be set in either full manual mode or more preferably, in Shutter Priority Mode.  The reason that Shutter Priority Mode is more preferable is because it’s easier!  This mode is similar to Auto Mode, in that the other elements of your exposure (your aperture and your ISO) are auto adjusted to insure you get a proper exposure, based on the specific shutter speed that you selected.  In other words, you set the shutter speed and the camera takes care of everything else.  Although every camera can work a little differently, usually, if you set it to Shutter Priority, you then adjust the shutter speed by turning one of the dials on your camera.  If you watch the viewfinder while turning the right dial, you’ll see numbers like, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, etc…(some cameras may have a few extra ones, so don’t be alarmed).

Typically, subjects that are relatively still, can be captured blur free at 125 (1/125th of a second).  250 to 500 will freeze most moderate movement, while 1000 will handle some serious activity.

Below are some examples of different activities paired with different shutter speeds.

This first image was shot at 160 (1/160th of a second…I’m going to stop writing the fraction out now, because at this point, I’m hoping you’ve got the idea).  If you look at the full size image closely, you’ll notice that the kids’ movement (a slow walk) is frozen, as are the puppies, except for the second one that is in the middle of a jump.  That particular puppy was not listening to me when I said, “Walk slowly.”


This next image was shot at 125, and you can see that girl in the center has both her hand, as well as her pant leg blurred.  Once again…not listening!  I said, “Spin slowly.”  Just kidding.  Sometimes, a little blur can give a great sense of motion to your image, bringing it to life.  But it’s good for you to see what types of activity will not be frozen at certain shutter speeds.


In this next one of the same girls, I increased the shutter speed to 800, and everything is as crisp and clear as could be.


Below, the horse and rider were captured perfectly at 640.


The skateboarder and football game were both shot at 1000, an ideal speed for serious action.



Notice in the football shot above, my camera’s perspective.  I’m on my knees, very low to the ground…at the kids’ level.  This makes for so much better of an image than one taken from a standing position.

The tennis player below was shot at 800.  Such a cool shot of him suspended in air!  You still see a little movement in the racket, but that’s because it’s moving at close to 100 mph.  A shutter speed of 1000 probably would have caught it clearly, but I actually like it’s movement…a nice contrast to the mid-air stillness of the player.


So, that’s all the good stuff about Shutter Priority Mode.  Here’s the bad…faster shutter speeds (the shutter opening and closing faster), means less light getting to the image sensor.  If you’re out on a bright sunny day, it’s not going to be a problem.  Even on most cloudy days, you should be OK.  The most problematic situations are sunset, sunrise, and the worst of all, indoors (i.e. a basketball game or gymnastics).  As we discussed in Understanding Exposure, three things control the light that gets to your sensor:

1. ISO
2. Aperture
3. Shutter Speed

Since we need the shutter speed to be at a specific setting (to freeze our action), we’ll have to rely on adjusting the aperture and/or the ISO to get more light to the image sensor (still staying away from the subject of flash at this point).  Most camera’s will let you set the the ISO manually, so you should try a higher setting, maybe 800.  You can certainly go higher than this, even up into the 3200 range (on some cameras), but you start getting into grainy-looking images at those higher levels, with some cameras handling it better than others.

The other available adjustsment would be your aperture.  In a DSLR, this will come down to how much money you spent on your lens.  The more expensive ones have much lower available f stops (lower numbers, like f2, meaning a larger opening, letting in more light).  This is often referred to as a “fast lens.”

In most decent cameras, if you’re in Shutter Priority Mode, the camera is going to auto adjust your ISO and aperture to give you a proper exposure at the shutter speed you’ve selected.  But know that you could always venture into the world of full manual mode and take total control if desired.

We should also touch on the nasty topic of shutter lag.  This is most noticeable on a point-and-shoot camera.  It’s the time lag between when you press the shutter button and when it actually opens.  It’s usually measured in a fraction of a second, but that can easily be enough to miss the shot, or at least have the moving subject no longer at the location on which your camera was focused.  Clearly, if you’re committed to a lot of action photography, a DSLR is the way to go.  But many point-and-shoot cameras do have a workable solution…it’s called Burst Mode.  You may have to check with that extremely boring camera manual, but this is a setting available to most good to great point-and-shoot cameras (like my lovely Nikon Coolpix 7800!).  It causes the camera to take anywhere from 6 to 10 images (maybe more or less, depending on the camera), each time the shutter is pressed.  I’ve gotten some great action shots on my 7800, but there will be a few fuzzy ones mixed in as well.  The point is, you can still get the shot and not have to lug around a bunch of heavy camera gear.

Finally, lets touch on flash.  If you’re indoors, let’s say at a basketball game, you can forget using your flash.  The flash on most cameras, even on a DSLR, is going to reach out about 10 to 15 feet.  Beyond that, the light is getting too dim and because your camera will automatically set your shutter speed to 60 as soon as you pop up the flash, all you’ll get is a dim blur.  If you can get close, it works, but you’re better off with no flash and a fast lens.  Indoor sports are tough situations, and sometimes, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently stated, “You can’t always get what you want.”  On a note of good news, for those of you that might have kids in the theater, most stages are so brightly lit, you can usually get pretty decent shots of them acting and singing their hearts out.  Just remember to leave your flash turned off!

In summary, capturing a moving subject without blur is all about getting into Shutter Priority Mode and raising that shutter speed to an appropriate level for a particular type of action (faster action = faster shutter speed).  It works best with a DSLR (little to no shutter lag), but can also work with a point-and-shoot, using the camera’s burst mode, if available.  Regardless of the camera, don’t expect every shot to be perfect, but many will be.

I’ll go over more detail in my upcoming book, but this is more than enough to get you on your way.

Now, pick up your camera, put it on Shutter Priority Mode, and  get out there and practice for a few minutes.  Use the dog (if you’ve got one) so your kids won’t roll their eyes into the back of their head because you want to take more pictures!

Here’s what 800 looks like with a Jack Russell, running full speed, preparing to kill his Frisbee.


And yes, you can even do this with a cell phone camera.  I took this on my cell phone using a camera app (called Camera FV-5) that has a burst mode.  This is actually a small area if the image that I cropped it to, so the resolution is not as great as I would like, but I got the shot!


Go take some pictures, and post some of your images in our Monthly Photo Challenge!

Remember, the choice to use Shutter Priority Mode should be driven by your need to freeze fast action.  For what you might call “regular” photography, I’d suggest sticking with Aperture Priority Mode.  In most normal lighting situations, your choosing to set an aperture of f2 – f5.6 to soften a distracting background, is likely to cause your shutter speed to automatically be set above 250.  This is more than adequate to freeze moderate movement.

In another article, I’ll discuss a related subject, Setting The Focal Point Of Your Camera.  Did you even know you could do that?

Don’t miss an opportunity for a great snow picture.

According to the weather folks, it looks like the Southeastern US may get hit with some snow and ice today/tonight.  It’s not something we see too often down here, so start thinking about what you can do to create a few great images.  If you have any water fountains in your town, they can get really cool (that’s a weather pun) looking under these conditions.

Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Try to get out of Auto Mode and switch to Aperture Priority Mode.  I know I keep saying this, but that’s because it’s important!  Keep your f stops low (under f 5.6) so you can soften the background by throwing it out of focus. If you’re scared, use Auto Mode and switch over for just a few shots.

2. If you have a lens hood, use it!  Even if it’s cloudy, you can still get quite a bit of lens glare.  If you don’t have a lens hood, buy one!  They’re not expensive and will significantly improve the contrast and saturation in your pictures (that means they’ll look better).

3. Position the kids so that when they look in your direction, they are not facing the sun to help eliminate squinting eyes.

4. Try different areas.  Take some shots right along the edge of some trees (also know as “the woods”).  You can have the kids popping in and out from behind the trees and use the shade to eliminate glare and squinting.  If you’ve got a forest nearby with some dirt roads, you can capture some beautiful images of kids (grown-ups and dogs as well) walking down the snowy road.  Get them walking both towards and away from you.

5. If you have one, try getting the kids to play with a bright umbrella.  The splash of color looks great against the snow, and it’s something different.  Have your child stand under a tree and get someone to shake it.  The snow falling over the umbrella will look spectacular.

6. Don’t spend all your time trying to get the kids to look at you and smile…let them play with each other and or the snow itself.

Snow is magical (unless you live in it 3 to 6 months of the year), so put your coat on and get out there with your camera.  Post some results in our Monthly Photo Challenge!

Monthly Photo Challenge

We’re kicking off a Monthly Photo Challenge that should be lots of fun for everyone.  Head on over and check it out.  And don’t be a chicken, participate!

Aperture Priority Mode


After having read the basics of Exposure (you should really read the Understanding Exposure post before reading this one), we’re going to apply that knowledge by using my favorite camera setting: Aperture Priority Mode.  Sometimes this is displayed as an “A” on your camera’s main dial, or it may show up as “Av.”  While I wouldn’t say that Auto Mode on a digital camera is a terrible thing, I’d put it in a classification of “emergency use only.”  If you need to get a shot quickly, it usually does the job, but rarely as well as the camera is capable.  Aperture Priority still uses a number of the camera’s automatic features, while putting you in charge of others.  Particularly, something called Depth of Field (DOF).  DOF is about the relationship of what you’ve focused your camera on (the subject) and everything else in front of and behind that subject.  There’s a lot of math involved in the details, but we’ll leave that up to the nerds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and look at the big picture perspective.

Basically, when you focus on your subject, how sharp or blurry everything else is in the picture, will be determined primarily by your aperture (remember from Exposure, that’s the f stop).  A lower aperture (like 2.8) causes everything except your subject to become blurred.  This is what’s referred to as a shallow DOF.  A higher aperture (like 22) causes everything in the entire picture to be (mostly) in focus.  Why does it matter?  If your kids are playing in such an adorable way that you have to get a picture of it, but they’re at the park and from your viewpoint, the parking lot is in the background.  In the lot are a few windowless, ratty looking, child abduction vans that you don’t want to become the focal point of your image.  What do you do?  You can’t go ask the kidnappers to move their vans…that would be politically incorrect!

This is the perfect opportunity to take control of your camera and make it do what you want.  Set it to Aperture Priority, use whatever dial on your camera controls the aperture (there are often 2 dials, try them both if unsure), and set it to something like f2, or 2.8, or 4 (whatever the lowest one is that it will go down to).  Focus on the kids and take the shot.  The parking lot behind them, and everything in it, will disappear into a beautiful, blurry mix of soft colors, leaving the focal point of the shot on your kids.

Without going into too much detail, you should know that sometimes when your lens is zoomed in, you may notice that you can’t always go as low in your f stop.  This is related to the len’s focal length.  Most zoom lens (meaning all except the really expensive ones) have self-adjusting apertures.  When you’re not zoomed in, the lens might go down to f2.8, but when you’re zoomed all the way in, it only goes down to f4 or f5.6.  Just keep this in mind and know that if you want/need to get a larger aperture (to get the background more blurred), physically move yourself closer to your subject so that you don’t have to be zoomed as much.  This will give you that lower f stop.  Just grab your camera and play with the zoom, in Aperture Priority Mode.  You’ll see that the lowest available f stop will change as you zoom in close.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on your shutter speed.  You don’t want it to drop too low.  60 to 120 if the subject is still, 250 to 500 if they are moving some, and over 500 if they are moving a good bit.  If the shutter speed drops lower than you want/need it to be, and you still want a lower f stop, you can always increase the ISO to let more light get to the sensor.  Going up to an ISO of 800 should produce good results and some cameras can go quite a bit higher.  Only raise the ISO as high as you need to, ideally keeping it at or under 400.  See how useful the Exposure post was?

This same concept of using a low f stop to blur the background, is how we get great shots with someone standing in front of the Christmas tree and all the lights are beautifully blurred behind them.

One other detail to keep in mind is that there needs to be some separation (distance) between the subject and the background in order for it to be out of focus.  The further away the subject is from the background, the more out of focus it will become.  If you want to take a shot of someone standing in front of some colorful flowers or tree leaves that produce a wonderful, soft color behind them, get the subject about 10 or 20 yards from the background…the further, the better.  Zooming in also helps the lens to distort the background.

Here’s an example of a mother and child in front of a tree shot at f8.  The tree behind them is in too sharp of focus, and as I see it, quite distracting.


Here’s another shot, but taken at f3.5.  To me, the softening of all the detail in the tree puts and keeps your focus on the subjects.  Much more pleasant to the eye.  It’s funny…to me, the shot below makes them appear to stand out from the tree, separated.  In the previous shot above, it actually looks like they are almost standing in the tree, or at least only a foot or 2 away from it.  But between these 2 shots, they never moved.  Pulling them another 10 yards away from the tree would have had a more dramatic effect, but you get the idea.


Here’s an example of some wildly colored fall leaves about 50 yards from my subject, with me zoomed in tightly.  This was shot at f 5.6, but because he was both a good distance from the leaves, and I was zoomed in pretty tight (150mm on a 200mm zoom lens), we got a great, soft blending of colors as the background.  Had the leaves only been about 10 yards from him, they would be pretty well defined.


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Understanding Exposure

Before venturing out of your camera’s Auto Mode, opening a whole new world of photographic possibilities, we need to develop a basic understanding of exposure.  Don’t worry, this is not going to hurt.  There are really only 3 things that you need to follow:

1.  ISO: the measure of a digital camera sensor’s sensitivity to light
2.  Aperture: the size of the opening in the lens when an image is created
3.  Shutter Speed:  the duration of time that the shutter is open

If you’re trying to decide whether or not this is worth your time to learn (come on…it’s only 3 things), skip down to the bottom of this post and read the last 2 paragraphs.  If any of it rings true in your photographic life, come back up here and dig in.  The whole thing is going to take about 5 minutes to turn you into an exposure pro!

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