Tag Archives: photography skills

prayer beads Buddhist Burma hands old hands

Making Expressive Portraits

Portraits have been called ‘studies.’ Taking this definition literally would mean that you, the photographer, are a student of human behavior. There’s a lot of truth in that last statement. When you make an image, you’re attempting to freeze the complex and beautiful world of human behavior. Studying and waiting for hunting seeking expressive portraits demands that you are attentive to human nature.

small monk young monk Burma grandmother

Photographers have to study people to make good portaits. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You look for moments when people express themselves so that you can capture them and tell their stories.

If you’re a portrait photographer, you really have to be in tune with yourself. You have to dig deep to find truths about why you do what you do. Because our minds isolate us from each other without language or an exchange of some kind, the closest you can ever get to knowing what someone else is experiencing is to link it to something you’ve known and experienced.

How do we tell what someone is thinking or feeling? And how do we translate those insights into images?

One of the ways is to focus on outward expressions of inner attitudes—in other words, posture, gesture and interaction.

Hands tell stories.

hands abstraction old hands Burma faceless portrait

Crossing an arm across the body is a sign of protection from a stranger. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In an old people’s home in Burma, I know my dSLR is a little scary to this old lady. She smiles at me, a little smile that coaxes me to raise the viewfinder to my eye. Then I notice her left arm, crossing over her knees, a gesture that tells me she’s still protecting herself from the stranger with the black machine made of metal and glass.

Outside, a man clutches his prayer beads, and he’s hanging on to something precious to him.

prayer beads Buddhist Burma hands old hands

We hold on tight to what's important to us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

We surround ourselves with things that are important to us. This young weaver in Rangoon hung a picture of her favorite famous person beside her loom. When she looks up, sometimes, the photo might catch the light from the window behind her and cheer her up. To her left is a mirror, for when she thinks to look, instead, at herself.

weaver Burma silk weaving black and white

We surround ourselves with objects that comfort us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

At a market, a man chooses a mirror. He looks at himself in one, unaware that he’s also reflected in all the others.

mirrors Burma Burmese man

Notice people who don't notice your camera. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

The best travel portraits are the natural ones, not posed, of people who are in their own bubbles of thought, oblivious to the photographer. These are the portraits that teach us the most how to create a picture from a canvas we can’t plan out by sketching all the elements first.

The challenge is in recognizing the moment when we finally find it.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
Five Variations on a Theme: Shooting Silhouettes
10 Things a Photog Can Learn from Golfers
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Cut the CRAP–Just Take Pictures
Going to Burma


Talking to my friend Leah gave me this, one of my faves from 2007. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

It’s Fun to be an Amateur

The other day I heard someone say about a friend, “Oh, he’s an amateur,” with a little pout accompanying the statement. The term sounded belittling.

But the origins of the word amateur suggest that the term means someone else entirely. From the French for “lover of,” and the Italian “lover,” the original denotation of amateur gives us the picture of someone who so loves the idea of something that he or she pursues it, enamored, obsessed, breathlessly in love.

Sometimes, it’s more fun to be an amateur. In photography, it’s the distinction between making money for taking photographs or doing it for free. For some reason, this is the most commonly understood distinction. But whether or not you are paid to take photographs, there are some qualities of an amateur that it would be to our advantage never to abandon.

Amateurs are in love with their craft.

You know that old saying that when something finally becomes a “job,” it becomes  tedious? An amateur never feels bored. He will shoot every day if he could. I remember back in the day when I assisted for a well-known photographer, when he and I were both working at the same place. We would clock in every day at work and whenever we got the chance to get out of the workplace, we would just shoot. Weekends were special because they were times when there was nothing else except photoshoots to do. Long holidays were even better; they meant days and days of getting up early, shooting all day until the sun went down, and then lingering over dinner talking about images, about camera settings, workflow, anything and everything to do with photography.

Amateurs hold their photography like something precious and turn it this way and that way, admiring the wonderful qualities of it, and making themselves happy as a result.

Yearning for a shoot session sometimes gets to be too much. Like missing a lover, the amateur misses their craft.

Just playing with model Shu for her portfolio. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Obsession develops a love affair in the initial stages. There is always a honeymoon stage, when the lover cannot get enough of their beloved. Because there is so much to learn in photography, it’s like what someone said about falling in love with the world: “If we listened to a work of Mozart every day, we would be happy for a hundred years!” An amateur pays attention to details. No detail is small enough to notice. This sort of attentiveness fuels more energy: when you pay attention, you learn more and get better. So the improved results will inspire the amateur to get better and better.

Amateurs are not motivated financially. Being a freelancer and having income coming in from writing, teaching in addition to photography makes it easy for me to have the attitude of an amateur. The best part is not having to take jobs that I don’t like, for instance, weddings, unless it’s in Goa, India or Kathmandu, Nepal, or Langkawi, Malaysia and I can combine it with some travel. I can still do personal projects, ones that do not have any remuneration but are interesting and that stretch me creatively or technically. I think it’s really important to have time for these projects because these are where you truly experiment and learn new things.

I learned a lot about shutter speed doing this shoot with Jack for his portfolio. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Learning new things is exciting to an amateur. With all the workshops that so many people are offering now, it’s hard not to come across one that might teach you something new, that could take your photography into a whole other level. It’s very important not to think that you know it all and that no one else can teach you something new. I constantly learn from everyone I meet–whether on Twitter or someone’s blog, or reading a book, magazine, or watching a Youtube video. One of the best qualities of the amateur in my opinion is the lack of formal training. Sure, it might take you longer to reach technical proficiency on your own. But you also have an enjoyable lifelong challenge of learning so much, and if you paced yourself right, it could become one of the more pleasurable things about your status as an amateur.

Talking to my friend Leah gave me this, one of my faves from 2007. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

One of the best things about amateurs is that you are not in a box, the box of your formal training. Instead of this being a disadvantage (you don’t have a paper that says you are a “certified photographer”), it could be a great advantage. You’re open-minded to what is out there, and you will experiment. Experimentation fuels creativity and inspiration, and in the best-case scenario, you might discover something that makes your work even more dynamic.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Let the Shadows Speak
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo

Not pure enough? Not Photoshopped enough? Not your problem. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Cut the CRAP – just take pictures

A friend of mine was down the other day—he’s a great photographer who takes photos that tell stories, but he’s facing a lot of negativity lately, and his online presence seems to have reached a plateau, according to what he told me.

We all have days when it seems we should just chuck the camera out the window, flush down dreams of publishing or selling prints, and just move to Tahiti and lose ourselves in the depths of mango daquiris.

Like all arts, photography has loads of aspirants, and like all arts, it breaks the heart when no one seems to appreciate what we produce.

We all want appreciation, if not accolades.

But there’s some things we can keep in mind to help us keep going and not give up. First, we have to remember that what gets us down is CRAP. CRAP stands for the four things that slam us down and try to keep us there.


Many people are afraid to put their photos online for fear of criticism. I remember one of my favorite images being dismissed in an online forum as a “Mills and Boon” cover—a reference to a series of short romance novels that entertained millions of mostly female readers in the 1970s but which had shallow, predictable plots. When this happened, instead of reacting negatively and dumping my romance with the camera, I began to think of it as an inspiration. What if I could tell stories with my photos? What if the stories were not cliché and predictable, but surprised or elicited discussion? Rather than let the criticism get me down, I struggled and broke through with personal projects that explored the idea of narrative photography.

The image that began my passion for storytelling was criticized. Copyright Aloha Lavina.


One of the best ways to get better is to enter competitions or to submit photos for critique. It’s not easy to do this, because there is always the fear that the work is not good enough, and there could be unflattering things said about the photos submitted. But let’s face it—we are all learning, at this craft. What matters is the feedback.

Recently, I submitted a photo for a critique, on the theme “Solitude.” Not a landscape photographer, but one who is trying to learn this genre, I submitted a photo that I admit only approximates the landscape genre. It was a photo I took because of the values (black and white and shades of gray in between) and not for the composition or content. So of course when I submitted it, one of the editors told me that it was a good attempt, but it was not a very good match for the theme.


Rejection can bind us, but it can also strengthen us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This is by no means the hardest rejection I’ve had to face. I’ve submitted a series of photos to an editor I’ve worked with before, and she’s told me in very polite sentences to “submit excellent photos next time.” Rather than cry over it, I went back and tried to see my submissions with an editor’s eye. What I learned in that reflection is probably something that will help me do better at future assignments.


Yes, there are assholes in our world. For some reason that is esoteric or egoistic, there will always be someone for whom your work is not ‘pure’ enough, or not Photoshopped enough.

That’s not your problem.

Not pure enough? Not Photoshopped enough? Not your problem. Copyright Aloha Lavina.


Finally, the P in CRAP is for pressure. Pressure can come to us through an assignment, a deadline, a contest, a critique, a creative problem. It could even be the limits of our equipment.

One thing that’s comforting to know about pressure is that with certain amounts of it, creativity can flourish.


The secret is to just take pictures. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

We’re all equipped with skills, more or less, and when the bar is raised to produce from these skills, we can use that added pressure to add to those skills. A bit of pressure gives us new challenges that will bring new learning, so it’s good to embrace this pressure and allow ourselves to relax. Relaxing can lead to openness, and openness increases the chances of getting into flow.

If we just cut the CRAP, we’d be able to do what we really want to do, any way: just take pictures.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Let the Shadows Speak
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo

1/125s @ f/5.6 ISO 200

Stretch your photography skills

When you do something over and over, things kind of become automatic.

I usually shoot portraits, so my fingers know what to do, instinctively, when there’s a person in front of my lens. It’s so instinctive that it seems effortless: it seems I’m not really thinking about it, it just happens.

1/60s @ f/5.6, ISO 200

Malcolm Gladwell writes in his awesome book Outliers that it takes 10,000 repetitions to master a skill, and it’s true that drilling a skill, especially when we practice it the right way, does produce mastery at some point.

But once in a while, we need to shake things up. Introducing something new into a skill set stretches that repertoire. When we apply previous knowledge to new situations, we learn more.

1/125s @ f/5.6 ISO 200

I’m used to lighting people with portable flash units. When presented with a new situation, smaller subjects this time, the portable flash suddenly becomes a huge strobe in relation to what I’m lighting. So naturally I have to stretch what I know about the relationship between the subject and the light.

And, naturally, I learned a lot.

1/30s @ f/3.5 ISO 200

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Let the Shadows Speak
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
Beginner’s Guide to Light
Focus on a Story

Pools of light and pools of shadow create drama in this image.

Let Shadows Speak

Dynamic lighting in a photo begins with direction and quality of light, but it doesn’t stop there. Part of the effect in dynamic lighting is where the shadows fall. You know that rule in physics that says ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’? This tension also works in photographic lighting, except that we could rewrite the rule as ‘for every light there is an equal and opposite shadow.’

So controlling the light means controlling the shadows. This effect can create lighting that is dynamic, three dimensional, and eye catching.

We can learn basic lighting conditions, whether in a natural setting like in travel photography, or in a more controlled setting like when using strobes or window light. To add to this wonderful skill is the ability to read the stories that shadows tell.

Telling stories with shadows is a great way to learn dynamic lighting. When we can learn to see where the light falls, how much it falls off and in which direction, we can start designing images that tell stories.

Where you stand to take a photo affects where light and shadow fall in the final image.

The photo of the two people was lit using ambient light, light from broken walls and holes in the ceiling of an abandoned mansion. There was light coming from above both the woman and the man, and the shadows falling around them framed the shot. If I had moved a little to the left, two things would have happened: the man would have been out of the line of sight of the 50mm lens I was using, and the woman would have had less shadow on camera left. Positioning the camera where it was, I was seeing the way the shadows would frame the scene. Moving around is one way of controlling the direction and amount of shadow in a photo.

Pools of light and pools of shadow create drama in this image.

Another vantage point that was deliberate was in the next photo where the model is below the camera; I was standing on a ledge in another broken building. The light was coming from camera left, through a broken wall. The harsh midday light created deep, dark shadows around and beside the model, making shadows on the wall, and forming pools of shadow around the path she walked. The mystery created by the shadows gives the photo a story telling quality I would not have achieved if I had the whole scene lit up.

Paying attention to shapes created by shadow can make a shot dramatic.

Lighting a scene, we know, doesn’t need to be complicated. In this shot of some Indian fashion, I only had a high window to work with, and a distant doorway some 300 meters behind the model. I found a place where the window light would directly shine on her face and side. Having done this, I also saw that the curvy geometric shapes and their shadows in the image complemented the pose and dress of the model, so I played up the shadows by underexposing the background and using a small aperture. The slower shutter speed gave me a sharper take on the dress plus created a three dimensional image. Controlling the settings to augment shadows in a shot is another way of allowing shadows to tell part of the story.

Telling a story with a photo doesn’t just depend on where light illuminates and what it illuminates. Where the shadows fall also speak stories.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative


A photo shot in Manual mode. (C) Aloha Lavina.

10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts

So you got yourself a brand spanking new DSLR. What do you do now?

Many photo enthusiasts who get their first upgrade from the “point and shoot” into the world of digital single lens reflex cameras, or DSLRs, often opt to shoot in Program mode, the mode that allows the sophisticated camera to make all the decisions and produce what it computes to be the best image given the circumstances.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Why relegate all the fun decisions you could make to your camera? Isn’t the camera a tool? You might ask, where do I start? How do I start making great photos with this nifty new camera?

There are so many resources you could use to speed up your growth as a photo enthusiast, and a great number of these resources are free. Here are some things to do with free online resources that will help you get your photography where you want it to be, and say goodbye to the Program mode!

1. Know your equipment, and maximize use.

Your DSLR kit comes with a manual. Read it, and try out the different functions. If you want summaries from other photographers about what your camera can do, Phot.net has excellent information about a wide range of camera equipment. People who belong to this forum are usually very helpful. If you’ve got a specific question, participate in the online forum. Meet new photography friends, and gain a whole world of information at your fingertips.

2. Learn about the exposure triangle.

Exposure is the result of how much light reflects back from the subject into your lens, and is recorded as an image by your camera. How to properly expose

A photo shot in Manual mode. (C) Aloha Lavina.

an image is crucial to learn because it also gives you the dynamic range of your photograph—this is the gradation of light from the whitest part of the photo (the most reflected light) to the darkest part of the photo (the least light reflected), and everything in between. The more detail you have in your photo, the better your exposure. You can learn about how to make good exposures at this excellent discussion at Digital Photography School, one of my favorite resources online. They even have a newsletter you can subscribe to for free, that you get in your mailbox weekly.

3. Learn composition, and make art.

Composition is what makes a photograph attractive or unique. Centuries of art have taught us what the human brain is attracted to in a visual sense, so there are some simple “rules” you can learn to get you started in making some compelling images.

Good composition can be learned, so why not learn right away how to make your images distinct and stylish? A great place to read a lot about composition is photoinf.com.

4. Learn about white balance and control color.

White balance is the way the camera records color, depending on the temperature of the light that it captures. If the light is “cool” it has a bluish tinge, and the camera records that. If the light is “warmer” it has more yellow in it, so the people might come out with a yellowish cast over them. Digital Photography School has a concise primer on white balance, and some other suggested information below the article. It pays to learn about white balance, to control the color in your shots, and to get “true” skin tones for the people in your images.

Most cameras have white balance pre-settings, and your manual can tell you which icon means which white balance. Learn about white balance, and you avoid photos that have blue people or yellow people in them. Unless you are photographing Smurfs or Mr. Smileys, that is.

5. Know your camera’s “modes.”

DSLRs come with modes that are ways you can tell the camera the circumstances you are shooting in, and help the camera’s computer make decisions for the best shot you could possibly get. Some modes include portrait, nightshot, or sport. In portrait mode, a camera tries to isolate the subject by blurring the background, giving the portrait a soft, creamy look. Nightshot mode tells the camera to open the lens opening (called the “aperture”) and let more light in to record the dark scene. Sport speeds up the shutter, so that motion can be frozen and not blurry. There are other modes you can use on most DSLRs, and there is a great resource with photos at Photonhead that can help you get acquainted with your camera’s modes.

6. Get started on some photo projects.

A recent photo project I had was to try to light and photograph "stuff." I learned a lot about lighting in this project.

Photo projects can get your creativity flowing, and there are a lot of sites out there that help you to focus your creativity and learn as you complete your project. Everyone knows Flickr, of course, where you can join a group and shoot specific subjects, have great discussions with like minded hobbyists, and be inspired by the thousands of photos uploaded every minute.

A great resource is this article by a Flickr member titled “7 Photo Projects to Jumpstart Your Creativity.”

7. Photoshop is your friend.

There are “purists” who say that using Photoshop or other processing software on your digital images ruin the integrity of the photographs and so makes it no longer “photography.” These folks have their point of view, and we should respect that.

But the 21st Century is the digital age, and eschewing Photoshop when we are capturing digital photographs seems to be limiting when Photoshop can help us create images that are unique and beautiful. How much post-processing you do on your images is entirely up to you. You can go crazy or you can do what great makeup artists do—make a lot of makeup look like none at all. It’s up to you.

If you’re like a lot of new photographers, who want to use software to enhance their digital photographs, there are some basic tutorials to start the fun at Mashable.

8. Flash is also your friend.

Most semi-pro and entry level camera bodies include a pop-up flash. Pressing a button on the side of the pop up unit releases it and gives you instant source of light in very dark or very glary conditions.

It can be confusing to learn how to decide when to use flash, but the rule of thumb is that you “fill” the areas that are dark in your photo with the flash’s burst of light. The amount of light your flash gives you along with the exposure you want tell you how much flash you need. You can learn the basics of using flash at Brighthub.

9. Take a course.

There are some excellent online places where you can pay for guidance from a professional. Betterphoto.com is one of the sites I have tried, and the course I took from there really helped me get to know exposure. Betterphoto also has courses on many other topics, including an interesting one on composition and creativity.

MatadorU also has an excellent course I would recommend. MatadorU’s photography course is geared toward becoming a travel photographer, but it addresses many of the topics I have mentioned here, in greater detail. The best things about MatadorU is that you get wonderful feedback from your tutor, and you get access to a lifetime of tips on a wide range of topic from equipment to using social media to gain an audience for your work.

Online, there are a few sites that offer basic photography courses. A good place to start is the appropriately named Photographycourses.net.

I travel with my photo club and it is a LOT of fun.

10. Join a camera club.

It’s fun to learn with other people! We learn this in school, and we never seem to outgrow it. Learning with others helps you to maximize your learning and enjoyment, and you gain new friendships this way. There is probably a photo club in your city. Talk to some other enthusiasts, join a forum that is run by a photographer in your city or nearby, and arrange to join some of the photo walks or excursions arranged by the photo club.

Getting started with your new DSLR is not as challenging as you think. These links are just a few resources of the plethora of sites out there. Let’s help to grow our photography community and post more resources in our comments!


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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