Friday, February 04, 2011

Taking Pictures

A couple of people asked me how I take pictures and my response was "point and shoot." A friend suggested I write a blog post about my picture taking process. I didn't see the point of such a post because I didn't think there was a process. Stop, point, and shoot seemed to be it. After a while, however, I realized there is a process I follow if there's enough time. For what it's worth here is how I approach picture-taking.

First, the camera. I take my pictures with a Panasonic DMC-TZ4 with 10x optimal zoom and Leica lens (maximum number of megapixels = 8). This is a great point and shoot camera. Of course, I paid more for it but it's been wonderful and responsible for almost all the photographs I've posted here in the last 2-3 years. I chose this camera primarily for its 10x zoom without giving much thought to anything else, including the brand name. I have a couple of Canon Rebel 35mm film cameras but I didn't feel I had to stick to a Canon camera.

Taken with my Motorola Droid phone, my "other" camera.


I start out by getting into "camera mode." This means taking a look around. I look all around me, up close and far away. I usually look up at the sky first (or ceiling and upper walls) then far out in front of me. Then I'll look at the light and see how it changes as I move around. I try to home in on shape next and usually this means building architecture and streets if I'm outside. Sometimes it means looking at trees, plants, clouds, hills, the waves if I'm at the ocean. Then I'll look at people walking by.

While indoors I'll do the same thing but adjust for the confined space. If you're inside a building be sure to look up and all around you. You're looking for interesting architectural details, how the light filters through the windows and doors, interesting details that might make up a good close up shot, etc. If you're in an intimate space, such as a home, focus on personal items, wall color and pattern and how the light is coming in. Even if you're taking pictures of people, you still want to get a good sense of the "feel" of the environment and the light so you can use the best background.

Walking around is very important if you have time. You might see a picture you want to take but if you're walking around you might find your subject looks better from a different angle because of the way the light is or because it simply looks more interesting from a different viewpoint. And a different angle might mean shooting from the floor or high above.

If you have the time I suggest taking a few test shots to see how they come out and what the light looks like. You might find that using a flash would be better or you might want to try out a different setting on your camera. I also suggest trying out the zoom to see if that makes for a better picture. It doesn't matter if the picture isn't completely in focus, this is just a test run.

Getting into "camera mode" at a church in Bruges. I knew this photo wouldn't be particularly compelling but I took the shot and several others like it to see how the architecture of the space and light showed up in the picture.

Another "camera mode" picture in the same church. I thought this picture of the church organ might turn out well because of the light in the windows and the angle but when I took the first shot, I didn't like it.


Many times I'm already in camera mode so all I have to do is keep looking until something catches my eye. I'll pull out my camera or turn it on and then set up the shot. I try not to use any presets on my camera unless it's Nighttime or Scenery. I don't use Sunset mode because it makes everything way too orange. I try to take at least 3-4 shots of my subject unless I'm moving pretty fast (as when I went hiking in the Narrows at Zion). When I'm moving quickly I'll just point and shoot (preferably two times) and move on, trusting that something will come out. Many times the best shots are the spontaneous ones.

Start of the snow in Budapest. An example of shooting quickly and
using a little zoom to make the picture better

Never underestimate the usefulness of your zoom. While I have 10x zoom on my camera, I still think any zoom is worth experimenting with. Sometimes all you need to do is pull in a little tighter. I shot the picture above through the window of the tour bus as we were driving around a corner. Look out the window, focus, point, shoot, glance at photo, zoom in tighter, shoot again. I was hoping against hope I would capture the snow falling. In the first one (below) you can see the reflection of bus lights in the window. The one above is the second one. You can see reflections from the bus window in the picture above but they aren't that noticeable. I choose to take this picture here because you can't see as many buildings in the background. Had I taken the shot a few seconds later, you'd see them and I don't think I would have liked the picture as much.

Here's the first picture with the bus lights, the window corner, and the sidewalk.

Paying attention to light and color in less obvious places can yield some good shots. Light and color are front and center while walking on the beach at sunset but paying attention elsewhere can be interesting too.

The underside of a pier in Santa Cruz, California. I wouldn't call this one of my best shots but I like it for the color on the water and the shadowy supports. This shot and the other four like them were experiments in trying to capture light, shadow, and color.

Here's another shot. As I said, not one of my best but a worthwhile experiment.

Ferns at the National Conservatory in Washington, D.C. Had I taken the picture straight on I would have been shooting into the sun. I walked a few steps to the left and took this shot.

I took this shot in Nuremberg while walking along the top of the city wall. I took a lot of photos on this walk as research for my novel and had fun with the constant play of shadow and light.


I really like to play with angles: shooting from above, shooting from the ground, making the subject off center in the picture, and most important, leaning back and shooting straight up. I don't always use these shots but they really help me loosen up and take good pictures. One of the best photos I've ever taken is one I took with my 35mm film Canon Rebel camera at Bryce Canyon. One shot. I leaned back as far as I could and shot a picture of a redwood in the middle of the narrow red canyon looking up at the top of the tree and the blue sky. The picture is framed at my parents' house. I should have a digital version of it made so I can post it here.

The Brooklyn Bridge in NYC. I like this picture just fine but everyone takes this picture.

The Brooklyn Bridge again. I was fascinated by the interplay of cables and overcast sky. After leaning over and tilting my head I decided on this shot. I like it much better.

I'm also interested in reflections and framing shots a little differently. I tend to think in terms of architecture when trying to come up with a different way to frame a picture. Is there a part of a building or piece of furniture or trees that will frame and bring out your subject better?

I took this picture at the MOMA in NYC. I was eating on the cafe balcony and noticed the reflection of the buildings on the outside wall of the museum. I don't recall if I ever showed this picture to anyone but I like it a lot.

I took this shot at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I took a couple of pictures without the window bars but really like how this picture and the other one like it turned out. This is a GREAT wallpaper on my computer.

A hallway at the Abby in Melk, Austria. I find that shooting anything that is a tunnel or looks like a tunnel usually yields interesting results. If you're shooting an actual tunnel, I've found that going a little ways inside gets the best pictures especially if the tunnel is dark and the other end is light. If you're still not getting a good shot then try moving around some more.

Another example of my experiment with framing. This is my old friend Pierre the Penguin inside his nest box. I'm shooting through the small hole in the back of the box. It's blurry but it was an experiment.

You've all seen this picture in the sidebar. Pierre climbed out of his nest box a couple of minutes later. He noticed I was still fussing with my camera and turned to look directly at me. And yes he is looking at me. Penguins don't have binocular vision like we do so when they want to take a good look at you they turn their head and look at you with one eye.


I am well aware of my limitations while taking photos. For example, I don't really understand the manual controls or even the presets on my camera. Instead, I have to rely on doing what I can to get the camera to duplicate what I see. One of the major things I struggle with is camera shake where you can't hold the camera still enough and your pictures turn out blurry. Obviously, this is a common problem when you're moving quickly. It's great that my camera is small and fairly light but that also means I can't hold it perfectly still either. A larger, heavier camera helps compensate for this problem but it also means your camera weighs a ton while lugging it around. Many cameras have a feature that can compensate for this problem some of the time. Also, I could use a tripod but to be honest the times I have the most problem with camera shake is when I'm trying to take a picture at an unusual angle such as when I'm leaning straight back. Taking a deep breath and holding it while planting my feet just before taking the shot helps a lot.

I don't really like to take pictures of people posing in front of something, like a landmark. I suppose the reason why is everyone takes pictures like that. When I took my two trips to Europe I spent a good deal of time taking self-portraits. Inevitably, someone in my group or a passerby would offer to take a picture of me standing in front of something. I can think of only two of these kinds of pictures of me that I actually like.

A photo of me standing in front of a canal taken by a nice man while I was in Bruges.

Obviously this is a cheesy self-portrait but I like it anyway. I'd been looking at Flemish Primitives in Bruges the previous day and was spending the day in Ghent. I'd just come from seeing the Ghent Altarpiece and I was on my way to see more Flemish Primitives at the Fine Arts Museum. I was in Northern Renaissance art heaven and I think you can see it in my expression.


As with writing, the best advice I can give you is to keep shooting. You never know when you'll come up with something really cool. The easiest way to do this is to take your camera with you and use it all the time. It's the only way to get better. Start a blog of your pictures. Why not? I think I've become a much better photographer since I started posting pictures on this blog.

This is a picture of me reflected in a sign on the fountain in Justin Hermann Plaza in the Financial District here in San Francisco. I was hoping to get some interesting shots using the reflection but I was having difficult getting anything that looked right.

Then I got this shot and it was only one shot. The rest of the pictures look like the one above. Somehow I got the camera to focus on me instead of the signage and my eye came into perfect focus. Plus, I love that you can only see part of my face. This picture looks good in color but I think it looks even better in black and white.

Even if you don't take a camera with you all the time it would still be worthwhile to find interesting pictures to take with your phone camera. You never know when you might get something good and it's very good practice.

In terms of alterations I only alter my photos when I want to lighten them up a little if a photo is too dark or if the photo is a little out of focus I might try to sharpen it. I don't change the color and I never crop my photos. I don't do anything else to my photos unless I'm doing obvious alterations like I've done with my self-portraits. Such as:

Let me know if you have other picture taking suggestions or ideas. I'd love to hear your tips and tricks.

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