The Rule of Thirds-Make Stronger Compositions

I have offered some tips on using your iPhone as your vacation camera in the past.  One of the suggestions I made was to turn on the grid to help you with the composition of your picture.  Why would you want to do this?  Moving the subject off center creates interest.  We have a tendency to place the subject of our photo in the center, like the bull’s eye of a rifle scope.  The problem with doing a bull’s eye is that it tends to make the photo boring.  To help tell a story and create more interest in your picture use the rule of thirds.  The grid looks like diagram on the left.  By choosing one of the intersecting points for your subject in your frame the picture will lead the viewer’s eye to the open part of the frame.  Why would you want to do this?  Consider this beach photo.  By placing the surfer on the left portion of the picture, your eye is led to look at the wave he is examining as he enters the water.  Can you sense his anticipation?  Hold up a piece of paper to this image and make it a bullseye (position the surfer in the center).  See what I mean?  Using the rule of thirds will help you tell a story with your pictures.

Endless Summer Pose-w

Okay, now it’s your turn to go out and practice. It’s okay to use you phone if you want.

Taking Pictures of Fireworks

It’s almost Independence Day and you’re thinking about BBQ, friends and family, and fireworks. A great ‘ol American celebration.  Here’s the $95,000 dollar question, how do I take pictures of fireworks?  Of course there are many options, some easy and some hard. Let’s start with easy (if you’re pressed for time you can stop after this.) Check your owner’s manual to see if you have a special mode for fireworks. If you are using a point and shoot camera I can almost guarantee you do.  Make the selection and fire away (nice pun don’t you think?)

If you have a DSLR and want a bigger challenge or you want bragging rights you took killer pictures by yourself, put the camera on manual mode.  Before we get to settings we need to remember two things: first, left alone your camera will meter the dark night sky and overexpose the picture, and second, you want to catch the light trails of the black powder explosion to capture the grandeur and colors of those beautiful fireworks. Okay, here we go.

Fireworks light up the night sky so we need to expose for that light.  We also want everything nice and sharp in the frame. You get to play with this a little as the exhibition goes on by examining the back display and making small adjustments but let’s start with f8 and ISO 200. This will keep the light trails sharp and the black sky black (without spotty noise). Our next setting is the one that give you bragging rights; set the shutter speed to 1/30 or 1/15th of a second. If you can’t hold the camera still use a tripod. The longer the shutter speed the larger the fireworks will be in the frame.  Follow the lighted path of the firework with the camera up and hit the shutter when it explodes.  Sounds easy doesn’t it?  You will want to take several pictures during the show making little adjustments to shutter speed and position to get a few different options when you view the pictures later.

If you are feeling artsy and creative use the lighted sky to silhouette items in the foreground. You’ll get bonus points and many oohs and ahhs.

If this all seems like too much trouble you can always take out your phone, set to video and enjoy the show!

I choose to include the bowsprit from the HMS Surprise (from the movie Master and Commander) in these pictures in 2013.  I especially liked the red fireworks because it reminds me of the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem.

Happy Independence Day!.


Nik Software now FREE

I just received my update from Red River Paper about their new Canvas paper.  In the body of the blog was an announcement that Google, who owns Snapseed, my favorite app for tuning up photos on my tablet is giving away my favorite Black and White program.  Not only are they giving away SilverEFX Pro, they are giving away their whole suite of software plugins.  So if you would like to shorten up or post production time, or want to play with black and white, color enhancement, HDR, or sharpening RUN over to and download the plugin before they either change their mind or stop making it available.  They have tutorials on the web site to help you learn the program also.

Keep looking here and I’ll be posting some more about why SilverEFX Pro is my go to program for black and white.  Let me leave this with you, when I look at a scene and know I want to display it in black and white, I shoot color and do the post processing using SilverEFX Pro.

Alright, if you are a Photoshop or Photoshop Elements user, go over and get that program suite!

Selecting White Balance for Better Photos

Your camera does many things extremely well. It meters the scene and selects the correct exposure.  The newest generation of cameras can select and focus on a face in the scene.  It can sense when the light is too low and a flash is needed to compensate.  In all this guessing it does it is remarkable how often the camera “gets it right”.  One of the things the camera doesn’t do well consistently is choose white balance.

Different sources of light have different color tints, even different times of the day have different color casts. For example, a standard light bulb (Mr. Edison’s kind) casts a yellow tint, a florescent tube casts a blueish-green tint, a flash (pop up on your camera or separate unit) has a closer to white hue.  In order to get the colors on you photograph correct you have to tell the camera which light it is looking at.  It has to correct or balance the color of the light.  Armed with this selection the camera is much better at making a good guess how to select and display true colors.

Fortunately it isn’t hard to select the correct white balance. You will probably have to go to your camera instruction manual to find it the first time.  Go to the index and look up “white balance”.  It may be obvious (a button on the camera that is labeled “WB”) or it may be hidden in a menu.  When you find where it is all you have to do is move it from “A” for automatic to the specific lighting you are going to be under while taking pictures.  If you are outside look up.  Do you see the sun or are you under a cloudy sky?  Are you in the shade?  The same is true inside a building.  Do you see a regular bulb or something else like a CF (compact florescent) or LED?  If you are in an office building the odds are you will select florescent (the company is saving and being green because they both take less electricity and don’t put out much heat.)  Your camera probably has icons to represent the type of lighting/white balance selection.  A light bulb means tungsten, clouds for a cloudy sky, and etcetera.

I realize you may think I’m pulling your leg here. So don’t trust me go do a little experiment.  Take your camera and the owner’s manual and select an area to take a picture.  It could be a person or a flower if you wish.  Take a picture on “A” auto white balance, a second on the correct type of light, and a third that is purposely the wrong light.  Download all three photos to your computer and take a look.  Surprised?

See you next month. Keep taking photos!

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The attached images are in Santa Cruz. The first photo has a daylight white balance, the second is set to tungsten.  The first image is the correct color.

Check the screen before pressing the button

Leaving space in the frame helps lead the viewer
Leaving space in the frame helps lead the viewer
Daytona opps
Who is that guy in the background? Keep the frame clean by isolating your subject, in this case the motorcycle

Triumph Daytona

            In the digital age it is easy to take hundreds of pictures and hope for one or two good shoots.  I’ve heard it referred to as “spray and pray”.  While that is one strategy for getting good pictures I would like to recommend another that will result in taking up less memory on your camera card or phone’s internal memory and will result in you feeling better about your skills as a photographer or chronicler of events.  Here it is: Look more closely at the screen before you push the button.

Sounds elementary doesn’t it?  Of course it is but let me be a little more specific.  Before pressing the shutter button look at three areas within the frame: the focus point for the main subject, the space you leave around the subject, and the edges of the frame.  Since the advent of auto focus cameras software designers have had to refine what the camera will decide is the subject of the frame.  Today’s cameras have the ability to focus on multiple points; multiple focus technology is built into the newest smart phones and works well at providing sharp focus for multiple faces within the frame.  The chooser of the focus is you!  Sometimes the camera focuses on the wrong thing and something insignificant is sharp but the main subject of the picture is fuzzy.  Look up online what the focusing options are for your camera and make sure it focuses on the right thing.

Second, leave space in the frame for the forward motion of your subject.  Are you taking a picture of your kids running on the soccer field or playing in the park?  Where are they going?  If your child is running from the left side of the frame leave room on the right side to let the viewer anticipate where his running is going to take him or her.  This works for pets too. The anticipation will make for a more dynamic picture.

Third and last, make sure things that distract from your photo are not in the frame.  We all have a tendency to “bulls eye” our subject and ignore anything else in the frame.  Later, when the photos are viewed someone comments about the tree coming out of your spouse’s head or a cute child in the background that steals the show.  Two methods for eliminating that object or person is to move in for a closer photo (zoom in) or change your angle so the distracting element is out of the frame.  This means you have to slow down and look at the edges of the frame.  It means you have to purposefully look away from the subject to see the rest of the image.  Believe me it takes practice!



I first saw a photograph of Horsetail falls at a local Art and Wine Festival taken by local photographer John Harrison. He was in the booth and I asked him a few questions about the photo.  At the end of our conversation I knew I had to capture this fall for my wall.  So six years ago I grabbed my camera, tripod, and polarizer and headed to Yosemite.  My wife and I figured the worst that could happen was we would get a weekend in our favorite place on the planet.  We were all set up with about 50 of our newest friends at one of the two spots in the park to see the spectacle (Rowell’s View).  We were watching the light fall across El Capitan, turning from silver, to gold, and anticipating it’s orange glow.  We are maybe a minute or two away and a cloud goes in front of the sun.  No colors, just shade on the side of the cliff.

The next year we drove into Yosemite amidst a snow storm. Yosemite was beautiful covered in white.  It got better as overnight it dropped another foot of the white stuff on the valley floor, on cars, all over the roads.  I took some amazing photographs that trip but no Horsetail Falls.  It can’t snow without clouds-the same ones that block out the sun for the firefall.

A couple more years along the way we have been in a drought. One of those years there was a waterfall and sun but it wasn’t really a spectacle, my photos look like a mistake on the negative.  Last year there wasn’t any water.  By the way the same light that makes the water turn gold and orange does wonderful things for Half Dome at the same time of the day.

The first year we went to capture Horsetail Falls we arrived at the location at about 3:30pm, roughly two hours before the waterfall turns orange. At our location we were with about 50 people.  This weekend we drove past the second spot to take the picture on the south side of the valley at 2pm and there were already around 100 people set up waiting for the 5:30pm photo shot.  By the time the waterfall turned gold there were probably about 300 people.  The sun was blocked by a cloud at the last minute and we were all disappointed once again.

When we went back on Saturday, February 20 I estimate there were about 600 people on the same spot. As you can see, Horsetail Falls has become an event.

Enough of the wait already. Now that we have a picture I can tell you there are not words to describe seeing the water turn from silver to seemingly molten gold to bright orange.  It’s hard to describe.  The best I can do is this photograph.

Horsetail Falls part 5 or 6


Ever since Galen Rowell captured a little sliver of light falling off El Capitan in February that resembles a fire fall in Yosemite National Park, photographers have been seeking to recapture this amazing natural phenomenon.  I you put Horsetail Falls into your favorite online search engine you will see some amazing pictures.  This year is my 5th or 6th attempt to capture something I can proudly put on my wall.

Five or six tries? What are you talking about you say?  Here is the set up.  For about eight days a year and for about 5-8 minutes during the eight day window, a very small stream on top of El Capitan falls down the face of that granite wall.  Due to the angle of the sun in February and October, a small sliver of orange light highlights the area of the waterfall turning it into a golden and orange ribbon of molten eye candy. The window is about eight days.  Of course there is a catch.  First, there has to be snow above the cliff, something that hasn’t happened for the past few years, to feed the waterfall.  This of course takes out the October dates because there is no water left.  Second, the sky has to be somewhat clear allowing the sun to shine on the side of El Capitan.  Just think snow has to have fallen recently enough to feed the stream and the sun has to be shinning to allow the light to illuminate the cliff face.  And of course it has to have been warm enough on top of the cliff to melt some of the snow allowing it to make the waterfall.  While clouds help add extra atmosphere to the picture the need to stay away from the sun.  Third, the total time to capture the photograph is from 5-8 minutes just before the sun drops behind the opposite side of the valley.

This takes me to my multiple tries. The first year or second year I was set up with two cameras, one film and another digital.  We were there at 3:30pm for the 5:30pm photo.  I had my spot picked out, made sure the focus was spot on and was anxiously awaiting the orange color.  I even have a few pictures of the light moving across the face of El Capitan.  Then a cloud came in front of the sun and poof! No picture.  The next year we had clouds the entire time we were there.  Last year there was no water in fall.

So here I am in an El Nino year with snow on top of the cliff, beautiful sunsets here in San Jose with orange colored clouds just before sunset and predicted snow on Thursday to add to the snow already on top of El Capitan.

This photo at the top of the page is the closest I have come to capturing the phenomenon.

Wish me luck. If you would like to read a little more about Horsetail Falls I recommend you skip over to Michael Frye’s blog at .  He helps all us wanna be’s track the viability of capturing the picture.  I expect to be with about 100 of my closest “friends”.

Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.