Recently, I saw something online that struck me as a little funny: Someone was advertising a service to take portraits for Facebook profile photos. Why, I wondered, would anyone pay money to have their face snapped for a little 100-pixel thumbnail? Then I really started to notice... Forums are filled with people asking for advice on taking profile pictures. Folks seem to change their profile photo frequently rather than choosing a portrait and sticking with it, like you keep a driver's license photo. (My daughter changes her Facebook profile photo weekly.) I've already talked about general tips for taking portraits, but this seems like a great time to dive into tips specifically for taking great profile photos.
Traditional portrait photos usually have a vertical orientation, more tall than wide. It's the very origin of the term "portrait orientation," in fact. That's not true about the photos used by most, if not all, social networking and sharing sites, though. Whether you're taking a picture for Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, Windows Live, or some other site, the little frame that your photo sits in is probably going to be perfectly square, or very nearly so.
Darkness is kryptonite to your photos--all cameras thrive on light. As the sun sets, your camera craves slower shutter speeds (which lead to blurry photos) or demands the flash (which creates harsh lighting up close and does nothing for subjects that are farther away). I've given you some advice for dealing with low-light situations in the past. Recently, a few cameras have emerged that try to solve this problem with fancy handheld low-light shooting modes. This week, let's see how to achieve similar results with your own camera and the photo editing tools on your PC.
How Low-Light Camera Modes Work
You already know the problems associated with taking pictures at night. Traditionally, most cameras do little to help. The problem is one of physics: In low-light situations, the camera has little alternative but to leave the shutter open longer to soak up more light.
Have a question about digital photography? Send it to me. I reply to as many as I can--though given the quantity of e-mails that I get, I can't promise a personal reply to each one. I round up the most interesting questions about once a month here in Digital Focus. For more frequently asked questions, read my newsletters from January, February, March, and April.
Taking Great Night Photos
Recently, with all of the storms that have been going through Arkansas, I wanted to shoot lighting. However, when I set my camera to the bulb setting and the ISO to 200, all of the pictures look as though I have shot them on some cloudy afternoon--they are very bright. I have tried using both my 18-55mm and the 55-200mm lens, but to no avail. I'm a very novice photographer having had my camera only about 6 months. --Layne Yawn, Jonesboro, Arkansas
Back in the stone-knives-and-bearskin days of 2005, I wrote about the rise of camera phones: "Will we soon take all of our pictures with a camera phone? Probably not." Shows what I know. In just six years, camera phones have evolved from taking pictures that looked sort of like Gauguin paintings to snapping sharp, high-quality photos--and in the process, have become practically ubiquitous lifestyle companions. Everyone, it seems, snaps photos for Facebook, Flickr, and e-mail with their mobile phone. The phone in your mobile phone is not yet the equal of a digital SLR, so you still need to take special care to take great pictures this way (check out my tips for better cell phone photos), but it's amazing how good your results can be. And you can do things with a mobile phone that are difficult or impossible to do with a traditional camera. Case in point: this week, here are five awesome iPhone apps designed for photographers.
First up is the coolest app of them all. Microsoft recently released Photosynth for the iPhone, an app that lets you create "synths" using just your phone. In a nutshell, Photosynth takes a collection of photos taken around the same location and, sort of like a traditional panoramic program, stitches them into a coherent scene. A Photosynth image can be 360 degrees and interactive, though--you can pivot around the scene from the point of view of the photographer, looking up and down and all around, and zoom in for a better view.
Fifty years ago, any serious photographer would have told you that photography was equal parts taking the picture and developing it in the darkroom. Back then, however, few casual photographers bothered with the darkroom, so they missed out on the ability to really fine-tune their images. These days photography is still equal parts taking the picture and editing it--but the difference is that almost everyone does at least a little editing on the PC. Digital photography and image editing software have leveled the playing field: Now neophytes as well as pros can perfect their photos after they're taken. Last week I explained how to easily improve your photo's exposure using the Levels tool. This week, let's go back to basics. I want to show you some essential keyboard shortcuts that make Adobe Photoshop Elements a joy to use.
Let me be clear: I'm generally not a keyboard shortcut sort of guy. I know a lot of people who seem to know every keyboard shortcut under the sun, whereas I hate to take my hand off the mouse. But even I recognize the value in these tricks, because they simplify tasks you need to perform over and over and over again when editing photos.
Digital cameras are designed to take pretty good photos under average conditions. In fact, they're dramatically better than even the best film cameras were 20 years ago. But that doesn't mean they're pocket geniuses, able to churn out award-winning photos all on their own. Almost any photo can be improved with a little tender loving care from a human being. As I've mentioned before, one of the best things you can do to start taking better pictures is to master the basics of composition. And once you have that in hand, you can try this week's technique for tweaking the brightness and exposure of your photos to really make them come alive.
What's Wrong With Most Photos
The problem is that frequently your camera doesn't take advantage of the full dynamic range available. By trying to capture a good, "average" exposure, it often settles for a setting that leaves the light looking flat and dull. You can see this graphically by looking at a histogram of the photo. A histogram is a graph that depicts the distribution of bright and dark pixels in your photo. Check out this photo of Lady Liberty. The peak on the right side of the graph indicates there's a relatively large number of bright pixels in the photo.
As any horror movie director will tell you, what you don't see is often scarier than what you do. And while filmmakers know that the unseen can certainly be scary, photographers rely on the fact that often it's just plain dramatic. That's the idea behind silhouettes, which engage you by masking details in inky black shadows. By coyly hiding important elements of the photo in plain sight, silhouettes are some of the most iconic elements you can add to your photography repertoire. In the past, I've covered the basics of shooting silhouettes. This week, let's look at five things you can do to take better silhouettes.
1. Set Up the Scene
The basic idea behind any silhouette is that your subject is dark and underexposed, but set against a bright background. So for the best results, look for situations in which you can take advantage of a lot of contrast. Sunsets are a perennial favorite for silhouettes, but if you get low to the ground and aim upwards, you can get striking results by placing someone (or something) against a bright blue sky. Your options hardly end there; I've seen gorgeous silhouettes set against brightly lit stained glass windows inside churches, for example.