Black and White Photography, Part 5

In this post, I’ll cover the techniques that are the best to use to convert your images to black and white.  They’re the most intuitive to use, and they also provide a lot of flexibility in your conversion.  Included in the advantages of these techniques are that they are non-destructive – the Channel Mixer and Black and White adjustment are both available as adjustment layers, and the ACR black and white conversion can be done as a smart filter in Photoshop CC.

Technique 8 – Channel Mixer

This used to be one of the best ways to convert an image to black and white, and was the go-to option until Photoshop CS3 brought in the Black and White adjustment, way back in 2007.  While this can be done by going to Image, then to Adjustments and choosing Channel Mixer, it is far better to do this as an adjustment layer.

Once you’ve selected the Channel Mixer from the list of adjustment layers (the half black, half white circle at the bottom of the Layers palette), make sure you tick the “monochrome” box.  This will set the three sliders to 40% for red, 40% for green and 20% for blue as a default setting.  Each slider will affect one of the three colour channels.  Sliding to the right will brighten the particular channel, while sliding to the left will darken that channel.  Underneath the sliders, you’ll see a total, which tells you the total of the three sliders.  To keep the image properly exposed, try to keep the total at 100%.  If it is under 100%, your image will be dark, and if it is above, your image will be too bright.  You can also use the constant slider to make some alterations to brightness.

Another advantage of this technique is that it gives you presets, so you can just choose one of those and go for it.  The presets for the red, yellow or orange filters often work quite nicely for portraits, but as always, play around with the settings.


Technique 9 – Black and White Adjustment Layer

First introduced in Photoshop CS3, this adjustment made it quick and easy to make black and white conversions.  Like the Channel Mixer, this uses sliders, but instead of just the red, green and blue sliders, the black and white adjustment has red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta, giving much finer control. 

Again, this is best used as an adjustment layer, to prevent altering pixels permanently.  Once you have the adjustment layer dialogue box open, it’s a simple matter of adjusting the sliders as you see fit.  Sliding to the right will increase the brightness of a particular colour, and sliding to the left will darken that colour.  It can sometimes be difficult to see the effect a slider has, particularly if there is not much of that colour in the image.  I like to quickly slide between the far left and far right to help me easily see what parts of the image will be affected and then make my adjustment.

Another benefit of this is that you can use a targeted adjustment tool.  If you click on the icon of the hand with the sideways arrows, you will be able to click and drag on the image, adjusting just those colours that you clicked on.  This will let you adjust just the colours you want, giving you even finer control than using the individual sliders.


Technique 9 – Camera Raw HSL/Grayscale Panel

Starting in Photoshop CC, you are able to open Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) as a filter in Photoshop, making it very easy to use it to adjust jpeg images (you can get Photoshop CS6 to open a jpeg in Raw, but it’s rather convoluted, and I won’t go into it here).

Unlike the previous two techniques, this can’t be done as an adjustment layer, but we can do it as a smart filter so it won’t make any permanent changes to the pixels.  On your background layer (or merged layer if you have already created several layers that you have worked on), right click and choose “Convert to smart object” from the pop up list.  Now go to the Filter menu and choose “Camera Raw Filter.”  Once the ACR filter comes up, click on the fourth icon over on the right-hand side.  This is the HSL/Grayscale panel.  If you are working in colour, this gives you the option to change the hue, saturation and luminance of each colour, but if you tick the “convert to grayscale” box, you’ll only get one (since hue and luminance won’t affect an image without colour).  The sliders work the same way as the sliders in the Black and White adjustment described above, but there are even more; eight colours instead of six.  Slide them to the right to increase the brightness of a colour and slide them to the left to darken a colour.  And again, you can use the targeted adjustment tool to click and drag on the image to make your changes (this time it’s on the toolbar along the top).


The techniques I’ve covered in the last few posts are the most common ways to convert an image to black and white.  As we’ve seen, some of them give a great deal of flexibility, while others are severely limited, and others, while useful, are far from the ideal choice for artistic monochrome conversions.

After converting to black and white, you may want to apply a tint to your image to make a duotone, a tritone or even more.  There are several different ways to accomplish this, but I’ll cover them in a future series of posts.

Black and White Photography, Part 4

Technique 6 – Twin Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layers

I said earlier that using a single hue/saturation adjustment layer is not a good way of making a black and white image because it doesn’t let you control the conversion.  But the simple addition of a second hue/saturation adjustment layer gives you an adjustment that works with just a single slider and a drop down box.

To start, create a hue/saturation adjustment layer, and then just leave it.  If you want, you can name it “Adjustment” for ease of use.  Then, create a second hue/saturation adjustment layer above the “Adjustment” layer.  This one can be called “Desaturate.”  Drag the saturation slider down to -100% and set the blend mode to colour.

This gives you the same black and white conversion that you get using a single hue/saturation adjustment layer.  But the “Adjustment” layer beneath it gives you the option to create different effects.  Open up the “Adjustment” layer and slide the hue slider along.  You’ll see the tones of the image change.  Skin tones will brighten until they are almost white, then plunge into dark shades of grey.  Leaves will also brighten and darken, as will skies and cloths and just about everything else.

The reason is because as you drag the hue slider, you are changing the colours in the underlying image (if you want to see this, click the eye icon to hide the “Desaturation” layer).  And this means that the luminosity of each colour changes, getting darker and lighter, depending on where the slider is.  So, you might be changing the sky to a shade of green, or skin tones to purple.  This doesn’t affect the final image, of course, since there is another hue/saturation adjustment layer which is pulling all the colour out.  But the changes in luminosity remain, and so different areas of the black and white image get brighter or darker.

This technique is starting to give us more control, since we are easily able to adjust the luminosity of pixels depending on their original colour.  We can get more control over the conversion because we can choose particular colours to adjust from the drop down box.  You can choose red, and then the hue slider will only adjust red tones in the image.  But this technique can be a bit clunky to use as there you have to keep changing between colours in the drop down box.  Later techniques will have separate sliders for each colour.

Technique 7 – Calculations

This technique is actually quite powerful, and was one of the earliest ways Photoshop had to create black and white images.  It was also used back in the early days of Photoshop as an advanced selection tool, because it is able to blend channels together.  But it is listed here, instead of among the best of the best, for one reason.  It’s not very intuitive.  There’s no easy way to predict what results you’ll get.  It’s a matter of trial and error, playing around with different settings until you find one that suits the image you are working on.

Start by going to the Image menu, then choosing Calculations.  This opens up the Calculations dialogue box.  In this box, you can choose two sources, which Photoshop will then merge together.  For each source, you can choose the layer you will use (if you haven’t done any editing on the image, you can just use the background layer, but if you have done skin smoothing, you may want to create a merged layer to use), and you can then pick which channel you want to take.

What’s a channel, you ask?  In Photoshop, a channel is just a kind of selection, and it works the same way as a layer mask.  On a layer mask, you can paint white to show the layer, and paint black to hide the layer.  A channel is basically the same thing, a selection of a colour in the image.  White shows where there is a lot of a particular colour, and black shows where the colour is not present.  So, if you open a portrait and select the red channel (the channels palette is usually a tab next to the layers palette), you will see white where there is a lot of red in the image, such as the model’s skin, and black where there is very little red, such as the blue of the sky.  Similar channels exist for green and blue.

In Calculations, you are taking two of the channels and blending them together to create a new channel.  In Source 1, you choose the first channel that you want to use, and in Source 2, choose the other channel you want.  It will usually be a different channel, but you can choose the same channel for each source.  Once you have chosen both of your sources, choose the blend mode.  These are the same blend modes you have for blending layers together. With this technique, Overlay, Soft Light and Multiply often work well, but feel free to play with the others.  For portraits, you can try blending the red and green channels with the blend mode set to Multiply (or try Overlay if it comes out too dark), but this really is a technique that you have to play around with.  It’s almost impossible to predict the end result of this technique until you actually do it.

Once you have got the effect you like, you aren’t finished.  Calculations has not converted your image to black and white yet.  It has simply created a new channel.  To make the image black and white, create a new layer and fill it with black.  Then go to the Select menu and choose “Load Selection.”  Choose the Alpha 1 channel in the Channel box and click OK.  Then go to the Edit menu, choose “Fill” and select “White.”  This will turn any selected pixels white, but because the channel has created shades of grey, it means that some pixels are only partially selected.  As a result, when you fill the selection with white, they will not turn all the way to white, and will instead become a shade of grey.  This will give you the black and white conversion on the new layer you created.

In the next and final post, I’ll look at the most powerful black and white conversion techniques – the Channel Mixer, the Black and White adjustment layer, and Camera Raw’s Black and white conversion.

Black and White Photography, Part 3

In this entry, I’ll look at a conversion technique that gives more control over the techniques in the last post.  But this isn’t yet the cream of the crop – this doesn’t have the ability to give the fine control offered by the techniques I’ll cover in the next post offer.  But still, the technique I’ll cover today does have its place in photo editing.

Technique 5 – Gradient Maps

This technique gives a fairly nice conversion, although making adjustments to it does take a little bit of work.  However, it doesn’t require the time consuming effort of the dodge and burn layer.

Create a gradient map adjustment layer above your image.  If your colours are set to the default of black foreground and white background, then you will get a gradient that colours the image a black in the darkest areas, gradually fading through grey until you get white in the highlights.

Setting this layer to a blend mode of colour gives exactly the same results as the solid colour adjustment layer does, because it is doing the same thing – using a layer without colour to remove the colour from a colour image.  But if we leave the gradient map layer’s blend mode on normal, we can do something different.

The gradient map adjustment layer takes the brightness of a colour pixel and uses that to place it within the gradient.  It then takes the colour from that part of the gradient and makes the pixel that colour.  For example, if a pixel’s colour has a brightness of 50%, then it will take the colour that is halfway along the gradient and change the pixel to that colour.  And if the original pixel had a brightness of 75%, then it will take the colour that is three quarters along the gradient and change the pixel to that.

However, the basic gradient that comes from a black to white only plots a pixel to a black and white pixel which is the same brightness that it started as.  But this can be changed.  If we open up the gradient editor (double click the adjustment layer icon, then click on the gradient that appears in the dialogue box), we can add additional shades of grey to fine tune the black and white conversion.  You can see that there are little tabs (called colour stops) underneath the gradient.  We can add more of those to control how the image is converted to a shade of grey.

Click underneath the gradient editor, and you will add another colour stop (by default it will be black).  Drag it to roughly the middle of the gradient.  You’ll see that the image is darker than it was; this is because the gradient map adjustment layer is now taking all the pixels that have a brightness of 50% (because the colour stop is halfway along) and changing them to be black pixels.  This looks a little drastic, but we can change the stop’s colour by clicking on it and then clicking on the colour box below it to change it.  If we make it a shade of grey with a brightness value of 33%, then the gradient map will take any colour pixels with a brightness value of 50% and remap them to a grey pixel with a brightness value of 33%.

Using this same method, we can add colour stops all along the gradient if we wish, allowing us to control exactly how the image is converted into black and white by remapping pixels based on their brightness.  However, this method still has disadvantages.  We are not able to use this method to increase or decrease the brightness of pixels based on their colour, only brightness.  However, this technique is not without its use.  It can be used to add colour toning to an image after we have converted it to black and white by choosing colours instead of shades of grey in the gradient map.  I’ll revisit this technique in a later post to show how such toning can be done.


The next techniques do give us the ability to adjust the image based on colour, but at the expense of complexity.  We’ll look at them in the next post.

Back and White Photography, Part 2

As I said in the last entry, there are several techniques for converting an image to black and white that I recommend you do not use.  But that doesn’t mean that these techniques are without merit.  The reason that I don’t recommend them is because they give very little control over the conversion process.  But these techniques can be used as a part of a technique where an artistic conversion is not required.  There are quite a few techniques used in Photoshop where colour information needs to be stripped from an image, and very often the techniques described in this post are perfect for that, because even though they lack control, they are quick and easy.  And if the technique doesn’t require a great deal of fine tuning, then it’s a waste of time to use one of the more complicated techniques.


Technique 1 – Shooting Monochrome

The first technique I caution against is using the monochrome option on your camera.  This gives you few options to adapt it to the particular image, although some cameras can simulate the look of different coloured filters over the lens.  But the biggest drawback to this method is that once the image is shot, you are stuck with the black and white version.  There is no way to put the colour information back into a black and white jpeg.  Of course, you can get around this by shooting in raw, but then you will have to convert the image to black and white later anyway (unless you are using the brand specific software that came with your camera).  Photoshop’s Camera Raw developing software tends to discard the information in the raw file that would convert it to black and white.  In short, I recommend that you don’t use this technique at all.

Technique 2 – Desaturate

The second technique I recommend against using is the desaturate command in Photoshop (control-shift-U or image/adjustments/desaturate).  This just strips all the colour away, giving you no control over the process (a hue/saturation adjustment layer with the saturation taken to -100% gives exactly the same effect – but at least the adjustment layer is removable).  While it doesn’t give much control, it is a perfect method to use as part of a larger Photoshop technique which requires getting a colourless version of an image.

Technique 3 – Grayscale

Another technique I recommend against using is a conversion to grayscale (image/mode/grayscale).  Like the desaturate method, this technique gives you absolutely no control over the process.  But, unlike the desaturation method, this affects the entire image, so it can’t even be used as part of another artistic technique.  The only value in this technique is that it drastically reduces the file size, so if you create a black and white image using a different technique, you can convert to greyscale to make the file size smaller.  But honestly, this isn’t worth that much.  Memory is cheap these days, and there’s no point in applying this to a layered file like a PSD (why maintain the ability to edit layers if you don’t have the ability to edit colour?), so this is another technique that is just about useless.

Technique 4 – Solid Colour (with optional dodge and burn later)

A third very basic technique, barely any better than the other techniques in this post, but it does have an element of flexibility in it that makes it marginally useful.

Start by creating a solid colour adjustment layer, filled with black.  Then set the blend mode for this layer to colour.  This strips away the colour information from the image, but since we are working on an adjustment layer, we haven’t actually removed any of the colour information.  Our background layer, with the colour information intact, is still there.

The only flexibility for this method comes from the fact that we can create a dodge and burn layer underneath the solid colour layer. Press Shift-Control-N to bring up the new layer dialogue box, set the mode to Overlay and tick the box that says, “Fill with overlay-neutral colour.”  When you click okay, you’ll get a grey layer that doesn’t change the image at all.  But if you use the paintbrush to paint black or white on this layer, you can selectively brighten or darken parts of the image to fine tune the effect.  I recommend that you use a soft edged brush with a low flow so you can build up the dodge and burn effect gradually.

Still, this technique doesn’t have much going for it.  Applying any kind of fine tuning to it is time consuming, and we can’t choose to alter sections of the image based on their colour (such as brightening all the reds).  The other methods we will look at, starting in the next post, give much more flexibility in how the finished black and white conversion comes out.

Black and White Photography, Part 1

Colour photography has been around for longer than people generally think (the first colour photograph was taken in 1855 by Thomas Sutton using a three-colour technique suggested by James Clark Maxwell).  But typically, these colour techniques were expensive and time consuming, or awkward to carry out.  Until the 1930s and the introduction of Kodachrome film, colour photography was considered impractical for everyday use by the hobbyist photographer.  However, the readily available nature of monochromatic film and the ease with which it could be processed kept black and white photography popular until the mid-twentieth century, when colour photography became more popular.

Still, just as the ability to record moving images didn’t eliminate the desire to capture still images, the introduction of colour photography has never gotten rid of the appeal of black and white photography.  In the next few blog posts, I’m going to discuss the myriad ways we have to create black and white images with digital cameras.  But for this first entry, I’ll talk a bit about what (to me) makes a picture work in monochrome.

There are many things that work together to make an appealing photograph; colour, shape, line, texture, the light dynamics (not just the difference between the light and dark areas, but how they interact to create interest in the image), pattern, and many other things.  Of course, in any particular photo, some of these will play a more important part than others, and in different photos, different aspects can gain or lose importance.

Naturally, it makes no sense to shoot an image in monochrome if the colour of the scene is important – what is the appeal of a glorious, monochromatic sunset, and who would think that shooting black and white is the best choice for a trip to Rio during Carnivale? – but in images where the most important components are things like line, pattern, shape, or dynamics, you may find that monochrome works very well.  By eliminating colour, a black and white image forces us to see the other aspects of the image, which the photographer can use to excellent effect.  How many times have we seen a black and white portrait?  Removing the colour changes the way we see the subject’s face, allowing us to see them with new eyes which can glimpse more effectively their character.  By removing colour, the photographer can show us instead the texture of a cliff, or the silhouette of a bare tree against the sky, or the pattern of fence palings across the frame.  Without colour, these things become more striking, and a skilful photographer can use monochromatic processing to chance the entire flavour of a photograph.

But it takes practice.  We see the world in colour, and it is not always easy to understand how an image will look when converted to monochrome.  This is the sort of thing that can be developed only with experience.  It is, surely, a good skill to develop.  It will force you to rely on other things to create interest in your images, and you can use these skills even in your colour photography.

There are many different ways for us to create black and white images today.  The most important part of these techniques is that they give you control over the conversion process.  For example, you may want to bring attention to the model’s red shirt by making it a bright shade of grey, while making the blue sky behind her a darker shade, perhaps almost black.  As I said earlier, the next few entries will describe some of these methods, and in the next entry, I’ll talk about the ways I do not recommend.

Photosynthetic Photography

A truly imaginative way of producing photographs from artists Ackroyd & Harvey, by using living grass as a light sensitive material.  By projecting a negative of the desired image onto the grass, a positive image forms, with the illuminated areas turning a dark green while the areas that received no light stay a pale yellow.  Check out the video and their other work on their website.

Protector – Leith Hill No Drill 2016

Photography Making A Difference

Photographer Von Wong, a photographer based in Canada, has used his photography to create a powerful message about how pollution is affecting the environment.  He used 10,000 plastic bottles and a model dressed as a mermaid to create three prints showing the effect the tremendous amount of garbage our society produces has on the world.  Have a read about how he did it and accomplished a unique set of challenges at his blog post:


Mermaids Hate Plastic:


Early Digital Cameras

I came across a video published by The 8-Bit Guy on YouTube, where he takes a look at some of the very first digital cameras.  So early, they don't have memory cards.  Instead, they use floppy disks.

Yes, floppy disks.

An eye opening look at the first generation of digital cameras!  After you watch this video, please subscribe to his channel.  He's got some really interesting videos on some of the early computer technology.


Basic Exposure Settings

There are several rules for determining a rough guide to exposure settings in photography. The ones I know of are based on the Sunny 16 rule. It’s hard to give guidelines for exact settings, because the exposure settings you use depend on the exact lighting situation, and that can change on a second by second basis. However, these are some tips for general exposure settings. Don’t take these as gospel, use them as a starting point only, because they don’t take into account any specific lighting conditions that may be present when you take your photo.

Also, if you've read my overview on shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings, you'll know that you can change one setting and compensate by changing another setting. This applies to the general settings in here - the Sunny 16 rule says that an exposure of 1/100 of a second at f16 with ISO 100 film will give nice results, so we can increase the shutter speed by a stop to 1/250 of a second and compensate by opening the aperture to f11 to get the same exposure.  In other words, if you change one setting by a certain amount, you'll need to change another setting by the same amount in the other direction in order to maintain the same exposure.

Sunny 16
In bright sun, set the aperture to f16, and set the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the camera's ISO rating. (Reciprocal means to put the number on the bottom in a fraction, with a 1 on the top. An example, 5 becomes 1/5.) So, if your film speed is ISO 100, your shutter speed becomes 1/100 of a second. If the film speed is ISO 200, your shutter speed is 1/250 (because there’s no exact match for 1/200 of a second, we go with the closest match).  If you are using a crop sensor camera, then you'll need to take this into account as well.  If you know the equivalent focal length, you can use that, but if not, just use a slightly faster shutter speed.

Cloudy 5.6
This works the same way as the Sunny 16 rule, except that the aperture is set at f5.6 instead of f16. Once again, the shutter speed should be the reciprocal of the film speed. This also works for open shade, backlit portraits with fill flash or a reflector, indoors with indirect sunlight or stained glass windows from the inside.

Dinner for 2
Another variant on the Sunny 16 rule, but this time, with the aperture set to f2. This will give acceptable results for skylines ten minutes or so after sunset, neon signs or early morning/early evening on heavy overcast days.

For fireworks, try a film speed of ISO100, with an aperture of f8.  Shutter speed isn't going to matter too much, because the fireworks aren't a constant, they change over time.  If the fireworks are the only source of light, then it doesn't matter if your shutter is open for 10 seconds or an hour, since nothing else will provide any light.  But in the real world, there are other sources of light, and the fireworks also produce smoke.  So check your shutter speed to make sure you aren't over-exposing. Digital cameras are particularly good for this, because you can check your results as you take the photos and make any adjustments as needed. A tripod is essential for this type of photography, due to the very long exposure time. Also, fireworks photography is often actually several exposures that are combined together to give plenty of fireworks in the image while avoiding any light glare from a single long exposure. Use manual mode for this situation, or the camera may try to expose for a dark sky instead of for the bright burst of the fireworks. Remember, the actual burst lasts only a second or two. If you use program, Aperture or Shutter modes on your camera, the burst will be over by the time the camera meters off it. Also, set the lens to manual focus mode and prefocus, or you’ll lose the shot as the camera tries to focus on the brief burst of the fireworks.

This is similar to fireworks photography, but is a bit trickier, because you aren’t just dealing with the light from the lightning bolt, but also from the cloud that is being lit by the lightning. Try a ten second exposure on ISO100 film with the aperture at f5.6. Be warned, however, that there is no guarantee when a flash will occur, so the best way to get a good shot is to take photo after photo after photo. To get the shot of lightning in my gallery [link] took me about half an hour and 50 shots. A tripod is essential due to the long exposure time, a remote release (either cable or infrared remote) makes it much easier, and also set the camera to manual mode and the lens to manual focus for the same reasons described in the section on fireworks. Again, check your photos and adjust your exposure as required.

Traffic Streaks
To get those cool photos of the long streaks of car lights on a busy road in the evening, try an exposure of 8 seconds at f11 for anISO 100. Again, a tripod is essential, although you don’t need to use manual mode, because the traffic lasts longer than the fireworks or lightning, but manual mode will give you the most control over the exposure. If you aren't comfortable with manual, then I recommend you use shutter priority to ensure you get the long exposure required. These settings will also work for floodlit buildings, Christmas lights and candlelit close ups, although you obviously won't get the streaks.

Silky Waterfalls
To give waterfalls a soft flowing-silk look to them, you need to use a longer exposure. Set the camera to shutter priority mode, with a value of about half a second or so and then let the camera figure out the aperture. You’ll need to use a tripod due to the long exposure time. If the lighting conditions are bright, the smallest aperture may not be enough to give a proper exposure, and you could end up with an overexposed photo. If this is the case, try setting the ISO rating to a lower setting or you can use a neutral density filter or a polarising filter.

I can’t give any exposure settings for portraits, because portraits can be taken under any lighting conditions. However, some general advice is to use Aperture priority mode and set the aperture quite wide, around f2 of f3. This will make sure the background is nicely out of focus. If you are using a compact camera that doesn’t have aperture mode, set the camera to portrait mode and this will make the camera keep the aperture as wide as possible. Also, focus on the eyes, as that is the first thing that people look at. The rest of the photo can be slightly soft, but if the eyes are sharp, it won’t matter quite as much. But if the eyes are soft, then the photo will be noticeably blurry. It’s a good idea to use the sharpening tool in Photoshop to give a click or two on each eye, thought this will be of no use if the image is too soft. If the face is filling the frame, try to place the eyes about a third of the eye down to create a pleasing balance. And finally, two notes about using flash in portraiture. First, if the flash is the main source of light, don’t use direct flash on the camera. Either bounce the flash off a wall or ceiling, or move the flash off the camera. Secondly, if you are taking portraits outdoors on a sunny day, use the flash. It’s counterintuitive to use flash when it’s so bright, I know, but the harsh sunlight can create deep shadows, particularly if the person is wearing a hat. Using the flash can fill in the shadows, so focus on the eyes, expose for the sunlit parts of the person’s face (use spot metering or manual mode), and use the fill flash to bring detail back into the shadows.

In landscapes, depth of field is important, just as in portraiture, but for the opposite reason. In portraits, depth of field is used to ensure the background is out of focus to create a pleasing backdrop, but in landscapes, the depth of field needs to be as wide as possible to make sure that objects in the far distance (such as mountains) are just as clear as objects closer to the camera. Set your camera to Aperture priority, and use a narrow aperture, about f16 or f22. And use a tripod. You’ll never see a professional photographer take a landscape without a tripod. Sharpness is essential. A handy accessory is a graduated ND (Neutral density) filter. This is grey on the top, but fades down to clear at the bottom. Too often the sky is much brighter, so if you expose for the sky, the land will be under exposed, but exposing for the land gives you a pale, washed out sky. A graduated neutral density filter helps to fix the problem that is often faced when the sky and land are of different brightness.  If you don't have one, you can use your camera's bracketing function to make several different shots with different exposures, then combine them in Photoshop.

Understanding Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are the three ways that the exposure of your photographs can be controlled.  In order to make your images the way you want them, to express your true artistic intent, you must understand how these three settings work together.


Inside each lens are a series of blades that can open or close. This lets the camera adjust the size of the hole that the light comes through when it enters the camera. This hole is called the aperture. (For an idea what they look like, watch the movie "Alien". When Dallas is crawling around in the air vents, you see the tube close behind him. The aperture in a camera lens works exactly the same way.) A small aperture doesn't let much light in (which is good for when it's bright), and a wide open aperture lets in lots of light, which is good for when it is dim.

The aperture is measured in F stops. When you see a number like f5.6, that is telling you the aperture. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture is, so f2.8 lets more light in than f5.6.

You'll also notice there is a pattern to the numbers: f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22. As you go to the next higher number, you are letting in half as much light. So, f5.6 lets in half the light that f4 does. This works in reverse: f8 lets in twice as much light as f11.

The way the f stop value is determined is simple. It's a ratio of the diameter of the aperture to the focal length of the lens. In fact, the F in f stop refers to the focal length of the lens. Just replace the F with the focal length of the lens. Thus, f8 on an 80mm lens works out to 80/8, or 10mm - the diameter of the aperture is 10mm. On the same lens, f2.8 is the same as 80/2.8, which gives a diameter of almost 29mm.

Aperture is often used to describe how "fast" a lens is. if a lens can open to a wider aperture (lower f stop number), it can capture the same amount of light as a small aperture (higher f stop number) in a faster time. The wider the aperture can get, the faster the lens.

Shutter speed

The shutter speed is simply a measure of how long the film (or sensor in a digital camera) is actually exposed to light. The shutter is at the back of the camera, right in front of the film or sensor. It usually consist of two parts that work kind of like the curtains that you get on stage in a theatre (the kind that goes up and down, not the kind in your home that go side to side).

When the camera is ready to take the picture, the first "curtain" is covering the film so no light can reach the film. When you press the button to take the picture, the first curtain is moved down. Now the light coming through the lens can reach the film, and the film is exposed. Then, when the exposure is finished, the second curtain drops down, so once again the light can't reach the film. Then, when the film is wound on, the shutter curtains are reset to their original positions so the whole thing can happen again for the next photo.

The shutter speed tells you how long there is between the first curtain moving out of the way and the second curtain from dropping down to cover the film again. If the shutter speed is, say, 1/60 of a second, then the second curtain drops down 1/60 of a second after the first curtain has moved, so the film is exposed to the light for 1/60 of a second.

Again, you'll notice there is a pattern to the shutter speeds. There's 1 second, 1/2 a second, 1/8, 1/16, 1/30, 1/60, 1/120, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000, 1/4000. Just as with the aperture, each of these lets in half as much light as the shutter speed before it, and twice as much light as the shutter speed after it: 1/1000 lets in twice as much light as 1/2000, but only half the light of 1/500.

Also note that very often there are shutter speeds which are in between the ones I have mentioned. Also note that the shutter speed is often displayed without the 1/ in it, so 1/250 would be displayed on the LCD screen as 250.


The ISO is a measure of how sensitive the film is to light - the higher the number, the more sensitive it is. And there's a pattern to the numbers, just as with aperture and shutter speed - 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200. Again, the difference between each is a stop.

In film, the ISO is determined by the size of the crystal in the film. Larger crystals are more sensitive to light. This means that they give a grainier look, which can be very effective in certain types of photos. In digital photography, the ISO is increased by amplifying the signal from each pixel on the sensor. However, this has the effect of increasing digial noise as well, giving a digital image shot at a high ISO the same grainy look as a high ISO film.

The ISO rating is often used to describe how "fast" a film or sensor is. because a high ISO film can get the same exposure as a lower ISO film with a faster exposure, the higher ISO film is said to be "Faster" than the film with the low ISO.

Using Manual Mode, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Program AE.

Now, you'll notice that both aperture and shutter speed can double the exposure (the amount of light that reaches the film), or halve the amount of light. This doubling or halving of light is called a "stop" - doubling the amount of light is increasing the exposure by a stop, and halving the amount of light is decreasing the exposure by a stop.

So, if you had a picture at 1/125 for your shutter speed and f5.6 as your aperture, you can increase the aperture by a stop to f4. This as increased the total exposure by a stop. You can then decrease the shutter speed by a stop to 1/250, bring the total exposure back to what it was before. So, 1/125 f5.6 gives you the same exposure as 1/250 f4.

When the camera is in manual mode, you have to set both of these values yourself, both shutter speed and aperture. However, there are three other modes available - Aperture priority, shutter priority and Program.

In Aperture priority (on Canon cameras, this is indicated by the letters Av for Aperture Value on the mode dial, and an A on Nikons), you can set whatever aperture you want, and the camera measures the brightness to figure out what shutter speed is required to give you a properly exposed photo.

Shutter priority (indicated by a Tv on Canon cameras for Time value, and an S on Nikons) is the opposite - you can choose the shutter speed and the camera figure out what aperture to use.

Program AE mode (indicated by a P on the mode dial in both Canon and Nikon) works out both the aperture and shutter speed, so you really only have to point and shoot.

Using Shutterspeed, aperture and ISO to adjust exposure.

You may be asking, "Why are there three ways of adjusting the exposure when they all do the same job?"

There are reasons why you'd want to adjust the exposure by aperture sometimes, and by shutterspeed other times and by ISO other times.

Let's say you're taking a photo of sports. it's fast and action packed, so you use a fast shutter speed to "Freeze" the action. This works because the people playing the sport won't be able to move very much in 1/1000 of a second, but they can move much more in 1/30 of a second. The fast shutter speed lets you freeze the action. But if it's dark, you need to increase the exposure. because you want to keep the action frozen, you can't use a slower shutter speed, because this will leave movement blur behind in the photo. But you can open the aperture up to get a better exposure. In this situation, use shutter priority mode, so you can tell the camera to use a fast shutter speed (to freeze the action), and the camera will figure out the aperture by itself.

On the other hand, let's say you're taking a portrait of someone. You want to use a wide open aperture (because this lets you put the background out of focus due to depth of field - I'll explain about that in a moment), but the wide aperture means the photo is too bright. You can make the aperture smaller, but then you'll lose your nicely blurred background, so instead, you can increase the shutter speed to prevent the photo from being too bright. In this case, use the aperture priority mode so you can keep the camera at a wide aperture, and the camera works out the shutter speed.

Finally, you can use the ISO to alter the exposure if you have a particular shutter speed to freeze the action, a particular aperture to acheive a specific depth of field, but don't have the correct exposure. Increase the ISO will increase the exposure and make the image brighter (if the shutter speed and aperture you want leave the image dark), and decreasing it will decrease the exposure, making it darker (if the shutter speed and aperture you want leave the image over exposed).

These settings are the foundation of exposure, so a thorough understanding of them is required if your photos are truly going to reflect your artistic intent.

How I Shot It #1 (or how to get some nice light with very little gear).

The other day, my girlfriend Rowena went out to Lithgow to compete in a taikwondo poomsae tournament.  Poomsae is almost like a dance, a choreographed sequence of moves, and the participants are graded on how well they perform those moves.

I decided to go out with her, and I decided to take my camera.  I didn't want to use flash, since I didn't want to distract anyone and throw them off their game.  But I also thought that a flash could be handy, so I decided to take just a 600 EX-RT.  I didn't take a lightstand for it, or any flash modifiers (which probably wasn't the smartest thing, but hey...).

So when we get there, I decide to take some photos of Ro while she was practicing/warming up.  My first thought was to put the flash on a table that had been set up on a stage and then take some photos with a wall as a backdrop, but the direct light at such a harsh angle was very unflattering, as you can see from this quick shot I took to see what the light was doing.

1/250, f5.6, ISO 100

1/250, f5.6, ISO 100

So I decided to go to the old technique of putting the flash on the camera and bouncing it.  I had the benefit of that big white wall that is being used in the above shot as a background, so we walked a bit to the right into the corner so I could use that wall as a surface to bounce a flash off with the other wall as a background.  With the flashhead turned at a 45 degree angle, I got most of the light bouncing off the wall and turning it into a beautiful big soft light source at camera left, and I still got a touch of direct light from the flash to fill in the shadows and stop them from being too harsh.  I had set my shutter speed to my flash sync speed (1/250 second on a 7D) to make sure the ambient light was not contributing to the shot, since I wanted complete control over the light.  This was lit entirely by flash.  After a slight crop, a reduction in vibrance, an increase in clarity and a slight vignette, I think the photo came out quite well.

1/250, f5.6, ISO 100

1/250, f5.6, ISO 100

After this, Ro was able to go out onto an unused part of the floor to practice her routine.  I decided to get some more photos, but the bounce flash technique wouldn't work, since we were in the middle of a rather large auditorium, and there were no walls nearby.  I decided to try bouncing off the ceiling.  It was about 5 meters above us, but I was shooting with a 600 EX-RT, which is a very powerful flash, so I wasn't worried about not having enough light.

Unfortunately, lighting it completely with flash didn't work.  While I was able to get enough light, the lack of ambient light meant that it looked obviously lit, and just looked ugly.  (If you look in the reflection in the window, you can actually see the ceiling being hit by my flash.)

1/250, f4, ISO 100

1/250, f4, ISO 100

I didn't want to use a slower shutter speed to increase the exposure, since she was moving and I didn't want to have any movement, so I raised my ISO four stops.  Blending the ambient light with the flash would let me get a nice exposure while still using the flash to make sure the exposure on Rowena was good.

1/250, f5.6, ISO 1600

1/250, f5.6, ISO 1600

Definitely an improvement.  Unfortunately, there were lots of other people practicing, so I couldn't get the clean backgrounds I would have preferred, but exposure wise, it's pretty good.

When Ro was called up to compete, I took some more photos, although I didn't use flash at all.  The last thing I wanted to do was distract her.  I had few choices when it came to increasing my exposure to get decent shots with just the ambient light.  I didn't want to use too slow a shutter speed, since she was moving and I wanted to avoid any movement blur.  I didn't want to open up my aperture, since her distance from me was changing and I wanted to make sure my depth of field was deep enough that she'd have a good chance of staying sharp as the changed position.  However, I had already increased my ISO to 1600, and I didn't want to go any higher, so I took my shutter speed down to 1/50 and decided to only go for photos when she was relatively still.

1/50, f5.6, ISO 1600

1/50, f5.6, ISO 1600

So, as photos go, it's not great from a technical point of view (little more than a snapshot, really), but it's pretty well exposed.

And Rowena won first place.  Here's a photo she took of her trophy.

The Stages of Photography

It seems that every photographer goes through several stages as they develop their skills.  As we learn and become better at the art, we look back on the earlier stages, often wondering what the hell we were thinking.  It seems laughable to us, but really, at the time we thought we were doing so well.  And perhaps we were.  After all, isn't the true measure of our skill not what we know and understand, but how well we are developing and progressing?

Stage One: Adding Instagram filters

Yes, it's great that everyone's phone has a camera in it, since it means that we can always snap a shot off and share it with the world.  And often, this is a good thing.  I'm doing a Photo of the Day project, posting at least one image a day in an effort to help develop my artistic eye.  And it's working well, since I have little technical control over the camera, I'm forced to rely on using good composition and colours and lines, and limited post production abilities.  But no, taking a photo of your feet in sand and adding a filter on it to make it look like an old picture is not artistic.  It just means that you have a smartphone and an Instagram account.

Stage Two: Now I have a REAL camera!

Well done, you've gone out and purchased a dSLR.  But that doesn't mean you are a photographer yet.  It just means you have a fancy camera.  If you leave it in automatic mode, you're still not much better than using your smartphone.  And no, the "P" on the mode dial does not stand for "Professional."  Still, the fact that you have actually spent the money on a dSLR means that you are taking it seriously and want to actually develop your skills.  Hopefully.

Stage Three: I've got G.A.S (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)

So you've got a fancy camera, but you're finding that your images still aren't quite capturing what you want them to.  And unfortunately, many people think that the solution to this is to go and buy more gear.  This body has more megapixels!  This lens has higher resolution!  This flash has a bounce card!  The only time you really need to upgrade is when your current kit is unable to do what you need it to.  Other than that, you won't get much benefit.

Stage Four: Technical Know-How

Now that you have a camera, you read up online about how to use all the new settings that your dSLR has (and maybe even go to the library to check out a few real books).  And soon, you learn about shutter speed, or aperture, or maybe even both.  This is good.  Knowing how to use your camera's functions is going to give you the skills you need to take some great pictures.  But, by itself, it is not enough just yet.

Stage Five: Truly an Artist.

At this stage, you have the gear you need to get the photos you want, and you have a thorough knowledge of the gear to allow you to get those photos.  But you've also developed the most important thing of all.  You've got the artistic talent to create images that are evocative and thought provoking.  You understand that photography isn't about making sure that the subject is sharp.  You know how to use composition to lead the eye.  You know how to use colour to create interest and mood.  You've truly become an artist.

Is Photography Art?

Photography was first developed in the 1820s, and almost immediately, it received criticism that it was not art.  At a meeting of the Photographic Society of London in 1853, this very question was raised.  Photography, it was claimed, was “too literal to compete with works of art.”  And even in the 1970s, this attitude still remained, even if it had diminished.


The idea is somewhat understandable. After all, photography serves to record perfectly what is actually there, a completely faithful record of what the camera sees, with nothing added or removed when the image is laid down on the film or sensor.  It is the perfect recreation of a scene.  Painting, on the other hand, must be filtered through the mind of the artist before it is made real, and so the artist can leave out a distracting element, or add something that is lacking.  He can change a model’s expression, alter the lighting or the colour, and even create images which could never exist in reality.  In short, nothing appears in a painting unless the artist wishes it to be there, which cannot be said for a photograph.  Another argument against photography being an art form was that a photograph could be reproduced countless times, whereas a painter could never exactly reproduce a painting.  And, for some, these inherent differences prevented photography from being considered an artistic medium.


But photographers very quickly discovered that a photograph had to be composed carefully, lit correctly, exposed correctly and developed properly.  Variations in the way the photographer made his images could mean that two photographers shooting the same scene could come away with vastly different images. When shooting, a photographer makes choices about the focal length of the lens, the depth of field, the degree that movement is shown in the image.  And the ability to modify images in the darkroom (whether digital or otherwise) gives an even greater degree of choice for the photographer to modify the image.


But ultimately, the issue of whether photography is art or not comes down to the definition of art.  There can be no single definition, as art is a subjective thing and is different for different people.  But for me, art is something that is designed to make you think.  How many have looked at the Mona Lisa and wondered if she is happy or sad?  How many have looked at David and wondered what he was looking at?  Art is designed to evoke an emotional response in the audience.  It must force us to ask questions that can never be answered by the art itself, and this forces us to create the answers out of our own minds.  This makes the audience a fundamental part of the production of art, the final step in the creative process.  Indeed, without the audience, how can the art exist at all?


And from this perspective, the answer can only be that photography is indeed art.  Not all photography, of course.  The very things that lead some people to claim that photography is not art also mean that it is superbly suited for documentation of events and places.  But a great deal of photography, no doubt, is created as art.  Photographs have been used to explore the shape of the human body, they have brought us into the relationships between people.  They have shared with us the emotions of others and evoked those emotions in ourselves.  Photographs play with shape and form, line and colour, just as painters have done for centuries.


And it is perhaps the most paradoxical idea of all that sometimes it is the photographs meant only to record events and document the world that have been the most emotionally provocative of all.  Who can look at Steve McCurry’s 1984 photo of the Afghan Girl and not be transfixed by the intensity of the way she is looking at the camera?  Who can look at the picture of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and not be awed by his bravery?  Who can look at Kevin Carter’s picture of the vulture waiting for the African child to die and not have their heart break for the suffering endured in those famines?


So yes, photography is art.  Through the choices that the photographer makes, photographs can fall into the same categories as any painting, from realist to surreal, minimalist to abstract, all of which invoke emotions in the audience.  But it is photography’s ability to provoke emotional responses with images of reality that allows photography to be art in a way that other forms could never achieve.