Tag Archives: technique

early morning light in Batanes copyright Aloha Lavina.

Three Simple Tips for Sharper Handheld Photography

I was on a mountaintop last week, trying to take these shots without a tripod. The strong winds in the Batanes archipelago, in the Northernmost tip of the Philippine Islands, just knock tripods down, so I didn’t have much of a choice.

In situations where you have to take shots handheld, there are a few techniques you can practice to make your shots as sharp as possible.

1. Watch how you breathe.

Breathing can cause slight camera shake. But you can apply a rhythm in the way you breathe while you’re shooting that helps you keep your cam steady. It’s always best to finish exhaling before pressing the shutter. Practicing this breathing technique can seem distracting at first, but mastering it will help you get those handheld shots sharper.

batanes storm coming copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

2. Watch how you hold your camera.

Combined with your new breathing technique, you can stabilize your camera using your body. Digital Photography School has an excellent illustrated roundup about various positions you can adopt to hold your camera steady with your whole body, instead of just your hands. The bottom line is, use your body to steady the camera, and the closer you hold the camera to the core of your body, the more stable it becomes for you to take that sharp shot.

early morning light in Batanes copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

3. Watch how your eyes move.

This is a tip I learned from golf. Even after you have picked a focal point and locked on it, you need to keep your eyes on that focal point while you are taking the shot. Moving your eyes to a new focal point on the viewfinder means your hands will move.  Keeping your eyes locked on target will make sure your shot is sharp.

What are your techniques for handheld photography?

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Balinese festival parade copyright Aloha Lavina.

Inspire Your Photos with Poetry

Poetry sometimes takes inspiration from the mundane. Billy Collins’ poem “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” takes its inspiration from the feeling you get when you are being creative. Billy says, “I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna or any river for that matter/to be perfectly honest.” He says he is “more likely to be found in a quiet room like this one…trying to manufacture the sensation of fishing on the Susquehanna.”

Burmese boy with buffaloes copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Although poetry is sometimes something you might dislike or are indifferent to, you can take some inspiration from poetry just like the poet can take inspiration from a photograph. “Manufacturing the sensation” is something a photographer does: you create an imagined harmony from something as mundane as a boy with grazing buffalos beside a clear stream; you tell a story with an image. But this descriptiveness of photographs and poetry is just the surface of artistry. There are other poetic devices you can borrow from poetry to inspire your photography.

Poetry has an economy.

Because poems are shorter than say novels or short stories, poets have to pay attention to every word in a poem. Similarly, the economy of a photograph is to include what is essential in the frame, to tell the story. Extraneous stuff that is not essential is discarded, left out.

Poetry is not just sound, it’s also silence.

When poets craft a poem, they pay attention to the space around the words—the silence. The silence, where the lines break and the poem pauses, have just as much meaning as the sounds of the words. A photograph has the same quality—there is the subject, and then there is the space you choose to put around your subject. Like a poet, make that space just as meaningful as the focal point.

portrait with negative space copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Poetry uses symbols.

The imagery in poetry is crafted to be symbolic. Sometimes you find an image out of sheer luck, like a vulture hovering over prayer flags for the dead in a Bhutanese hillside. Other times, you have to manufacture the symbol, set up a shot. Crafting your shots so there is a deeper level of meaning in the imagery takes your photography from simple narrative to inspirational insight.

vulture flies beside prayer flags for the dead in Bhutan copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

A poem uses repetition to create impact.

Repetition in poetry is never accidental. Poets use repetition to bring emphasis to a point they are trying to make. Photographs can use this same technique to create impact, too. Finding a subject that repeats itself has its own message, especially if the repetition is the message itself. A row of Burmese nuns speaks of the selflessness of their lives—all going in one direction, all looking the same, an absence of individuality.

Burmese nuns in a row copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Poetry has theme and variation.

Poems begin with imagery, but the imagery soon turns into a theme, a message or story. Around you are these same themes—beauty, joy, hope. Whether it is in the combination of elements you are fortunate to be able to capture with your camera or the ways you fill your frame, the themes you photograph have the unique stamp of your vision. They say that there is no new story under the sun, that we have the same stories told in different words. It may be the same with our photographs. It’s the same theme, but you put a variation in it that’s borne from your own personal vision.

Balinese festival parade copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Translating an image in your mind’s eye into an image for the eye is what you do as a photographer. Like the poet, you “balanced a little egg of time” in front of people and places and other sources of beauty, and you capture it within a frame, timeless and ready to hatch into someone else’s inspiration.

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The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity

With all the different dSLRs available at reasonable prices now, and the marketing money companies spend to push these cameras, it’s not difficult to think that the camera you buy can create brilliant photos.

Cameras are very smart these days. The Program mode of a camera has so much technology in its favor that it could actually decide all the settings, and all you have to do is press the shutter release.

But technology aside, photography is a creative art. And most of the fun of doing something creative is well, creating. Someone once said that the two most important things in a work of art are technique and impact. Without impact, perfect technique can translate to boring.

Understanding how a camera takes a picture depends on understanding the three most important settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO–the holy trinity of photography. Knowing how to use these settings to execute an artistic decision is a skill that will create photos with impact.

I am not a technical learner, so when I take photographs, I don’t really think about the settings before I think about the impact of the image. Impact comes first, and then I decide what to do to achieve it. This is what I call making a “subjective exposure.” A subjective exposure is when I use the settings of the camera to create an effect in the image.

Shutter Speed

Market motion in Vietnam.

When I spotted the two people in the market, I made an immediate decision to show how busy the market was using these two people isolated in the frame. To do this, I slowed down the shutter speed, to create motion blur in the two people. This slowing down of the shutter speed suggests haste, and that is the message in the image. What I did here was to make my shutter speed a lot slower than what I needed to take the photo at 90mm. At that focal length, I needed a shutter speed of at least 1/90s to take a sharp photo, but I slowed the shutter speed down to 1/30s.

Panning with bicycles in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Another way of showing motion is with a technique called panning. Panning can be done in low light, like in the early morning before the sun is really bright, or later in the day when there is less light. To pan, set the camera to Shutter Priority (or Tv), and adjust the shutter speed to around 1/30s for a moving bicycle, or about 1/15s for a walking person. Use a wide focal length, like 17mm for this shot. Focus on the moving subject from one side of the frame, and keeping the shutter button pressed halfway, follow the subject until they get to the middle or end of the frame, then press the shutter release to take the photo. What this action does is to make the subject you focused on sharp while blurring the background.


An aperture decision keeps everything relatively sharp, Nepal.

In this scene, I spotted the girl standing still by the blue wall, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the boy running. I wanted both of them in the photo, but I had to choose to focus on the girl and keep the running boy as sharp as I could. So I focused on the girl, making the wall and her sharp. I also knew that because I had a lot of light available (it was late morning), I could use a small aperture, f/9 or so, and still have a good exposure. So I adjusted the aperture and waited for the boy to run into the frame, and then got the shot.

Greasy boy isolated using wide aperture, Laos.

For this other portrait, I had a small boy who had painted his face with grease. I was talking to his father about the fishing nets he was mending when he ran close by and stopped. He would go away, and then come back again, and when he came back one time, I had my camera ready. I wanted to blur the background to give more emphasis on his face, so I took the photo at a large aperture, f/4, blurring the background and giving the boy’s face more prominence.


Dancer getting ready, Bangkok.

On assignment for CNNGo, I spent a day with classical dancers from rehearsal to that night’s show. My challenge was the low lighting in the dressing rooms and the almost dark lighting of the stage. For the dressing room, I was lucky to have a good fast lens, a 50mm f/1.4. But the only light I had was from the mirror lights, so I pumped up the ISO to 1250, and was able to take a sharp photo at f/2.8 of this  dancer with his costume being sewn on. (For an explanation of why the costumes have to be sewn on the dancers, read the article here.)

Dancers frozen in motion using high ISO, Bangkok.

Later, for the performance, ISO was again my friend. For the performance, I was only allowed to photograph from a row without any other audience, so I needed to use a long lens, the 70-200mm f/2.8. In the near dark of the theatre, I had to bump ISO all the way to something like 64,000 or something really dizzying like that. I got a high enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the dancers while they did these cartwheels, even with the very low light and the long focal length.

Difficult lighting

Girls in dappled light, Bali.

In situations where there is difficult lighting, like deep shadows and uneven light, decisions about shutter speed, aperture and ISO can help create a good shot.

For the girls under the thatched roof, the dappled light created drama, but I had to be very quick before they moved. So I kept the aperture wide, at f/2.8, and the ISO at 200. The shallow depth of field added to the mystery of the scene.

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11 ways to build a better photo

A recent article in the New York Times warns, “generic photos are ignored. “

Because most digital work is displayed online on blogs and other sharing sites, the travel photographer cannot afford to take a generic photo—a photo which does not tell a story, tickle the imagination, and fire neurons into attentiveness. The photographer has to think about each image and carefully design what is captured so that the resulting photograph is compelling, creative, and meaningful.

Just like stories, photos have to contain balance and impact, two very powerful ways to engage the viewer’s attention. Designing balanced, impactful images begins in the mind. Photos that are mindfully created are the ones with the most impact, and impact is what makes the difference between a photo that is ignored and photos that draw the eye to them, again and again.

Here are some techniques for composition that an image hunter can practice to get rid of the generic and find your vision within.

Girl with offering, Bali.

Nuns reading, Burma.

1. Find different angles

“Zoom with your feet” is something a photography mentor told me. With today’s powerful zoom lenses, it is almost too easy to be lulled into letting the camera and lens do the work that the photographer should be doing. Moving around gives you a chance to see differently, and it just may be a different point of view that makes the shot.

2. Use the Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds has to do with imaginary hotspots that would appear if we drew a grid of three by three over the viewfinder or photo. The intersections between the two lines of the horizontal grid and the other two lines of the vertical grid would be the hotspots. The human brain is attracted to these hotspots.

3. Isolate the subject

Man smoking in the shadows, Bali.

Uncluttering an image involves both luck and skill. Zooming in to the subject whether with the zoom lens or walking to a tighter frame will give the photograph a cleaner composition. The less distractions in the photo, the more impact the isolated subject will have.

Prayer flags lead to the golden spire of a stupa, Nepal.

4. Use leading lines

Leading lines are elements in the frame which act like arrows to the main emphasis. In this photo, the prayer flags lead the eye from one corner of the image to the stupa spire. Leading lines make it easy for the viewer’s eye to travel to the point of interest in the photo.

5. Use the foreground

Walk at sunrise, Bali.

Something interesting in the foreground can give a tension to a photo. In this photo, the woman walking beside the boat is just as sharp as the boat. Her apparent motion gives a story to the photo and makes it more dynamic.

Khon mask, Thailand.

6. Depth of field

Depth of field is the quality of sharpness from foreground to background in a photo. A large aperture (small f-stop number) gives a photo blurry background or shallow depth of field, while a small aperture (big f-stop number) gives a photo sharper background. In the photo of the Khon mask, the shallow depth of field created patterns in the light that hit the lens, giving it a dreamy quality.

7. Patterns

Looking for patterns can turn a photo into something special. This photo of a row of monks begging for alms in

All in a row, Laos.

Luang Prabang, Laos tells a story with the variation in the theme—one monk is anticipating the food a merit maker will offer, and breaks the pattern, and that becomes the interest point of the photo.

8. Scale

Scale can show the subject in relation to its environment. This large Buddha on a mountainside in

Big Buddha on mountaintop, Bhutan.

Bhutan is large, and the scale of it is shown through the wide view showing how it sits visible amongst the giant mountains.

9. Framing

Looking for natural frames is a great way to add interest and story to photos. This rickshaw driver,

Rickshaw driver, Nepal.

obscured by the roof of his rickshaw, tells a story with his eye—within the frame through which he looks daily as he makes his living.

Color at the market, Vietnam.

10. Fill the Frame

There’s no use including space if the space does not add to the story. Sometimes, the subject is more than adequate to tell a story. Other times, any other element in the photo would take away from its impact. The woman selling vegetables and her colorful environment fills the frame and creates a kaleidoscopic story of one woman in a market in Vietnam.

11. Use a Vertical Frame

Puppeteers, Thailand.

Shooting Vertical is a decision—the vertical frame has to work for the story in the image. In the photo of the puppeteers, the smoke rising from

Monk folding robe, Thailand.

the incense sticks offered to the artist’s patron spirits add to the image. In the photo of the monk, the robe he is folding is better as part of the framing and so demanded a vertical composition.


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:
The Man at the Window
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative