Better photography is in your hands

Photographers discuss how to unlock the potential of your camera

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian staff writer



 Photo Gallery: Better photography

Smartphone photo tips

It's been said the best camera is the one that's with you. Many times that camera will end up being your smartphone and these days -- unlike the grainy, low-resolution shots of older cellphones — that's not a bad thing. If you keep a few things in mind, your phone can take pictures as good as most point-and-shoots.

• Don't zoom. Most smartphones don't have optical zooms. That means when you think you're zooming in to take a tighter photo, your phone's camera is actually cropping the image. There's no point to that; just crop your photo afterward. Zooming with your feet — walking closer to your subject — works best.

• Know how to set focus and exposure. IPhones and other higher-end cellphones have a feature where you can tap on the screen while you are taking photos to not only change what is in focus, but modify how much light will come into the lens.

• Turn the flash off. Most times the built-in flash won't be powerful enough to light what you want to make brighter. Instead, you'll find the harsh flash could end up washing out the closest subjects, ruining the quality of your image.

• Avoid vertical video. This doesn't apply to still photography, but is a very common mistake made when some take videos on their phones. Video should almost always be shot in landscape orientation by holding the phone on its side. Think about HDTVs and computer screens. They're wider than they are tall. Your video should be too.

— Paul Suarez

Sales of high-end cameras rising

In the last few years, manufacturers have been producing an increasingly higher number of digital cameras that can swap lenses — the kind often used by professionals and others serious about the craft — versus those that have a fixed-in-place lens, which are typically cheaper and include fewer features. At the same time, more and more people carry smartphones capable of easily snapping shots rivaling the quality of those taken on a standard "point-and-shoot" camera.

In 2008, manufacturers produced more than 106 million digital cameras with built-in lenses and 9.8 million with interchangeable lens, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association, which surveys camera companies. In 2012, statistics indicate there were 79 million built-in lens cameras produced and 21 million with a lens that can be removed.

For just a few hundred dollars, you can buy a professional-grade camera that just five years ago might have cost more than $1,000, said Jacob Ziebarth, a repair technician at Knight Camera and Repairs in Vancouver.

"There's still a fair amount of people who are using point-and-shoot, but more and more we are seeing people replacing their point-and-shoots with their phones and opting to have a higher-end digital camera," he said.

Heather Greene remembers the moment her photos began the transition from standard snapshots to meaningful artistic expressions.

The 63-year-old Vancouver woman became fascinated with photography decades back when working as a model on the East Coast. She started discussing the art form with her photographers and began picking up tips here and there. Her curiosity revealed a new passion in her life, but the pursuit to perfect her skills hasn't been an effortless journey.

In the 1990s, after many years of practice, the amateur was snapping shots of people jumping up from behind a sand dune in Cape Cod, Mass. She immediately knew she captured something magical. It was one of the first times she felt that way about her own photo.

"The joy on their faces, the sand moving under their feet and the blue sky; it worked," she said. "I had a visceral reaction to (the photo). I knew the moment I took it that it would be a good image."

From there, Greene continued to study the craft and make friends with other shutterbugs who regularly post on the Capture Southwest Washington photography website:

"I think it's clear to improve, you have to continue to make images on a regular basis and view photography on a regular basis," she said.

With advancing technology and decreasing costs, more amateurs now have the equipment necessary to take outstanding photos (see sidebar). But how many truly take advantage of the capabilities of the high-end camera they bought to bring on a family vacation or to a youth soccer match?

It's one thing to buy an expensive camera. It's another to properly use it, said Kate Singh, owner of Vancouver photography studio Aevum Images. True artistry comes from within, she said, and not from the quality of your equipment.

"There's a lot of crap out there," she said.

While it's difficult to teach art, Singh said amateurs can see results if they are willing to invest serious time learning not only the functions of their camera, but basic composition, the "rule of thirds" and other techniques that are second nature to professionals. But novices should also never be afraid to think outside the box and experiment, she said.

For those interested in taking something more than the occasional snapshot this summer, study the photographs above for inspiration. You'll find advice from The Columbian's award-winning photo staff and accompanying photos that show their techniques in action.

"(Photography) is more accessible than it's ever been," said Troy Wayrynen, The Columbian's photo editor. "If you've got a lot of passion for something and you really want to express yourself, it doesn't matter if you're super good at it or not … it's whether you enjoy the process of discovery, of learning. That's what I love about photography."

Locate available light

photo Photographer Zachary Kaufman used a self-timer and available light at the scene to shoot this self-portrait of himself and his wife Sara Kaufman on April 22 at the Point Montara Lighthouse, near Half Moon Bay, Calif.

Point Montara Lighthouse by Zachary Kaufman

ISO: 200

Shutter: 6 sec.

Aperture: f/2.8

The photo: Zachary Kaufman knew he wanted to take a picture of the lighthouse at Point Montara in Northern California — where he was married — to commemorate the visit with his wife, Sara, on April 22 for their fifth anniversary. But it was dark and the Columbian photographer was without his professional gear, making it difficult to illuminate the scene.

However, after closely observing the location and taking a few test shots, he realized that a motion-detecting floodlight next to the lighthouse would be able to illuminate them both as distant silhouettes.

"It's amazing what you can do when you are aware of the light," he said. "You don't need fancy gear."

Because of the low-light situation that evening, Kaufman had to shoot at a slow shutter speed, meaning he and Sara would have to stand very still to avoid "ghosting," where movement causes a blurring effect.

Kaufman balanced the camera on its side on a picnic table, set the self-timer and ran into the frame to join his wife and hold hands in front of the bright light shining behind them. It was a success and now he proudly displays the image next to his desk at work.

Try it out:If you are taking photos inside during the day and the images are coming out too dark, try moving your subject next to a window to use the available sunlight. This soft lighting is less harsh than your camera's built-in flash, which can wash out your images. Photography is called "painting with light" for a reason, so Kaufman said being aware of available light sources, whether it's the sun or a lamp, is critical.

Move your feet

photoBy stepping back and zooming in on the face of a model getting ready for the Couve Couture Spring Fashion Show on April 13 in downtown Vancouver, photographer Steven Lane was able to highlight her preparation, a detail that might have been lost had he merely shot the entire scene.

(/The Columbian)

Couve Couture Fashion Show by Steven Lane

ISO: 5,000

Shutter: 1/160 sec.

Aperture: f/2.8

The photo: Backstage at the Couve Couture Fashion Show on April 13 in downtown Vancouver a flurry of models applied makeup and checked their outfits. Columbian photographer Steven Lane got plenty of shots of the show and behind the scenes. But to illustrate the extensive preparation the models go through, he chose to walk backward and zoom in with a long lens to tightly focus on a woman's face as makeup was being applied. He was able to show a detail that wouldn't have come through in a photo of the entire scene.

It's easy to forget to move your body when taking photos. But anchoring yourself in one spot typically results in dull shots. Moving back while zooming compresses the scene, which Lane said lets you highlight the subject of your choice. Stepping in closer — rather than merely zooming — while using a wide lens has a stretching effect, which can be useful if you'd like to include more of the surrounding environment, Lane said.

The key is to be fluid, moving back and forth and up and down as needed. Photos can convey very different meanings depending on where you are positioned when you take the shot.

"A lot of people, based on where they are standing, will (only) zoom in and out," Lane said. "Don't be afraid to move."

Try it out: At your next family gathering, instead of lining people up and taking bland, full-body portraits, get in closer,whether it's with your feet or by zooming. Even a casual conversation between two family members can make for an exciting photo if you're able to capture the nuances of their facial expressions. "Instead of standing five feet away from Uncle Charlie and snapping a picture, zoom your lens all the way in until you frame him the way you want," Lane said.

Pick a proper backdrop

photoColumbian photo intern Brianna Loper aimed upward to use the stage lights as a colorful backdrop for her picture of Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke during the group's concert with Bad Company on June 21 at the Sleep Country Amphitheater in Ridgefield.


Lynyrd Skynyrd concert by Brianna Loper

ISO: 5,000

Shutter: 1/2000 sec.

Aperture: f/3.2

The photo: As with any large concert, Lynyrd Skynyrd's June 21 show at the Sleep Country Amphitheater gave Columbian photo intern Brianna Loper plenty of opportunities for some rocking pictures. But with so many potential distractions in the background of her shots -- band members, equipment, lighting -- she knew she'd have to concentrate on finding suitable backdrops to place her subjects in front of if she wanted them to "pop."

For her photo of lead guitarist Rickey Medlocke shredding on stage, Loper got low and shot upward, using the overhead stage lighting as a wall of color behind the musician. Because she zoomed in on Medlocke and used a wide aperture, the ceiling riggings above became blurry which helped him stand out even more.

While Loper's focus that evening was on the band, she was also aware of the entire scene. Without paying attention to the background of your photos, you can inadvertently include clutter, she said. The goal is to have the viewer pay attention to what you want them to notice, not the random people or events happening in the distance.

"You don't want to have anything in the photograph that doesn't add to it and make it better," she said. "A lot of people get so focused on the subject of the photo, they forget to take in the whole picture."

Try it out: When shooting a portrait, try placing your subject in front of a brick wall, ivy or another background that won't detract from your photo's focus. Loper said a clear sky works incredibly well as a blank canvas."These are great things because they are clear of any distractions," she said. "That way there's no chance of anything getting in your portrait."

Always be ready

photoSwimmer Brittney Thom, left, gets a playful nose pinch from teammate Shiloh Kieth, right, as Brittney's sister, Whittney Thom, joins in on the fun. Columbian Photo Editor Troy Wayrynen recognized that if he kept his camera aimed at the friendly trio, he would likely be able to capture a unique interaction as they were waiting for the start of a relay at a Special Olympics regional swim meet on May 5, 2012.

(/The Columbian)

Special Olympics swim meet by Troy Wayrynen

ISO: 8,000

Shutter: 1/800 sec.

Aperture: f/2.8

The photo: When covering a Special Olympics regional swim meet in Tacoma last year, Columbian Photo Editor Troy Wayrynen kept his eyes open for ways to showcase the spirit of the event. He noticed a group of girls waiting for the start of a relay and trained his camera on them.

Because he kept his camera ready to shoot, even after getting a few workable photos, Wayrynen was able to get a stellar shot of one of the girls playfully pinching the nose of another.

Too often, he said, photographers with digital cameras will review their pictures immediately after they take them. This is called "chimping" and can lead to missed photo opportunities. It's important to be patient and let a scene play out before you put your camera down, he said.

"One of the things that I believe amateur photographers do quite often is they give up too soon," Wayrynen said. "I kept my lens focused on them. I kept my camera to my eye. (Being prepared) created this wonderful moment of joy."

Try it out: When you are taking photos at a crowded event, such as a sports game or a parade, pay close attention to the events unfolding around you and keep your camera ready. An interesting candid moment can happen in an instant and you should always be prepared to shoot. Even if you think you have the perfect picture, an even better opportunity can pop up a few seconds later. "You miss so many more great photographs sometimes when you don't let the event, the moment if you will, play itself out in its entirety," Wayrynen said.

Stover Harger III: 360-735-4530;;