Workshop: Photography for Writers


Vision 71



Photography for Writers


Lazette Gifford

Joyously Prolific Blog

Copyright © 2013, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved




Introduction: Why Photography?


Some of you are sitting there going . . . huh? Why are we talking about photography in an ezine dedicated to writing? There are a few good reasons, actually. Writers need inspiration and many of us find it in photography. Collecting pictures is more than just a key to memory; every time you save a vision of some place special, you can use the picture to help you recreate the place in words. Photography can be a wonderful help to world building.

I have seen many people scanning the web for pictures and sometimes say 'I saw the perfect scene for a book cover the other day when I was out walking.' I have also known writers who are new photographers, trying to capture something they want to write about. They'll pay for photos of things like a tree in sunset to use on a cover, but with a simple camera, they could get a picture that is theirs alone and that might even better suit them.

There are, of course, writers who simply want to take good photos as well. This is another form of art.

There might be one more reason to take note of photography terms and actions. If you want to have a photographer in your story, knowing some of what the person is doing will be helpful.

(Here's one from the old days of film and print. I'm sure you've seen a show where the photographer is developing a picture in a darkroom, the red light showing what he's doing. He gets done and holds up a perfect color photo. Nope. Won't work. Color print paper (and film) is affected by all colors of light. The red light would have ruined the picture and given you nothing at all. This would only work if it were black and white photos because that paper is resistant to red light.)

Photography is partly a matter of 'focus' and I don't mean what the lens do. When people take up photography, they become more aware of the individual pieces that make up the world around them, and this widens their ability to look at details to add in stories.

This set of workshop is a minor introduction to photography and not enough to make you an expert. However, this can start some of you on the way to capturing the scenes you really want.

I take a lot of pictures.  I have a Picture-A-Day Blog where the pictures posted have been taken that day:

I have a Flikr account with more photos:

And some of my zoo pictures have appeared in magazines and at (oddly enough) wildlife refuges on display signs.  Here are a few, though I need to update this site:

I used to have my own darkroom back in the age of film.  I still have the equipment and a nagging urge to work with black and white film and printing again.  However, photography has always been a source of inspiration for me, and not a profession (though I've made money at it).  I believe exploring photography can help writers better see their own world and imagine new ones.


Part 1: Know your camera


I'll skip over the idea of using film cameras and medium or large format cameras; if you are using them, chances are you know what you're doing anyway. Instead, I'll cover the types of cameras most of us are likely to have these days.


Phone and Tablet cameras


These cameras are an addition to the other uses for the device and can provide very good pictures, even though they might not have the same controls as listed below. However, remember that the camera part is just an add-on; you might want to invest in something dedicated to photography if you find that you are not getting the pictures you want. Check out the different ways to manipulate the settings and see if your device supports the basics that I'll go through below.


Point and Shoot


Point and shoot cameras are usually small with some basic controls and perhaps a few 'artistic' additions. They will often have a short zoom range, too. These are pocket size, handy to carry around, inconspicuous and often more than enough for what most people need.


Bridge Cameras


These are larger than most point and shoot cameras, with a longer zoom and usually a few more controls, including a wider range of artistic possibilities. They feature a lot of the same controls as a DSLR, but with a single built-in lens and no RAW format available (see below).


DSLR Cameras


Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras as the ones that allow you to change the lens. This allows you a far larger range of choices and some specialization which can give you exactly the picture you want -- as long as you know what you are doing. These are the more expensive cameras, and they also are the ones that allow you to shoot a RAW photo, which is one that has not had any manipulation to it. Other cameras produce JPGs and TIFFs, which means they are already condensed and have had various forms of color correction, sharpening, etc., applied. With a RAW photo, you do any manipulations you want in post-production, rather than letting the camera made adjustments based on some average commands.


In theory, each type of camera in this list should produce a better picture than the type of camera before it. That's not really true because a lot of the quality is in the ability of the photographer to understand the camera fundamentals. I've seen incredible pictures from camera phones and really bad pictures from DSLRs.




The higher the megapixel, the more detail the camera is capturing in each shot. This won't be obvious in most regular sized pictures. Most cameras these days are 10 megapixels and up, and the higher ones are good for larger format prints, like posters and such. The higher megapixels generally mean you can crop out more of the picture without seeing degradation in the quality when you blow up part of it. This is not always true, though. The best answer is to take the picture you want without having to resize anything, but that's not always possible.

My current digital cameras range from 5 megapixel to 18 megapixels. They are three bridge and one DSLR. I have had several pictures published in magazines and books, and most of them were from low megapixel cameras by today's standards.


Step 1:

Get your camera. Look it over and find where the controls are. For some it is a menu you access, for others, it's a series of buttons or dials. Look them over. You may not have really done so since you first got the camera or realized you had one with your tablet or smart phone.


Part 2: The Triad of controls


There are three main controls you must understand to produce the picture you want. While you can use the automatic settings on most cameras, these will not always produce the best pictures. It's better to know what you want from the picture and manipulate the camera to produce it. Think of it like this: Would you let your computer choose the verb for you in writing, knowing it will choose the most common, average word it can find? That is what your camera is doing in full automated mode. Sometimes it works beautifully, but in tricky scenes, you want to have control.


Aperture (Av)


This is the setting that most people have trouble with but only because they haven't visualized what it is doing. Av controls how large an opening is made between the lens and the processor where the picture is captured.

Aperture numbers like 4.5, 5.6, 8, 22, etc., are the fraction of area open. This means the higher the number, the smaller the opening. Think of the opening like a pie. A pie cut into 8 pieces has individually larger pieces than one cut into 22 pieces.

With a smaller aperture, less light is getting to the processor. When the rest of the camera is set properly (we'll get to this), it means a very sharp picture throughout the entire depth of field. That means things in the distance are as sharp as those in the middle and foreground.

When you open the aperture up and get more light, and that light blurs the distant features while the closer objects stay in focus. This is a great way to manipulate a picture where you want something (a person or a tree) to be in focus while the rest of the material behind it is not drawing attention.


Shutter (Tv)


Tv is the time control, or the amount of time the shutter remains open. This can affect the overall focus of the picture. If things are moving, then they are going to be blurred in your picture if the shutter is open for too long. In some cases, moving items can even disappear from a picture if they are moving across the focal plane and the shutter is open long enough to bring the material it crossed back over the area.

Shutter speed is very important for anyone hand-holding the camera for a picture. If the shutter is open for too long, even breathing can make the picture blurry. Few people can really hold a camera still for very long.

Shutter speeds range all over the place from very small fractions of a second (1/2000 and higher) to times that range in a number of seconds. Obviously in this case you want to fastest speed for the shutter unless you purposely want to blur things with movement.

Shutter speed and aperture work together. You need to balance them out (along with one more item below) to make the best picture. On a bright day, a small aperture (small fraction open) and a fast shutter speed can produce the best picture. As the light dims, either or both may have to be lowered to produce a good picture. The best to do is adjust the aperture to the most open you can get and bring the shutter speed down afterwards until you get to the longest opening where you can hold the camera without causing any shaking and blurring.

This is the biggest problem I see with pictures by people who don't understand these two controls. Sometimes they've let the camera choose what it thinks is best, but the camera has a limited range of understanding and you may not realize why the picture is not turning out.




ISO is an old film designation having to deal with the sensitivity of the film to light. Low ISO films have less grain than those with higher ISOs and the same is true in the digital world.

ISO is another way to add or subtract light from a picture, but the cost comes at some degradation of the end result. In general, you want to shoot with the lowest ISO, but at some point manipulation of both Av and Tv (aperture and shutter) will still produce something too dark. This is when you start upping the ISO until you get a level where you can make an acceptable picture. Usually the best ISO settings are 100 (or lower) to 400. Once you get higher, you will start seeing some grain when you look at the full size of the picture. This might not be noticeable if you are only going to look at smaller pictures. Decide what is acceptable for you.

Some cameras offer very high ISOs which are useful for night scenes, but the pictures will be very grainy. They can be useful sometimes, though.


Manual settings


In most cases, you will set the aperture to what you want or the shudder speed to what you want and let the camera take care of the other part, with you manipulating the ISO to get the best result.

Some cameras have a manual setting, though, that allows you to set both shutter and aperture. This widens the range of what you can accomplish. For instance, if you want to take a picture of a stream or waterfall and give the water the effect of flowing, you will need to have a slower shutter speed (though usually less than 1 second. You'll want to experiment). If the day is bright, and you try to set a long shutter speed, the camera will try to compensate. You want to have control over both so that you can get just the right look to the picture.

Manual gives you more control than any of the other settings, but you will need to experiment to see what effects you get.


Step 2:

Start changing the settings on your camera and take pictures, studying the differences in the pictures (if any). Change all three settings, including the ISO to see these differences. The results will give you an excellent starting place for what you find acceptable and how well your camera does. Different cameras have different tolerances. You will also learn at what shutter speed you start seeing blurring, even when you think you are holding the camera perfectly still.



Part 3: Taking the picture


Knowing the different settings is not going to help you take a better picture until you see how to use those settings to enhance the end result.


Focus and meter reading

Focus is easy, right? Just point and let the camera do the rest. Yes, that works most of the time. However, if you would like your focus subject to be off to the right, what do you do? In most cases, you hold the focus/shutter button partway down to the point where it snaps into focus, then holding the button (so you don't lose that focus), move your subject to the side of the picture and press all the way down to take the shot.

If your camera has a manual focus option, you can pre-focus on a spot and wait for your subject to move through. This is very handy for fast moving subjects like birds, horses and race cars.

The camera also does the metering, which is measuring the light. This tells you what you need to do with the aperture and shutter settings. How the camera meters depends on the camera and sometimes on controls you can set. These usually include overall metering, center-weighted and spot metering.

In an overall or multiple point metering, the camera takes readings from several places in the scene and averages them out. I think you can see where this might be a problem: If you have a bright sky, for instance, and dark shadows beneath the trees, either the sky will blow out or the shadow area will lose details. If you cannot control the metering, then point at the area where you want the details to show most clearly. And remember to change the shutter or aperture if you can to get what you want. You don't have to let the camera have the final say in most cases.

Center-weighted takes readings just from the center of the picture, which can limit the averaging. Spot metering takes reading just from the exact center of the camera's focus. (Some cameras allow you to move the spot -- and to move the auto focus spot as well. See if yours does because this can be extremely helpful in some photos).

Linked with light metering is White Balance. Many cameras allow you to choose what kind of lighting you have around you (sunny, cloudy, incandescent, florescent, etc.). This is actually one that the camera can usually handle very well on it's own. You can also manipulate bad color casts in post production through any number of programs.


Tripods and Monopods

These items can provide the steady base you need to take a better picture in low light conditions without risking camera shake. A tripod is especially good for late night shots of city lights or candles on a cake.

Monopods do not provide quite as much support as a tripod, but they might be all you need for some situations. They can help you set up and prepare for action that is going to cross your focal plane, for instance, and have the camera steady and ready when it happens. They're generally light and can be folded down and attached to the camera or hooked on to a belt or bag. A monopod can be a very handy, lightweight addition to your camera supplies. Make certain that your type of camera has a mounting spot on the bottom -- a small circle that looks like a screw would fit in it.

This is where a tripod attaches as well. A tripod has more maneuverability to tilt and twist the camera to various positions. However, a tripod is a bit more work to carry and a good one can be quite heavy. The heavier the tripod, the sturdier it will be, though.

Whenever you take a picture without a tripod or monopod, there are a few tricks that can help. If you can brace the camera against something like a wall or a tree, you have a better chance of not having the camera move during the shot. If that's not possible, hold the camera (even an tablet phone or camera phone) in both hands, brace your elbows at your sides, take a deep breath and hold it as you take the picture. Putting your right foot slightly in front can also help steady you.


When to use flash instead


Most cameras have built in flash and some of these cameras will trigger the flash without you having any control. This can make something like a night shot impossible, but for many occasions they work fine.

If you have a choice between flash or not, there are some things to keep in mind.


1. How far are you from the subject? A flash has only a limited range. If the object is too far, you might at best get a couple glowing eyes past the spot where the flash reached. Conversely, if the focus is too close, you can white-out the picture and get no detail at all.


2. If you have glass between you and the object, chances are you will only get the glare of the flash going off. You can work around this somewhat. You can put the lens right up against the glass in some cases so that it doesn't catch the glare. You can try shooting at an angle to the glass when you cannot get close to it or when the object is not directly in front of you.


3. Some cameras allow you to manipulate various controls for the flash. This can include turning the flash up and down or setting it to flash at the start or the end of the picture's shutter opening. This can help you manipulate how the background looks, including bringing out the deep colors of a sunset and still having a bright figure in the foreground.


4. Flash will overpower any ambient light. This means if you have a lovely scene lit by candles, you might as well blow them out. All you will get is the stark light from the flash unit. Also, keep shadows in mind. If your object is very close to a wall, you are likely to have a very sharp shadow, which can be unflattering and distracting. Move the subject, if possible, or change from a straight on shot to something at an angle. This can help.


EXIF info

The age of digital cameras has given us one more wonderful little gift called EXIF info. This is information tagged onto pictures which includes things like aperture, shutter and ISO readings along with a plethora of other details that may have been added in after the picture was taken such as tags added in programs like Adobe Lightroom. It can also include GPS coordinates for cameras with that ability and a number of other things (did flash go off, for instance). This is great information for studying what you did -- and for studying what others have done. Many pictures on the Flikr site include the EXIF data. You can find it under 'actions' above a picture. Some people don't post their EXIF data, though.



Step 3:

Go experiment.  Most of digital photography is best learned by experimenting. That's okay -- digital photography costs you nothing except some time once you have the equipment. If you already have the equipment, then it's good for you to take the time to experiment with the controls and learn what you can do.


There is far more to photography than these basics; however you cannot go on until you understand these controls.  Cameras are ubiquitous these days with so many people having them as part of their phones.  There is no reason not to use this tool wisely and see what inspiration you can find and capture to help with your writing work.