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quick improvements on a cheap point-n-shoot?

Posted: January 18th, 2016, 12:02 pm
by rhyno
Hi, I'm relatively new to both field herping and photography, and am looking to greatly improve my photography skills. I'm familiar with some of the most basic tenets of composition (rule of thirds, visual flow, figure-ground contrast, etc.) and I've got a pretty solid idea of how most of my camera's functions work (like ISO, focal length, shutter speed, white balance, etc.). My camera is a Canon PowerShot SX510 HS. I generally use it on program shift, tweaking ISO and aperture as needs dictate. Here are a couple of typical pictures I've taken:



As you can see, in both pictures (the first more than the second), the subject doesn't really "pop" from the background as much as I'd like it to (among other issues, particularly of light and shadow on the subject). I'm sure some of this is just poor focusing and an unsteady hand--and, in the second picture, poor figure-ground chromatic and achromatic contrast--but there's certainly more to it than that. Does anyone have any suggestions that I wouldn't find on a "20 quick fixes for beginner photographers"-type article for quick-and-dirty techniques to improve my image quality without upgrading my gear? (And if a "20 quick fixes for beginner photographers" article would really cover the issues I have... well, then feel free to tell me that too haha)

Re: quick improvements on a cheap point-n-shoot?

Posted: January 19th, 2016, 11:36 am
by Stohlgren
Hey Rhyno,

I think one of the best ways to improve quickly is to find some photos online that you like and really try to dissect them and figure out what you like about them and how to recreate that in your own images. Then you can diverge from there into developing your own style. But here are just a few thoughts on the photos you shared.

- First, your shutter speeds were very fast in these photos, so an unsteady hand is not an issue. In fact, your ISO for both shots was 1600, which was unnecessary given you had plenty of shutter speed to sacrifice. A lot of modern cameras can handle that high of an ISO without much degradation in image quality, but I would recommend a lower ISO when possible, maybe try ISO 400, as long as your shutter speed is over 1/125 or so.

Technical stuff aside, the two most important aspects to think about to improve your photography are lighting and composition.

- Lighting. On your redback photo you have some harsh sunlight coming from the left and behind the subject. This is causing the left side of the image to be blown out and the right side to be in dark shadow. It is best to avoid harsh sun when possible, and if you can, always have the sun at your back so you get a more even light on the subject (though you can try to get more creative with lighting angles on down the road). You may need to move your subject into the shade to avoid the harsh sun, but you may need to use flash compensate for the loss of light. I actually prefer to use flash on my amphibian photos, anyways. I think it also helps bring out the color of the subject and adds contrast as well. I use a lot more natural light when I photograph reptiles, but even then often have a little bit of fill flash. The problem with point and shoots is you don't have a lot of control over the strength of the flash and the angle at which it is coming from. You will just have to play around with it and see. If you want to use natural light only, try photographing early in the morning or in the evening as the sun is going down. The sunlight is much softer and more pleasing. This is when landscape and many wildlife photographers prefer to shoot due to the sweet light. Keeping the sun at your back is still recommended during these hours. Lightly overcast days can provide nice light as well.

- Composition. Unfortunately, salamanders rarely offer good in situ photo opportunities. This means you are going to have to pose them most of the time. The good thing about this is that you can encourage the salamander to take up a more photogenic posture, and you can choose a background that will help the animal stand out. Shooting a Desmog in the mud is pretty much always going to leave an overall drab looking image. Pose-wise, a lot of people go with the "field guide" style where the tail is sort of curled back towards the head and is photographed from ~45 degree angle, and that is a good place to start. I would recommend looking at some other compositions as well, though. I've been doing a lot of head shots, myself, and wide angle shots can be very interesting too, if you incorporate a visually stimulating background. Getting your camera down low with the subject can also help create separation between the subject and the background, which will help the image pop more.

Here are just a few examples of different poses and angles that I think show off these amphibians well. Note that I use either a low angle or a contrasting background, or both, to help the subject stand out. (Also note that I am using two flashes with modifiers on almost all of these, but you should be able to get somewhat similar results with even your built-in flash. You will just have a shadow, which a lot of people prefer, anyways.)



Re: quick improvements on a cheap point-n-shoot?

Posted: January 19th, 2016, 2:08 pm
by chrish
Kevin has already made a lot of great suggestions, but I might add another.
Your photos are too much of a "bullseye". You have placed your subject dead center in the frame. This means there is a lot of extra "space" in the frame that is not being used and in some ways is creating a distraction.

This is really easy to see in the Desmognathus shot. The front 40% and right 40% of the photo contribute nothing to the composition and distract the eye from the subject. It creates the impression of a picture of mud with a salamander on it rather than a picture of a salamander sitting on the mud.

I hope you don't mind that I took this photo and edited it a bit to show you what I mean.
First I cropped off some of the empty dirt space on the bottom and right side.
Because the photo is so monochromatic, I went ahead and converted it to black and white as well. This can be helpful when you have images like this. If you leave them with a tiny amount of color they look flat. If you remove the color and use just the black/gray/white colors it helps reduce that flatness a bit. (I personally don't generally like B&W herp shots, but it is sometimes a solution - YMMV!). I also resized it a bit to match the original for easier comparison. That might have made it a bit grainy?



It is still a long way from perfect. The stick/root on the right is very distracting. The face is too dark. The lump in the bottom right corner seems to "jump" out at you.

The salamander is a bit top lit as well. I would be good to use a fill flash to get a little light on the dark side of the face there. You can achieve the same goal with just a reflection. A small index card covered with crumpled foil could have been used to reflect a bit more light on the face and really give the photo a bit more "punch".

But maybe the most useful tip that Kevin gave you is to look at other people's photos with a critical eye.
Ask yourself some honest questions, like:
- What do I like about this photo?
- What makes it great?
- How can I emulate that or create a different effect?
- How do I achieve that using my camera and the available light?
- What do I NOT like about the photo?
- How would I remove/reduce those negative things if I was taking the photo myself?

Re: quick improvements on a cheap point-n-shoot?

Posted: January 22nd, 2016, 8:49 am
by rhyno
Thank you both for the suggestions, it really means a lot that you took the time to break it down point-by-point like that.

Kevin, I *really* like your photos, particularly the two-lined, the treefrog glass frog, and the yonahlossee. The compositions really do pop very nicely, and the details on the faces--especially the frog's eyes and the two-lined's cirri--are stellar. I can see where the flash and the more diffuse ambient lighting helped create the right kind of contrast and high clarity.

Chris, that's a good point about the "bullseye" effect, and the distraction of the little quirks in the foreground. I like your idea for the edit, but even with the switch to B&W I just don't think there's enough contrast to salvage that particular picture. How much do you use photoshop (or gimp, if you're cheap like me) to make corrections?

Looking forward to my next chance to get out and implement some of your ideas... spring can't get here soon enough!

Re: quick improvements on a cheap point-n-shoot?

Posted: July 10th, 2016, 3:45 pm
by rhyno

Pseudotriton r. ruber photographed in Adams County, OH. Picture was taken in a deep ravine under heavy cloud cover, so lighting was dim. I used 1/6" exposure, f/3.4 aperture (chosen automatically iirc), and 400 ISO. Composition and lighting were much better than most of my previous pictures, but there were still a lot of improvements to be made (choosing a more dynamic composition, getting a better combo of ISO and aperture).
ImageredSalamander by Ryan Lange, on Flickr

Eurycea l. longicauda photographed in Licking County, OH. Again, lighting was fairly dim, but I think I did a better job of adjusting for it this time, with a .3" exposure, f/7.1 aperture, and 800 ISO. The composition still isn't quite where I want it to be, though it's much better than the pic above. And while this picture is very nice and crisp, even with a bit of shooping the color doesn't pop like I'd like it to.
Imagelongtail_02 by Ryan Lange, on Flickr

Pseudotriton r. ruber, Desmognathus fuscus, Anaxyrus a. americanus, and Plethodon glutinosus, all photographed in Hocking County, OH. These pictures were all taken around noon and it was quite sunny, but the tree cover diffused the light fairly well.

The four (!) juvenile red salamanders we found were in no mood to be photographed, refusing to sit still for more than about a second at a time... so composition was not the best. I'm fairly happy with how the lighting and focus turned out for this picture though.
Imagered2Edited by Ryan Lange, on Flickr

The dusky was MUCH more photogenic, and I'm very happy with the lighting and composition--just wish I'd used a bit smaller aperture than f/3.4 so I could've preserved a bit more of the very pretty detail on its body.
ImageduskyEdited by Ryan Lange, on Flickr

The toad may be my best shot yet. It stood very nice and still for me, and the color, focus, and lighting all turned out great.
ImagetoadEdited by Ryan Lange, on Flickr

Finally, the slimy (which was a lifer for my herping buddy) gave me a great pose when the lighting was near perfect, though again f/3.4 was probably too big an aperture. I wish the camera would've preserved how very yellow this slimy's spots were--for a couple seconds I thought I'd flipped a maculatum. A fill flash would've helped preserve the details of the animal's dark eyes without lightening up the body as much as my photoshopping did, but that's probably going to be outside of the budget for awhile.
ImageslimyEdited1 by Ryan Lange, on Flickr

Again, thank you so much to everyone who made suggestions. I'm always happy to get more!

Re: quick improvements on a cheap point-n-shoot?

Posted: July 11th, 2016, 4:17 pm
by chrish
Much better series of photos. You seem to be getting "your eye" for herp photography.