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How to Check a Used Lens You’re Buying in Person

 

In this post, I’ll show you what to look for when inspect­ing a used lens that you’re buy­ing in per­son. The fol­low­ing is a tran­script of the video linked above.

New pho­tog­ra­phers who are pas­sion­ate about their hob­by quick­ly devel­op an enthu­si­asm for lens­es and the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties they open. This desire often leads them to the sec­ond­hand mar­ket, which offers a cost-effec­tive way to buy pho­to­graph­ic equip­ment. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, when buy­ing a pre-owned lens direct­ly from a sell­er met through online clas­si­fieds such as Craigslist, Face­book Mar­ket­place, and Kiji­ji, you’re giv­ing up the peace of mind offered by store refunds and man­u­fac­tur­er war­ranties in exchange for a low­er price. Such trades involve items sold as-is using cash-only (or cash-like) trans­ac­tions. The nature of these deals means it’s your respon­si­bil­i­ty to con­firm that the sell­er’s descrip­tion of the item is accu­rate because if you dis­cov­er a prob­lem after the sale is com­plete, you almost cer­tain­ly have no recourse.

For­tu­nate­ly, you can pro­tect your­self against a bad trade and con­firm that a lens is in good work­ing order by per­form­ing a thor­ough inspec­tion of the lens on the spot. The fol­low­ing is a detailed list of what you should do and check when buy­ing a used lens is person.

1. Bring your camera

Although I rec­og­nize that this point is obvi­ous, it bears men­tion­ing: Remem­ber to bring the cam­era for which you’re buy­ing the lens, and don’t for­get the bat­tery and mem­o­ry card. 

This point deserves a short sto­ry. A few years ago, I was sell­ing my Canon 85 mm lens and arranged to meet with a young woman at a Star­bucks near my home. She was about fif­teen min­utes late and, cru­cial­ly, had for­got­ten to bring her cam­era. Her real­iza­tion quick­ly turned into embar­rass­ment, which threw her off bal­ance. She per­formed the most rudi­men­ta­ry inspection—confirming that the front and rear glass ele­ments weren’t broken—gave me her cash, and quick­ly left. I’m hon­est, so she got a good lens; how­ev­er, she could’ve eas­i­ly been ripped off because she did­n’t bring a cam­era to con­firm that the lens was functional.

2. Examine the lens exterior for wear and tear, scratches, and dents

Unless you’re buy­ing a rare col­lectible that’s spent its entire exis­tence in a pro­tec­tive case or a lens adver­tised as “like new,” most cam­era lens­es will have devel­oped some wear and tear from reg­u­lar use. Your goal is to estab­lish that the used lens you’re inspect­ing match­es the adver­tise­ment. Sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences from the adver­tised descrip­tion and images of the lens serve as a con­ve­nient warn­ing that the sell­er is not entire­ly trust­wor­thy. 

In most cas­es, the pre-owned lens will match its adver­tised descrip­tion, and you can con­tin­ue with your exam­i­na­tion. Wear and tear are inevitable on lens­es that see use, espe­cial­ly by pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­phers. For exam­ple, it’s nor­mal to find scuff marks and wear of the paint on the fil­ter ring because it’s the front-most part of the lens. The ridges on rub­ber­ized zoom and focus­ing rings wear down with years of use. Hair­line scratch­es and scuff marks on the paint­ed or plas­tic exte­ri­or are also expect­ed and large­ly unavoid­able. Such super­fi­cial wear is nor­mal and won’t impact the opti­cal per­for­mance and char­ac­ter­is­tics of the lens. 

Dents on the bar­rel of the lens deserve greater scruti­ny because they sug­gest a more force­ful impact or drop. Such force could eas­i­ly knock the pre­ci­sion optics out of align­ment and reduce opti­cal per­for­mance. Ask the sell­er about the nature of the dam­age, keep it in mind, and con­tin­ue. 

3. Examine the front and rear glass elements.

Remove the lens caps to check the front and rear glass ele­ments. Clean glass is eas­i­er to check, so if you find fin­ger­prints, smudges, or dust on the glass, ask the own­er to clean them off before pro­ceed­ing with the inspec­tion. 

Exam­ine the front and rear glass ele­ments. Observe how reflec­tions pass along the sur­face of the lens­es. Ide­al­ly, the glass should be smooth and free from scratch­es, abra­sions, or thin­ning of the anti-reflec­tive coat­ing. 

In prac­tice, tiny scuffs and hair­line scratch­es, espe­cial­ly to the coat­ing, won’t affect image qual­i­ty in any mea­sur­able way. The only down­side to buy­ing a lens with scratched glass is that it may affect your future resale val­ue. Addi­tion­al­ly, if such a scratch wasn’t part of the seller’s descrip­tion of the lens, you could use it to your advan­tage by sug­gest­ing a reduced price.

(For those of you won­der­ing how bad­ly dam­aged a lens must be before its evi­dent in the pho­tos, take a look at the fol­low­ing pic­ture. Try to imag­ine what sort of dam­age caused this degree of soft­ness and loss of con­trast. Is it a scratch, or sev­er­al? Is it a crack, or sev­er­al? Now take a look at the lens that took the pho­to. How did you do? As it turns out, it takes sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to the front of a lens for the effect of that dam­age to be read­i­ly appar­ent in prac­ti­cal pho­tog­ra­phy.) 

4. Check lens for internal dust and fungus

With the lens caps removed, shine your phone’s LED light through the back of the lens while look­ing at its inter­nal com­po­nents through the front. Avoid look­ing direct­ly at the mag­ni­fied LED, as it’s incred­i­bly bright. 

If you’re in a dim­ly lit envi­ron­ment, you’ll see the con­cen­trat­ed beam form through the lens ele­ments. You’ll also see a heap of dust and tiny imper­fec­tion that will make you regret ever try­ing this tech­nique. Lens­es get dusty, and zoom lens­es get dusti­er. That’s because every  time you zoom a lens, glass has to move back and forth, expand­ing or col­laps­ing the inte­ri­or vol­ume. This motion dis­places air, either push­ing it out or suck­ing it into the lens. (On some cam­eras, you can feel air “blow­ing back” into your eye through the viewfinder.)

For­tu­nate­ly, the dust found inside lens­es is mean­ing­less to pho­tog­ra­phers because it’s too small to mat­ter and does­n’t resolve in your pic­tures. You want to look for fun­gus, which can show as soft fluffy dots or fuzzy fibres or webs sprin­kled through­out the inte­ri­or glass. Fun­gus spores find their way into a lens on dust and pro­lif­er­ate after extend­ed peri­ods of stor­age in warm and humid envi­ron­ments. The fun­gus can grow and per­ma­nent­ly dam­age the glass of your lens unless it’s pro­fes­sion­al­ly cleaned. Always store your lens­es in cool and dry environments.

5. Examine the electronic contacts for signs of wear and dirt (where available)

The elec­tron­ic con­tact points found on the back of mod­ern lens­es facil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the cam­era. Ensure that the con­tacts are clean and don’t exhib­it signs of cor­ro­sion. The pres­ence of dirt and oth­er deposits on the elec­tron­ic con­tacts of a lens can wear down the thin gold-plat­ing and cause data com­mu­ni­ca­tion errors, which can result in loss of aper­ture con­trol, aut­o­fo­cus, opti­cal image sta­bi­liza­tion, and lens-relat­ed meta­da­ta. You can clean dirty pins, but cor­rod­ed ones require repair.

6. Examine the lens mount for damage

A lens is attached to a cam­era using the mount, which pro­vides a secure point of attach­ment and ensures that the lens and cam­era are cor­rect­ly aligned. The vast major­i­ty of mod­ern lens­es have met­al mount­ing rings, but a few bud­get-ori­ent­ed lens­es fea­ture plas­tic mounts. 

When you’re exam­in­ing a lens with a met­al mount, visu­al­ly con­firm that there’s no defor­ma­tion of the met­al tabs at the base of the lens. This kind of dam­age could pre­vent the lens from secure­ly attach­ing to the cam­era, or worse, dam­age the cam­er­a’s mount­ing ring if forced. Addi­tion­al­ly, check to ensure the lens mount is firm­ly attached to the lens barrel—the attach­ment screws shouldn’t loose or missing.

Plas­tic mounts are less like­ly to deform but more like­ly to crack, chip, or wear down. Exam­ine the plas­tic mount and tabs for signs of cracks, and con­firm the mount is firm­ly attached to the lens bar­rel.  

Now it’s time to attach the lens to your camera.

7. Make sure the lens attaches tightly and locks into place with a click 

Attach the lens to the cam­era body and make sure it locks into place with an audi­ble click. The lens should fit rel­a­tive­ly tight­ly, although a tiny amount of rota­tion­al give is nor­mal. With that said, there should­n’t be any tilt­ing or sag­ging; the lens axis must always remain per­pen­dic­u­lar to the image sensor.

8. Confirm that the focusing ring works

Inspect­ing the focus­ing ring requires some under­stand­ing of what you’re buy­ing. To help you, I’ll cov­er the three main categories.

Manual focus lenses:

Many vin­tage and some third-par­ty or spe­cial-pur­pose lens­es are focused by man­u­al­ly rotat­ing the mechan­i­cal­ly cou­pled focus­ing ring. Since there’s no aut­o­fo­cus fall­back, it’s essen­tial to con­firm that the focus­ing ring works cor­rect­ly and focus­es the lens. With the cam­era switched on and your eye to the viewfind­er, rotate the focus­ing ring from one extreme to the oth­er. The scene in the viewfind­er should shift in and out of focus. Addi­tion­al­ly, the focus­ing ring should rotate smooth­ly across its entire range of motion with­out any grit or sense of slack. 

Autofocus lenses (with mechanically coupled focusing rings):

The major­i­ty of aut­o­fo­cus lens­es designed for SLR cam­eras fea­ture focus­ing rings that are mechan­i­cal­ly-cou­pled to the opti­cal sys­tem. These types of lens­es often have a focus mode switch on the lens bar­rel that let’s you select between man­u­al focus and aut­o­fo­cus shoot­ing. In most cas­es, the focus­ing ring will always work regard­less of the focus mode. (Keep in mind, there are some excep­tions to this, so know what you’re buying!)

Switch the cam­era on, turn the focus mode to Man­u­al Focus (MF), look through the viewfind­er, and rotate the focus­ing ring from one extreme to the oth­er. Then, repeat those with the focus mode turned to Aut­o­fo­cus (AF). In either case, the scene should shift in and out of focus and the focus­ing ring should move smooth­ly across its range of motion.

Autofocus lenses (with “focus by wire”):

There’s a small but grow­ing class of aut­o­fo­cus lens­es with elec­tron­i­cal­ly cou­pled focus­ing rings. These types of lens­es are infor­mal­ly called “focus by wire” because there’s no direct mechan­i­cal con­nec­tion between the focus­ing ring and the inter­nal lens ele­ments. Instead, your inputs are trans­mit­ted elec­tron­i­cal­ly to the motors dri­ving the focus­ing sys­tem. 

Turn the cam­era on, set the focus mode to Man­u­al Focus, look through the viewfind­er, and rotate the focus­ing ring. Since there’s no phys­i­cal con­nec­tion, you’re most­ly con­firm­ing the elec­tron­ic con­nec­tion is intact, that the motors work, and that the focus­ing ring rotates smooth­ly across its range of motion.

9. Confirm that autofocus works

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, aut­o­fo­cus errors can occur on both DSLR and mir­ror­less cameras—even on brand new lens­es. For exam­ple, the zoom lens I use to make these videos is my sec­ond copy. The first one had an aut­o­fo­cus so faulty that every two out of five shots were mis­fo­cused. I was lucky to notice the prob­lem before my 14-day return peri­od end­ed. Sad­ly, there’s no return pol­i­cy when buy­ing a used lens from some­one you meet on Craigslist. So don’t be shy about car­ry­ing out a thor­ough inspec­tion when buy­ing an item that’s sold “as-is.”

To con­firm that the elec­tron­ic focus­ing sys­tem works and the lens can aut­o­fo­cus accu­rate­ly, set your cam­era to use a sin­gle aut­o­fo­cus point and take sev­er­al pic­tures of near and far objects, chang­ing between them with every shot. Review each pic­ture at full mag­ni­fi­ca­tion to ver­i­fy that the aut­o­fo­cus was con­sis­tent­ly accu­rate. 

Pro-tip: you can shift between pho­tos while review­ing them at full mag­ni­fi­ca­tion by rotat­ing the main com­mand dial on your cam­era. 

10. Check the zoom ring for function and smoothness

The major­i­ty of zoom lens­es have mechan­i­cal­ly cou­pled zoom rings. Switch on your cam­era, look through the viewfind­er, and rotate the zoom ring from one extreme to the oth­er and con­firm that your angle of view changes. The zoom ring should rotate smooth­ly with an even amount of resis­tance through­out the range of motion. You should­n’t sense any under­ly­ing grit, impinge­ment, or slack. 

Since some zoom lens­es extend out­wards at longer focal lengths, it’s a good idea to inspect the new­ly exposed part of the bar­rel for abra­sions, dam­age, and debris. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, there should­n’t be much give or wob­bling, even at its max­i­mum exten­sion. How­ev­er, some lens­es can slow­ly extend when point­ing down or slow­ly retract when point­ing up. 

11. Can the lens communicate with your camera?

When inspect­ing an elec­tron­ic lens, it’s nec­es­sary to con­firm that the lens can suc­cess­ful­ly com­mu­ni­cate with the cam­era. In a sense, you’ve already con­firmed this by engag­ing the aut­o­fo­cus. How­ev­er, since there are some man­u­al focus lens­es with elec­tron­i­cal­ly con­trolled aper­tures, it’s a good idea to be spe­cif­ic. 

You can con­firm that a cam­era rec­og­nized an elec­tron­ic lens when it dis­plays an aper­ture val­ue oth­er than 0. As anoth­er option, you can take a pic­ture and look at its meta­da­ta. When every­thing works cor­rect­ly, the cam­era should dis­play the zoom range, set focal length, and set aper­ture val­ue in the picture’s metadata.

12. Does the aperture work?

It’s impor­tant to make sure the aper­ture changes in size when adjust­ing the aper­ture val­ue. Don’t assume that putting the cam­era into Aper­ture Pri­or­i­ty mode, rotat­ing a dial, and watch­ing the f‑numbers change cor­re­sponds to a func­tion­ing iris diaphragm. Regard­less of the f‑number you set, a mod­ern lens will keep its aper­ture ful­ly open up to the point that you push the shut­ter but­ton to take a pic­ture. The aper­ture’s size is adjust­ed to your cho­sen f‑number only when you push the shut­ter but­ton. This behav­iour facil­i­tates more accu­rate aut­o­fo­cus­ing in dark­er envi­ron­ments and pro­vides a brighter view in the find­er. 

The fol­low­ing method should work for both DSLR and mir­ror­less cam­eras, even those with­out a depth of field pre­view but­ton. Put the cam­era into Man­u­al Expo­sure mode, select a large f‑number and a slow shut­ter speed (some­thing like 2 to 4 sec­onds), look into the lens from the front, and press the shut­ter down to take a pic­ture. Take note of the aperture’s size dur­ing expo­sure, and then take sev­er­al pic­tures more. The iris should close down to the same size con­sis­tent­ly. Any devi­a­tion in aper­ture size with­out a cor­re­spond­ing change to the f‑number could spell trou­ble for the con­sis­ten­cy of your exposures.

13. Does the optical image stabilization work?

If you’re check­ing a used lens that fea­tures opti­cal image sta­bi­liza­tion, ver­i­fy whether it oper­ates by turn­ing the switch on and off while look­ing through the viewfind­er and half-press­ing the shut­ter but­ton. And if you hap­pen to be inspect­ing a vari­able focal length lens, make sure you’re ful­ly zoomed in, because the sta­bi­liz­ing effect is more obvi­ous at longer focal lengths.

You can also place the cam­era into Shut­ter Pri­or­i­ty Mode, select a rel­a­tive­ly slow shut­ter speed, and take sev­er­al hand­held pho­tos with the sta­bi­liza­tion fea­tured enabled and then sev­er­al with it disabled.

When func­tion­ing cor­rect­ly, image sta­bi­liza­tion should reduce or elim­i­nate the motion blur asso­ci­at­ed with a shaky cam­era. 

Bonus tips

And now it’s time for the bonus round of quick tips. 

Many vin­tage lens­es have mechan­i­cal­ly-cou­pled aper­ture rings. When check­ing such lens­es, ensure the aper­ture opens and clos­es all the way and con­sis­tent­ly, and make sure the detents indi­cat­ing inter­me­di­ate steps are clicking.

If you dis­cov­er that the lens comes with a UV or “pro­tec­tion” fil­ter already attached, ask the sell­er to remove it. Remov­ing the fil­ter accom­plish­es two things: it gives you a bet­ter look at the con­di­tion of the lens under­neath, and it demon­strates that the fil­ter thread­ing isn’t dam­aged. Imper­cep­ti­ble dents can dam­age the thread­ing and make it prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble to remove or attach a fil­ter. 

If the lens fea­tures “weath­er resistance”—often des­ig­nat­ed by the char­ac­ters WR—check the con­di­tion of the rub­ber flange around the lens mount for cracks, tears, or notch­es. This type of dam­age will essen­tial­ly nul­li­fy the weath­er-resis­tance of both your lens and camera.

If the lens has a focus dis­tance window—which is a clear plas­tic win­dow with focus dis­tance mark­ings underneath—make sure that turn­ing the focus­ing ring or using the cam­er­a’s aut­o­fo­cus moves the under­ly­ing dis­play. 

Last­ly, it’s tremen­dous­ly impor­tant to under­stand what you’re seek­ing to buy. Before meet­ing with any­one, read reviews of the lens you’re con­sid­er­ing so that you can tell the dif­fer­ence between nor­mal quirks and flaws or faults. Such basic research could inform you, for exam­ple, that the focus­ing sys­tem of the Fuji­film 90 mm ƒ/2 lens can wob­ble about when there’s no pow­er to the lens—and that it’s a com­plete­ly normal.

Con­clu­sion

Now you should know what to check for when buy­ing a used lens in per­son. If you have requests for top­ics, let me know in the com­ments, and I’ll con­sid­er them for future videos. In the mean­time, you can learn more about pho­tog­ra­phy by join­ing on of Expo­sure Ther­a­py’s group pho­tog­ra­phy lessons.

Relation of F‑numbers to the Aperture

F‑numbers and the aperture have an inverse relationship

Hi there, my name is Paul, and this is Expo­sure Ther­a­py. In this video, I’ll explain the rea­son for the inverse numer­i­cal rela­tion­ship between f‑numbers and the aper­ture. This rela­tion­ship is a wide­spread point of con­fu­sion for many begin­ner pho­tog­ra­phers, who regard it as irra­tional or need­less­ly com­plex. My goal is to dis­pel the mys­tery around f‑numbers and demon­strate why they’re a per­fect­ly rea­son­able method for express­ing how the aper­ture affects exposure.

Under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between pic­ture bright­ness and both the shut­ter speed and ISO is straight­for­ward for stu­dents learn­ing the basics of pho­tog­ra­phy. Shut­ter speed is expressed numer­i­cal­ly in time units, with the most com­mon being frac­tions of a sec­ond; longer dura­tions result in brighter pic­tures, and short­er dura­tions result in dark­er pic­tures. ISO is also expressed numer­i­cal­ly; big­ger num­bers pro­duce brighter pho­tos, and small­er num­bers make dark­er pho­tos. 

In both cas­es, the rela­tion­ship between the set­ting and its effect on pic­ture bright­ness is easy to under­stand because there’s a pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion, and they move in tan­dem. For exam­ple, when you dou­ble the expo­sure dura­tion, it dou­bles the bright­ness; when you halve the ISO, it halves the bright­ness. It’s a sim­ple rela­tion­ship that stu­dents in my pho­tog­ra­phy work­shops grasp with ease. 

The inverse relationship between f‑numbers and the aperture is confusing for many beginners

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the rela­tion­ship between f‑numbers, aper­ture size, and pic­ture bright­ness is not as imme­di­ate­ly intu­itive. Begin­ners are con­fused by the neg­a­tive (or inverse) rela­tion­ship between f‑numbers and aper­ture size. In addi­tion, they have a hard time under­stand­ing why big­ger f‑numbers rep­re­sent small­er aper­tures that reduce bright­ness, and small­er f‑numbers define larg­er aper­tures that increase bright­ness. 

The best way to address this is by start­ing with the basics. Inside every inter­change­able lens is a ring of over­lap­ping blades col­lec­tive­ly known as an iris diaphragm or iris. Expand­ing or con­tract­ing the blades adjusts the open­ing in the cen­tre of the iris, called the aper­ture. 

Introducing the Entrance Pupil

When you hold a lens up and look at the aper­ture, what you’re see­ing is tech­ni­cal­ly called the “entrance pupil.” The entrance pupil is the opti­cal image of the phys­i­cal aper­ture as seen through the front of the lens. This dis­tinc­tion mat­ters because when you look at the front of a lens, you see the aper­ture through mul­ti­ple lay­ers of glass that affect its mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and per­ceived loca­tion in space com­pared to the phys­i­cal open­ing in the iris. For the sake of sim­plic­i­ty, I’ll use “aper­ture” when refer­ring to both the set­ting and the phys­i­cal open­ing and “entrance pupil” in ref­er­ence to dimensions.

Chang­ing the size of the aper­ture adjusts the inten­si­ty of light pass­ing through the lens. Increas­ing the aperture’s size allows more light to pass through the lens, increas­ing expo­sure and cre­at­ing a brighter pic­ture. Con­verse­ly, decreas­ing the aperture’s size reduces how much light pass­es through the lens, reduc­ing expo­sure and result­ing in a dark­er pho­to. 

Why are apertures expressed using f‑numbers?

We express aper­ture val­ues using f‑numbers and not as the mea­sured size of the entrance pupil, such as its diam­e­ter, radius, or area, because it neglects the essen­tial role of focal length. This can be demon­strat­ed with a thought exercise.

Let’s pre­tend we have two lens­es attached to iden­ti­cal cam­eras: one lens is 50 mm and the oth­er is 100 mm, and both have entrance pupils with 25 mm diam­e­ters. Since their entrance pupils are iden­ti­cal in size, an equal amount of light enters each lens. How­ev­er, because the focal length of the 100 mm lens is twice that of the 50 mm lens, the light pass­ing through it has to trav­el twice the dis­tance to reach its camera’s image sen­sor, which pro­duces a dark­er image. 

Reduc­tion in bright­ness occurs because light has the prop­er­ty of spread­ing out as it recedes from its source, and from the per­spec­tive of your camera’s image sen­sor, this source is the point inside the lens from which focal length is mea­sured. This trait of light to dif­fuse out­wards is described by the Inverse Square Law, which states that inten­si­ty is inverse­ly pro­por­tion­al to the square of the dis­tance. In this exam­ple, the inverse square law informs us that the 100 mm lens expos­es its camera’s image sen­sor to 1/4 the light com­pared to the 50 mm lens because it’s twice as long. This occurs because one over two squared equals one-quarter.

The 100 mm lens can pro­vide an expo­sure equal to its 50 mm coun­ter­part by open­ing its aper­ture to col­lect four times more light, assum­ing its aper­ture can open that much. Since aper­tures are rough­ly cir­cu­lar, we can deter­mine how big they should be by cal­cu­lat­ing the area of a cir­cle. An entrance pupil with a 25 mm diam­e­ter has an area of about 491 mm^2. The 100 mm lens would need an entrance pupil with an area of 1,964 mm^2, which is formed by a cir­cle with a 50 mm diam­e­ter. Sim­ple, right?

F‑numbers express ratios

For­tu­nate­ly, pho­tog­ra­phers don’t need to per­form such cal­cu­la­tions to take pic­tures! That’s because hid­den with­in these num­bers is a straight­for­ward rela­tion­ship. For exam­ple, notice how the expo­sure pro­duced by the 50 mm lens with a 25 mm entrance pupil is iden­ti­cal to the 100 mm lens with a 50 mm entrance pupil. This is because in both cas­es, the ratio of the focal length to the entrance pupil diam­e­ter is 2:1. 

This is pre­cise­ly why the f‑number is some­times called the f‑ratio. The f‑number express­es a ratio of the lens focal length to the diam­e­ter of the entrance pupil, and it’s defined by the equa­tion N=ƒ/D. Thus, the f‑number equals the focal length divid­ed by the entrance pupil diam­e­ter. It can also be mod­i­fied to solve for the entrance pupil diam­e­ter using the equa­tion D=ƒ/N. Thus, the entrance pupil diam­e­ter equals the focal length divid­ed by the f‑number. 

These equa­tions demon­strate that choos­ing the same f‑number on a lens of any focal length will result in the same amount of light pass­ing through the lens. They also explain the inverse rela­tion­ship between f‑numbers and expo­sure. For a giv­en focal length, as the aperture’s size increas­es, the ratio decreas­es, and vice ver­sa. 

A 50 mm lens set to ƒ/4 will have an entrance pupil diam­e­ter of 12.5 mm—because 50 divid­ed by 12.5 equals 4. A 24 mm lens set to ƒ/8 will have an entrance pupil diam­e­ter of 3 mm. Some lens­es can open to ƒ1.0, in which case the entrance pupil diam­e­ter and focal length are equal. 

The f‑number scale

The stan­dard f‑number scale is: 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, and so on. The dif­fer­ence in expo­sure between adja­cent num­bers is one stop, which means that it either dou­bles or halves the amount of light pass­ing through the lens depend­ing on whether you’re open­ing or clos­ing the aper­ture. How­ev­er, the numer­ic sequence grows by a fac­tor of about 1.4 or shrinks by a fac­tor of about 0.7. 

Most pho­tog­ra­phers sim­ply com­mit the stan­dard f‑number scale to mem­o­ry. How­ev­er, if you’re hav­ing trou­ble, a more straight­for­ward method is to remem­ber just the first two numbers—1 and 1.4—because the rest of the scale is an iter­a­tion of dou­bling each in alter­nat­ing order. The next f‑number is always dou­ble the pre­vi­ous one. So the num­ber after ƒ/1.4 is dou­ble of ƒ/1, which is ƒ2. Like­wise, the num­ber after ƒ/2 is dou­ble of ƒ/1.4, which is ƒ/2.8.  And on and on it goes.

Last­ly, dou­bling the f‑number, such as chang­ing it from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/5.6, reduces pic­ture bright­ness by one-quar­ter. And con­verse­ly, halv­ing the f‑number, such as adjust­ing from ƒ/8 to ƒ/4, increas­es pic­ture bright­ness four times. 

I hope this helped you under­stand the inverse numer­i­cal rela­tion­ship between f‑numbers and their effect on the aper­ture. If you have requests for future top­ics, let me know in the com­ments, and I’ll address them in future videos. In the mean­time, you can learn more about pho­tog­ra­phy on ExposureTherapy.ca. See you next time.

How to Choose Your Next Portrait Lens—Part 2

Portrait lenses and focal length

One of the most dis­cussed and mis­un­der­stood prop­er­ties of por­trait lens­es is focal length. If you ask your pre­ferred online com­mu­ni­ty for por­trait lens sug­ges­tions, chances are, many users will respond by rec­om­mend­ing spe­cif­ic focal lengths. 

Per­haps the most com­mon­ly rec­om­mend­ed focal length for por­trai­ture on full-frame cam­eras is 85 mm; oth­er pop­u­lar focal lengths include 50 mm, 105 mm, 135 mm, and 70–200 mm zooms. If you’re at all famil­iar with the con­cept of focal length, you should notice that most of these sug­ges­tions are in the short to medi­um tele­pho­to range.

When explain­ing their rec­om­men­da­tions, pho­tog­ra­phers claim that wide-angle lens­es make faces look bad or that such-and-such focal length is too wide for por­traits. When this sen­ti­ment is left as-is, the unfor­tu­nate impli­ca­tion is that some inher­ent and mys­te­ri­ous qual­i­ty of wide-angle lens­es caus­es ugli­ness and that longer focal lengths pro­vide the solu­tion. To help you under­stand these warn­ings and sug­ges­tions, I’ll briefly explain the con­cepts of scale and per­spec­tive distortion.

Scale, focal length, and perspective

In my Com­po­si­tion for Begin­ners video, I touched upon the con­cept of scale, which I use to describe the appar­ent size of your sub­ject with­in the pho­to­graph­ic frame. Your subject’s scale is deter­mined by two fac­tors when you’re tak­ing a pic­ture: focal length and per­spec­tive. 

The focal length of a lens deter­mines its mag­ni­fy­ing pow­er. This is the appar­ent size of your sub­ject as pro­ject­ed onto the focal plane where your image sen­sor resides. A longer focal length cor­re­sponds to greater mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and a larg­er ren­di­tion of your sub­ject, and a short­er focal length results in less mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and a small­er ren­di­tion of your subject.

The appar­ent size of a sub­ject at a fixed dis­tance from the cam­era is direct­ly pro­por­tion­al to the lens’s focal length. So, for exam­ple, if you pho­to­graph a kid hold­ing a beach­ball and then switch to a lens that is twice the focal length of the first, the ren­dered size of every ele­ment in your image, from the kid to the beach­ball, will be dou­bled in size along their lin­ear dimensions—meaning in height and width. That’s how focal length affects scale.

In pho­tog­ra­phy, per­spec­tive is your camera’s point of view and is deter­mined exclu­sive­ly by the posi­tion from which a pho­to is tak­en. For sim­plic­i­ty, con­sid­er this the cam­era-to-sub­ject dis­tance. Changes in the sub­jec­t’s dis­tance have an obvi­ous effect on their per­ceived scale in a pho­to­graph. Ask your sub­ject to come half as close, and they’ll appear twice as large; ask them to move twice as far back, and they’ll appear half as small. That’s how per­spec­tive affects scale.

To main­tain an equal sub­ject scale in the frame, the focal length and sub­ject dis­tance must change lin­ear­ly, togeth­er and in the same direc­tion. If your sub­ject dou­bles their dis­tance for a giv­en scale, you will have to dou­ble your focal length to main­tain the orig­i­nal scale; if your sub­ject halves their dis­tance, you’ll have to halve your focal length. For exam­ple, if you like the scale of your sub­ject at 50 mm, but cir­cum­stances force the pho­to to be tak­en from half the ini­tial dis­tance, you’ll need to use 25 mm to obtain the orig­i­nal scale. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, short­en­ing the sub­ject dis­tance can result in per­spec­tive distortion.

Perspective distortion and telephoto compression

In pho­tog­ra­phy, per­spec­tive dis­tor­tion is an inevitable con­se­quence of how sub­ject dis­tance affects scale. Objects that are close to the cam­era appear much big­ger rel­a­tive to objects that are far­ther away. So, for exam­ple, Gin­ger looks three times larg­er than Vio­let because Vio­let is three times far­ther from the cam­era. This rela­tion­ship will hold whether their dis­tances from the cam­era are 1 and 3 m, 5 and 15 m, or 20 and 60 m, respec­tive­ly, because in each case, Vio­let is three times far­ther than Gin­ger. 

This rela­tion­ship stops being true when the cam­era starts to change its dis­tance for the sub­jects whose dis­tances are fixed rel­a­tive to one anoth­er. The dis­par­i­ty in their appar­ent size will decrease as the cam­era moves fur­ther back until these dif­fer­ences become imper­cep­ti­ble. This effect is known as “tele­pho­to com­pres­sion”; how­ev­er, despite its name, it occurs in pho­tos tak­en with all focal lengths when a dis­tant sub­ject is vis­i­ble. Tele­pho­to lens­es make it more obvi­ous because the “tele-com­pressed” sub­jects are shown at a larg­er scale in the frame.

Perspective in portraiture

Gin­ger and Violet’s rela­tion­ship plays out on a small­er scale with­in the fea­tures of a sin­gle sub­ject. Peo­ple aren’t flat, and we’re not card­board cutouts; our faces, heads, and bod­ies have depth and dimen­sion. In a stan­dard por­trait, your subject’s nose is clos­er to the cam­era than their eyes, which, in turn, are clos­er than their ears. These dif­fer­ences are rel­a­tive­ly insignif­i­cant at long work­ing dis­tances. How­ev­er, they become sig­nif­i­cant at the very close sub­ject dis­tances required to achieve a “stan­dard” por­trait com­po­si­tion using a wide-angle lens. This leads to per­spec­tive dis­tor­tion, char­ac­ter­ized by a nose that looks too large rel­a­tive to the face, a nar­row­er head, and ears that appear pinned back. From extreme­ly close dis­tances, the cheeks can occlude the ears alto­geth­er. 

The char­ac­ter­is­tics attrib­uted to per­spec­tive dis­tor­tion are entire­ly a con­se­quence of the cam­era-to-sub­ject dis­tance. The focal length of a lens doesn’t direct­ly influ­ence per­spec­tive. This bears repeat­ing: focal length does not affect per­spec­tive. Despite this, it’s often blamed for the effect because dif­fer­ent focal lengths are used for dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es and vary­ing sub­ject dis­tances. Wide-angle lens­es are typ­i­cal­ly used from short­er dis­tances, lest the sub­ject appears too small in the pic­ture, while long focal lengths are gen­er­al­ly used from far­ther away, lest the sub­ject appears too large. 

The subject distance is the only factor in perspective distortion

Let’s dive a bit deep­er. You’ve prob­a­bly seen this or sim­i­lar effects before. Here’s a famous vari­a­tion, known as a “dol­ly zoom,” from the movie Jaws. This effect is cre­at­ed by tak­ing your first shot from a close dis­tance and using a short focal length. Take the sec­ond shot from slight­ly far­ther back and with a pro­por­tion­ate­ly longer focal length. And on and on. Such ani­ma­tions com­mon­ly illus­trate how dif­fer­ent focal lengths affect our per­cep­tion of appar­ent facial geom­e­try. Most exam­ples, such as this one by Dan V., label each frame’s focal length but omit the sub­ject dis­tance, which is arguably more impor­tant since you can’t have per­spec­tive dis­tor­tion with­out chang­ing your per­spec­tive. Since focal length doesn’t affect per­spec­tive, we can illus­trate the same effect by vary­ing the cam­era-to-sub­ject dis­tance with­out adjust­ing the focal length. Ini­tial­ly, the dis­tor­tion is dif­fi­cult to see because the sub­ject becomes small­er. How­ev­er, the per­spec­tive dis­tor­tion becomes obvi­ous when crop­ping each pho­to to equal­ize the subject’s scale through­out the sequence. Adding dis­tance labels instead of focal lengths cre­ates a much more prac­ti­cal point of reference.

How to choose the correct focal length for portrait photography

When some­one sug­gests that a par­tic­u­lar focal length is ide­al for por­trai­ture, they’re real­ly express­ing two pref­er­ences: one for the rel­a­tive appear­ance of facial pro­por­tions from a giv­en dis­tance and anoth­er for the subject’s scale with­in a com­po­si­tion. Only you can deter­mine whether you share the same pref­er­ences for both. 

Although there’s no ide­al uni­ver­sal dis­tance for por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy, we can find sev­er­al clues in prox­emics, which is the study of how peo­ple uncon­scious­ly struc­ture the space between them­selves and oth­ers. For exam­ple, con­sid­er the idea of inter­per­son­al dis­tance zones pro­posed by Edward T. Hall in 1966. These are divid­ed into the inti­mate dis­tance (from 0–45 cm), per­son­al dis­tance (from 45 cm to 1.2 m), social dis­tance (from 1.2 to 3.7 m), and pub­lic dis­tance (from 3.7 m and greater). Although these spe­cif­ic ranges are biased towards white Amer­i­can males and may not apply to you or your cul­ture, you like­ly have an approx­i­mate notion of what you con­sid­er com­fort­able inter­per­son­al dis­tances. 

Under­stand­ing this makes choos­ing the right focal length for por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy straight­for­ward. First, decide the approx­i­mate dis­tance from which you feel peo­ple look their best, and sec­ond, select a focal length that pro­duces the com­po­si­tion you want at your pre­ferred dis­tance. There­fore, if you pre­fer how peo­ple appear from longer dis­tances and favour tight­ly framed pho­tos that bor­der on head-n-shoul­ders, your style calls for a medi­um or longer tele­pho­to lens. Pho­tog­ra­phers who are par­tial to envi­ron­men­tal por­trai­ture, which show­cas­es peo­ple in their usu­al envi­ron­ment, can com­bine a long sub­ject dis­tance with a wide-angle lens. The per­mu­ta­tions are prac­ti­cal­ly end­less, so do what makes you happy.

Keep in mind: if you dis­cov­er a fond­ness for wide-angle close-scale por­traits, it’s impor­tant to know the ulti­mate pur­pose and audi­ence for your pho­tos. Researchers pho­tographed sub­jects simul­ta­ne­ous­ly from two cam­era dis­tances, 45 cm and 135 cm, in an exper­i­ment about the effect of per­spec­tive dis­tor­tion on social judg­ment. Exper­i­menters found that study par­tic­i­pants pre­ferred faces pho­tographed from out­side of the per­son­al dis­tance zone more than those pho­tographed from with­in it and rat­ed them high­er for attrac­tive­ness, com­pe­tence, and trust­wor­thi­ness. When you get an oppor­tu­ni­ty to pho­to­graph your favourite evil politi­cian, take a note from Pla­ton: get close and shoot wide. 

Jokes aside, this research was pub­lished in 2012, and mobile social media plat­forms have had years of explo­sive growth ever since. That means arms-length portraits—otherwise known as selfies—of celebri­ties, pub­lic fig­ures, and your secret crush are ubiq­ui­tous and acces­si­ble and pro­vide the gen­er­al pub­lic with con­stant expo­sure to exam­ples of per­spec­tive dis­tor­tion on con­ven­tion­al­ly attrac­tive faces, which is some­thing we weren’t privy to more than a decade ago. 

A final note on wide-angle vs telephoto for portraiture

One more thing: tele­pho­to lens­es have a unique ben­e­fit over wide-angle lens­es because their rel­a­tive­ly nar­row­er angle of view allows minute shifts in per­spec­tive to alter the photo’s back­ground dra­mat­i­cal­ly. It’s use­ful for remov­ing parts of the back­ground from the com­po­si­tion that you feel are dis­tract­ing. Since short focal length lens­es cap­ture a wider angle of view, equal­ly small move­ments will not accom­plish the same goal. 

Conclusion

And there you have it, a guide for choos­ing your next por­trait lens. Per­son­al­ly, my favourite lens for por­trai­ture is the Fuji­non 56 mm ƒ/1.2. It offers an angle of view equiv­a­lent to an 85 mm lens on full-frame cameras—so it’s a short tele­pho­to lens—features a huge ƒ/1.2 aper­ture at which it’s quite sharp, and has love­ly bokeh. With that in mind, I’ve used this lens for many oth­er sub­jects, rang­ing from still-life, street scenes, and land­scapes. This brings me to my final point: no mat­ter what lens you buy, no mat­ter what cat­e­go­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy it’s mar­ket­ed towards, I encour­age you to exper­i­ment using it on dif­fer­ent sub­jects and in a vari­ety of set­tings. Always explore and dis­cov­er, and don’t put your­self in a box. 

 If you have requests for future top­ics, let me know in the com­ments, and I’ll address them in future videos. In the mean­time, you can learn more about pho­tog­ra­phy on ExposureTherapy.ca. See you next time.

Choosing Your Next Prime Lens (Using Adobe Lightroom)

How do you select a focal length for your first prime lens?

Hi every­one, my name is Paul, this is Expo­sure Ther­a­py, and in this video, I’ll demon­strate how Adobe Light­room Clas­sic can help you select your next prime lens.

Most of the stu­dents that attend my pho­tog­ra­phy work­shops bring gear pur­chased as part of a bun­dle or kit mar­ket­ed towards begin­ners. The kits typ­i­cal­ly include a basic DSLR or mir­ror­less cam­era, and a zoom lens with an 18–55 or 16–50 mm focal length, which varies depend­ing on the cam­era make. Some kits include a 75–300 mm lens for greater reach, but these are rar­er. 

When the work­shops tran­si­tion to the top­ic of the aper­ture and depth of field, some stu­dents real­ize that their basic zoom lens­es can’t achieve the shal­low depth of field aes­thet­ic they desire. This is fol­lowed by requests for me to rec­om­mend a large-aper­ture prime lens, which inevitably leads to a dis­cus­sion about how to choose a use­ful focal length. And so I ask prob­ing ques­tions about their pre­ferred sub­ject mat­ter, style, work­ing dis­tance, bud­get, etc., all in an attempt to glean the ide­al focal length for each stu­dent. 

This line of inquiry is com­mon, but it’s also prob­lem­at­ic because it assumes begin­ners can pro­vide accu­rate answers to ques­tions and con­cepts they’ve like­ly nev­er care­ful­ly con­sid­ered up to this point. 

Is there a bet­ter way? There is, but I’ll need access to your computer.

Adobe Lightroom Classic can help you determine your next prime lens.

If you take every pic­ture a pho­tog­ra­ph­er has shot on a zoom lens and sort the results by the focal lengths used, you’ll find an uneven dis­tri­b­u­tion of images among them: some will have a greater share of the total num­ber of pic­tures than oth­ers. Bar­ring a few excep­tions, I pro­pose that the focal length with the great­est share of the total—the plurality—is the ide­al focal length for that photographer’s next prime lens. 

How do you do this?

Your cam­era embeds infor­ma­tion about itself into every pho­to it saves. This is known as meta­da­ta. Exam­ples of this info include the time and date of cap­ture, the camera’s make and mod­el, and, cru­cial­ly, the set focal length of a zoom lens. This is true for vir­tu­al­ly every mod­ern DSLR, mir­ror­less, and point-and-shoot camera.

Adobe Light­room Classic—emphasis on the Clas­sic, as this can’t be done in their sim­pli­fied version—has a func­tion that lets you fil­ter your entire entire cat­a­logue, or a selec­tion of pho­tos, by a vari­ety of meta­da­ta attrib­ut­es, includ­ing by set focal length. When you acti­vate the focal length attribute, the appli­ca­tion dis­plays a list of every focal length you’ve used to take the select­ed images, along with the total num­ber of pho­tos shot using those focal lengths. My the­o­ry is that focal lengths with a com­par­a­tive­ly larg­er share of pho­tos are evi­dence of a pref­er­ence and can serve as a great start­ing point for pick­ing your next no-regrets prime lens. 

Now I’ll demon­strate the process.

[Demon­stra­tion in video]

Analysis and limitation

The first and most obvi­ous lim­i­ta­tion of this method is that it requires Adobe Light­room Clas­sic. The so-called mod­ern­ized ver­sion of Adobe Light­room, the one avail­able on both desk­top and mobile plat­forms, can’t fil­ter meta­da­ta by lens type or focal length. (On a side note: I firm­ly rec­om­mend Light­room Clas­sic over Light­room not-clas­sic.) I’ve also con­firmed that both Apple Pho­tos and Google Pho­tos don’t allow fil­ter­ing pic­tures by set focal length, despite their abil­i­ty to read and dis­play the data in ques­tion. I can’t com­ment about per­form­ing this type of analy­sis using oth­er apps, such as Cap­ture One Pro, Pho­to Mechan­ic, etc., sim­ply because I nei­ther own nor use them. So sorry.

Sec­ond­ly, it’s impor­tant to under­stand that both the upper and low­er lim­its of your zoom’s focal length range can own a greater share of the dis­tri­b­u­tion. This isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly because you pre­fer these focal lengths, but more so because they’re the hard lim­it of the lens. For exam­ple, if my lens tops out at 55 mm, but I want a big­ger ren­di­tion of my sub­ject, I’m going to set­tle on 55 mm despite want­i­ng more. 

Last­ly, this analy­sis is lim­it­ed to the focal length range of your exist­ing zoom lens­es. How­ev­er, since the point of this method is to guide you towards a pre­ferred focal length from among those that you use, this lim­i­ta­tion is large­ly moot. I firm­ly believe that it’s more prac­ti­cal for begin­ners to expand their col­lec­tion of zoom lens­es before com­mit­ting to fixed-focal length prime lens­es. The ulti­mate point of this exer­cise is to engage in due dili­gence and pho­to­graph­ic intro­spec­tion so that you can avoid buyer’s remorse. 

Conclusion

And there you have it, an easy way to use Adobe Light­room Clas­sic to help you choose your next prime lens based on the focal lengths you use most often. If you have requests for future top­ics, let me know in the com­ments, and I’ll address them in future videos. In the mean­time, you can learn more about pho­tog­ra­phy on ExposureTherapy.ca. See you next time.

Composition Techniques for Beginner Photographers

A tran­script of the text fol­lows below.


Many new pho­tog­ra­phers, espe­cial­ly those that don’t have some artis­tic back­ground, have trou­ble with com­po­si­tion. In this video, I’ll do my best to dis­till the idea of com­po­si­tion to its core, dis­cuss how our minds process visu­al infor­ma­tion in a way that could sab­o­tage a casu­al approach to com­po­si­tions and share a few tech­niques for work­ing around these psy­cho­log­i­cal imped­i­ments to cre­at­ing pleas­ing pho­tos. Let’s begin.

What is composition?

In her book, The Art of Com­po­si­tion: A Sim­ple Appli­ca­tion of Dynam­ic Sym­me­try, Michel Jacobs writes, 

Com­po­si­tion is one of the means to express to oth­ers the thought that is in the artist’s mind. We can do this with colour, with line, mass, form, or with the light and shade—all of which should be com­bined to bring out more forcibly the idea of the artist.

In oth­er words, pho­to­graph­ic com­po­si­tion is the way you arrange the place­ment and scale of your sub­ject with­in the con­fines of your can­vas. The sub­ject is the per­son, place, or thing you want to pho­to­graph, and the can­vas is sim­ply every­thing with­in your vis­i­ble frame. Side note: I know many pho­tog­ra­phers take pho­tos intend­ing to crop them lat­er; how­ev­er, at this stage, and for the sake of sim­plic­i­ty, just assume “frame” refers to what you see in the viewfind­er or on the camera’s screen. 

Cre­at­ing a pleas­ing com­po­si­tion starts with under­stand­ing your sub­ject, and then find­ing an effec­tive way of trans­lat­ing that under­stand­ing into a pho­to­graph. Begin­ners often have trou­ble with both parts of the process. They take pic­tures hap­haz­ard­ly, with­out tak­ing the time to con­sid­er their inten­tions. They hap­pen upon some­thing inter­est­ing, point their cam­era, and take a pic­ture assum­ing the result will look as good as what they expe­ri­enced. But unless they’re lucky, this isn’t often the case.

The disconnects between what you see and how you photograph

The way our minds process visu­al infor­ma­tion cre­ates dis­crep­an­cies between what we see and how we pho­tog­ra­phy. We may look with our eyes, but we see with our minds. Let’s delve into the basic psy­chol­o­gy of sight.

Perceptual hypothesis

The Gestalt school of psy­chol­o­gy offers hints at how peo­ple orga­nize visu­al inputs. It pro­pos­es there are two types of visu­al stim­uli, dis­tal and prox­i­mal. Dis­tal stim­uli are those that lie in the dis­tance, out­side your body; they’re the objects you’re look­ing at. Light from dis­tal stim­uli enters our eyes and cre­ates prox­i­mal stim­uli, which are the pro­jec­tions of light stim­u­lat­ing your reti­nas. 

Their dis­tinc­tion is impor­tant because an object’s true shape may vary from the shapes danc­ing across your reti­nas. In vision, the prox­i­mal stim­uli are dis­tort­ed, two-dimen­sion­al pro­jec­tions of their true forms. For exam­ple, if you lay a square sheet of paper (the dis­tal stim­uli) on a table and observe it from direct­ly over­head, its image (the prox­i­mal stim­uli) will look like a square; how­ev­er, if you sit down and look at the square from an angle, it will appear trape­zoidal, because the top of the square is fur­ther from you than the bot­tom. Despite its trape­zoidal appear­ance, we under­stand that we’re see­ing a square. How? 

Our minds are con­stant­ly bridg­ing the gap between dis­tal and prox­i­mal stim­uli by form­ing hypothe­ses about the nature of the real world. A per­cep­tu­al hypoth­e­sis is an infer­ence about the nature of a dis­tal stim­u­lus based on its prox­i­mal char­ac­ter­is­tics. Our minds process visu­al infor­ma­tion and mak­ing guess­es about what real-world forms are respon­si­ble for the pat­terns we perceive.

Guess­ing true shapes from incom­plete or skewed visu­al infor­ma­tion works against casu­al pho­tog­ra­phers by cre­at­ing a bias in favour of a form’s true shape instead of its visu­al shape. In essence, what we know com­petes with what we see.

We can observe this in pho­tos fea­tur­ing hori­zons and archi­tec­tur­al forms. Intu­itive­ly, we under­stand that a flat hori­zon should be level—that is, per­pen­dic­u­lar to the pull of gravity—but this under­stand­ing can impede our abil­i­ty to notice when a com­po­si­tion lists to one side. Fur­ther­more, our eyes stay lev­el with the hori­zon by rolling with­in their sock­ets. You can observe this in a mir­ror by slight­ly tilt­ing your head from left to right—notice how your eyes roll in the oppo­site direc­tion of your head’s move­ment. 

In archi­tec­ture, forms com­mon­ly fea­ture straight lines, right angles, and great height rel­a­tive to your ground-lev­el per­spec­tive. Angling the cam­era upwards to cap­ture a building’s facade con­verges its ver­ti­cal lines towards a van­ish­ing point. This is called the key­stone effect, and it’s com­mon­ly avoid­ed by pro­fes­sion­al archi­tec­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phers. Keyston­ing is easy to spot in pho­tos tak­en with wide-angle lens­es, but it’s not some­thing we’re mind­ful of because we intu­itive­ly under­stand the form’s true shape, and that its lines aren’t con­verg­ing but reced­ing into the dis­tance, which we under­stand thanks to depth perception.

Depth perception

There are two types of depth per­cep­tion in human vision: binoc­u­lar and monoc­u­lar. Binoc­u­lar depth cues are dis­tance clues derived from the dif­fer­ing views of the two eyes—they pro­vide that dis­tinct sen­sa­tion of an object’s posi­tion in three-dimen­sion­al space. Monoc­u­lar depth cues are dis­tance clues derived from each eye alone, such as motion par­al­lax and pic­to­r­i­al depth cues, which are dis­tance clues that can be expressed in a flat pic­ture, such as a photo!

Binoc­u­lar depth per­cep­tion allows us to see a sub­ject, sense its dis­tance in space, and iso­late its form from its sur­round­ings. This lets us over­look visu­al­ly dis­tract­ing ele­ments that would oth­er­wise be more con­spic­u­ous in two-dimen­sion­al ren­di­tions. This brings us to the con­cept of attention.

Visual attention and perceptual blindness

Atten­tion is a cog­ni­tive process that lets you con­cen­trate on a dis­crete selec­tion of sen­so­ry inputs from many com­pet­ing ones. When direct­ing your visu­al atten­tion towards your sub­ject, you become less aware of its sur­round­ings. It can lead to a phe­nom­e­non called inat­ten­tion blind­ness, which is a fail­ure to notice an unex­pect­ed occur­rence with­in your visu­al field because your con­cen­tra­tion is else­where. 

The lim­its of atten­tion cre­ate a prob­lem for begin­ner and expe­ri­enced pho­tog­ra­phers alike. You could be tak­ing a por­trait, con­cen­trat­ing on your subject’s pose, and com­plete­ly miss that their shirt is com­ing untucked and their zip­per is down. Oops!

Visual perception has no borders

Unlike an artist’s can­vas, our visu­al expe­ri­ence of the world has no defined bound­aries. There’s a cen­tral area of atten­tion, and there’s a periph­ery, and beyond that periph­ery lies…an absence of visu­al per­cep­tion. When we look around, we dis­cov­er the views beyond that periph­ery. And yet, when our eyes cross some­thing interesting—something we deem picture-worthy—we must con­sid­er it with­in defined com­po­si­tion­al bound­aries. 

Casu­al shoot­ers sim­ply point their cam­era at the sub­ject, ensur­ing that it’s all-in, and take a shot. They look with their eyes, see with their minds, and assume that’s all it takes. What they don’t con­sid­er is how our minds process that infor­ma­tion to “fix” their per­cep­tion of that view, a view that often doesn’t trans­late into a well-com­posed photograph.

How to think compositionally and achieve great results

How can you move beyond absent­mind­ed pho­tos to achieve more pleas­ing com­po­si­tions that work with­in a two-dimen­sion­al medi­um con­strained to a can­vas? The fol­low­ing tips should help you orga­nize your thoughts towards think­ing com­po­si­tion­al­ly in the con­text of the psy­cho­log­i­cal process­es I’ve out­lined ear­li­er. Just remem­ber: these aren’t rules.

Define your subject

In my opin­ion, the first step towards cre­at­ing a pleas­ing com­po­si­tion is clear­ly defin­ing your sub­ject. Think like a reporter: under­stand what you want to show and why it’s caught your inter­est. Under­stand­ing the answers to both will inform your sub­se­quent decisions.

Find your perspective

It’s time to explore how you’ll take the pic­ture, and this starts with per­spec­tive. In pho­tog­ra­phy, per­spec­tive refers to your camera’s point of view and it’s deter­mined exclu­sive­ly by the posi­tion from which a pho­to is tak­en. Ask your­self: what’s the best angle from which to cap­ture this pho­to? 

Your body is a great asset for manip­u­lat­ing per­spec­tive. You can crouch down, walk around, lean out, look straight up, lay down, get close…and then clos­er, or take a step—or fifty—backwards. Depend­ing on what you’re pho­tograph­ing, you can walk around or through your sub­ject to find inter­est­ing perspectives.

Gen­er­al­ly, pho­tog­ra­phers seek per­spec­tives that empha­size the subject’s phys­i­cal geom­e­try, the qual­i­ty of light, and its visu­al place­ment rel­a­tive to back­ground and fore­ground ele­ments. Alter­ing your per­spec­tive can make the dif­fer­ence between a pho­to that looks flat ver­sus one that has a dis­tant back­ground and a sense of depth. 

Per­spec­tive also adds an emo­tion­al aspect to por­traits. High-angle shots, where the cam­era looks down at a per­son, can con­vey a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, meek­ness, and insignif­i­cance. These are con­trast­ed by low-angle shots, where the cam­era looks up at a per­son and sig­ni­fies strength, con­fi­dence, and authority.

Per­spec­tive can also inform the scale of your pic­ture. 

Choose your subject’s scale and prominence

Scale and promi­nence are inter­re­lat­ed con­cepts with sub­tle dif­fer­ences. Scale refers to the appar­ent size of your com­po­si­tion­al ele­ments. You can change the scale by mov­ing clos­er or far­ther, and by zoom­ing in or out. Promi­nence refers to the share of your view­ers’ atten­tion each com­po­si­tion­al ele­ment holds. Gen­er­al­ly, as scale increas­es, so does promi­nence; they have a pos­i­tive correlation.

Nev­er­the­less, there are sit­u­a­tions where a small-scale ele­ment can have great promi­nence. Think of a spotlit singer against the back­drop of a dark the­atre, a spring flower bloom­ing through the snow, or a per­son wear­ing a colour­ful out­fit in a sea of peo­ple wear­ing grey suits. Such com­po­si­tions manip­u­late our atten­tion using con­trast, tex­ture, and colour.

Find leading lines

You can also manip­u­late promi­nence by lead­ing the viewer’s eyes through the com­po­si­tion towards the sub­ject. Lead­ing lines are real or implied straight or curved lines that ter­mi­nate on or point towards your pri­ma­ry sub­ject. They’re a use­ful com­po­si­tion­al tool for achiev­ing promi­nence when con­trast, tex­ture, and colour aren’t work­ing in your favour. 

Use the viewfinder 

Use your camera’s viewfind­er instead of the rear LCD screen, if you have the option. Think­ing com­po­si­tion­al­ly is much eas­i­er when your visu­al field is lim­it­ed to the pho­to­graph­ic frame. The viewfind­er sep­a­rates your view of the frame from the extra­ne­ous dis­trac­tions of your sur­round­ings or the reflec­tions on your LCD and allows you to con­cen­trate on the har­mo­ny of the visu­al ele­ments. 

Minimize distractions

Try to min­i­mize dis­trac­tions. Dis­trac­tions are any intru­sive ele­ments that com­pete for visu­al atten­tion with your pri­ma­ry sub­ject. They can man­i­fest as tex­tures, shapes, and colours. Giv­en what we now know about visu­al atten­tion and depth per­cep­tion, the first step towards min­i­miz­ing dis­tract­ing ele­ments is to look at your sub­ject with one eye or through your cam­era. This imme­di­ate­ly com­press­es the 3D world into one plane, and lets you look for back­ground and fore­ground ele­ments that would oth­er­wise detract from your sub­ject. Next, check the vis­i­ble out­line of your sub­ject for inter­sect­ing lines and shapes that could be con­fused for being a part of it. A com­mon exam­ple would be scrag­gly branch­es or street lamps erupt­ing from your subject’s head. Addi­tion­al­ly, you can min­i­mize fore- and back­ground dis­trac­tions with selec­tive focus of your lens. 

Level horizons

In gen­er­al, you should try to keep your pho­tos lev­el unless there’s a good rea­son not to. A sub­tle slant can look like a mis­take, and most often is. Grid­lines in your camera’s viewfind­er or screen can help you achieve lev­el hori­zons. You can also lev­el a crooked pho­to after the fact using pop­u­lar edit­ing apps. By the way, a cant­ed-angle or Dutch angle describes a pho­to that’s inten­tion­al­ly set off-lev­el. 

Be mindful of headroom and lead room

When you look at some­one and make eye con­tact, their eyes are cen­tred in your visu­al field and occu­py your atten­tion. When casu­al shoot­ers take this life-long habit and apply it to their pho­tog­ra­phy, their results fea­ture too much head­room, which is the dis­tance between your subject’s head and the top of the frame. Por­traits where eyes and noses are in the cen­tre of the frame often look slop­py or incom­plete because most of our atten­tion is at or below the cen­tre line. Next time you’re about to take a por­trait, assess whether the space above your subject’s head is adding or sub­tract­ing from the shot. 

When look­ing at pho­tos, it’s com­mon for us to expect space in front of a mov­ing sub­ject or the direc­tion of their gaze. Lead room, some­times called active space, refers to the dis­tance between the implied direc­tion of your subject’s motion or gaze and the edge of the cor­re­spond­ing frame. Dead space refers to the space behind the active sub­ject. There’s no con­sen­sus for what con­sti­tutes a good amount of lead room, but it becomes obvi­ous when there isn’t enough. A pho­to can have a lack of bal­ance when the direc­tion of a subject’s gaze or motion is imme­di­ate­ly imped­ed by the frame. It cre­ates a sense of confinement.

Watch your edges

Inat­ten­tion blind­ness can lead to dis­trac­tions in your pho­tos, and some of the most notice­able ones occur at the bound­aries of your frame. You can guard against these by scan­ning your eyes along the edges of the frame to ensure dis­tract­ing ele­ments aren’t intrud­ing into your com­po­si­tion. If you notice a dis­trac­tion, adjust your com­po­si­tion, and repeat the scan.

You should also watch the edges of your frame for unin­ten­tion­al or awk­ward crop­ping of your sub­ject, espe­cial­ly when tak­ing por­traits. A com­po­si­tion can look slop­py when the frame’s edge crops off a small part of your sub­ject, such as half a foot, a sliv­er of the shoul­der, or an ear. Look along the edges to make sure that small bits of your sub­ject aren’t inad­ver­tent­ly cut by the frame. And when you must crop your sub­jects, such as in close-up or medi­um-scale por­traits, make sure the crop reads as inten­tion­al. 

Conclusion

And there you have it, a rule-free intro­duc­tion to think­ing com­po­si­tion­al­ly while avoid­ing some of the cog­ni­tive traps that can lead begin­ners to take poor pho­tos. If you have requests for future top­ics, let me know in the com­ments, and I’ll address them in future videos.

3 common mistakes by beginner photographers (and how to fix them)

[The fol­low­ing is a tran­script of the embed­ded video.]

Are you dis­ap­point­ed by the qual­i­ty of your pic­tures because they look pix­e­lat­ed, or the colours don’t look authen­tic, or they’re sim­ply too light or dark, and you just want them to look good? 

Let’s sort it out.

My name is Paul and this is Expo­sure Ther­a­py. I’ve taught group pho­tog­ra­phy work­shops for the past three years, and in this video, I’ll dis­cuss three com­mon prob­lems encoun­tered by begin­ners, and what you can do to fix them.

1. Picture quality and resolution is set too low

The first prob­lem relates to pic­ture qual­i­ty and res­o­lu­tion, and it’s the eas­i­est to rem­e­dy. If you’re notic­ing that your high-megapix­el cam­era isn’t pro­duc­ing pho­tos with the lev­el of detail you’re expect­ing, you have an issue with pic­ture res­o­lu­tion. The Res­o­lu­tion affects how close­ly you can crop or zoom into your pic­ture on a com­put­er or phone before notic­ing obvi­ous pix­e­la­tion. In this exam­ple, you’re see­ing two ver­sions of the same pho­to. The left one was saved at my camera’s high­est res­o­lu­tion, which is 24 megapix­els, and the right using a low­er set­ting. Notice how I can’t zoom as close­ly to the image on the right, and when I force it, we see pix­e­la­tion instead of fine detail.

The solu­tion is to go into your camera’s pic­ture set­tings, which on most cam­eras is locat­ed at the top- or left-most of the menu list, and ensure your selec­tion is set to the largest res­o­lu­tion, which is most com­mon­ly des­ig­nat­ed as Large or with the let­ter L. This tells your cam­era to save your pic­tures using the full res­o­lu­tion of your image sen­sor so that you’re using all the megapix­els you paid for. 

In addi­tion to res­o­lu­tion, your cam­era also lets you choose between dif­fer­ent image qual­i­ty set­tings. This affects how much data com­pres­sion your files under­go; more com­pres­sion can pro­duce images that show vis­i­ble block­i­ness, arti­facts, and colour degra­da­tion, espe­cial­ly around high-con­trast edges or areas of flat detail. In this exam­ple, both pho­tos were saved at the same res­o­lu­tion but with dif­fer­ent qual­i­ty set­tings. The pho­to on the right was saved using low­er-qual­i­ty than the pic­ture on the left, and with clos­er inspec­tion, it shows some degra­da­tion, which isn’t ideal.

To make sure this doesn’t hap­pen, you should go back into your camera’s pic­ture set­tings and select the high­est JPEG qual­i­ty that’s avail­able. This is typ­i­cal­ly described using words like Fine, Extra Fine, or the let­ter F. The high-qual­i­ty set­ting on Canon cam­eras is depict­ed with a smooth quar­ter-cir­cle icon.

Your cam­era is now set to record pho­tos using its high­est res­o­lu­tion and best JPEG qual­i­ty. Keep in mind that pic­ture set­tings are what I call “per­sis­tent”, which means that you don’t need to wor­ry about repeat­ing this process every time you turn on your cam­era. 

2. Poor colour balance (white balance)

Now let’s tack­le the sec­ond com­mon prob­lem, which relates to colour. You’ve expe­ri­enced poor colour bal­ance if you’ve ever tak­en a pho­to that appears to have a cool­er or warmer colour cast than you remem­ber see­ing with your eyes. This some­times hap­pens when you’re tak­ing pic­tures of large­ly mono­chro­mat­ic scenes, like those in which a sin­gle colour is a dom­i­nant hue, or when you’re tak­ing pic­tures in dim indoor lights. Such sit­u­a­tions cause your cam­era to mis­in­ter­pret the colour of the light, and you end up with an unwel­come colour cast. 

You can eas­i­ly avoid such mis­takes by telling your cam­era the cor­rect colour of the scene’s pri­ma­ry light source. This is a two-step process. 

First, you’ll have to step out of the com­fort of full Auto mode and into Pro­gram shoot­ing mode, which is a ful­ly auto­mat­ic expo­sure mode that gives you access to sev­er­al fea­tures that were pre­vi­ous­ly unavail­able. You can shift between modes using the Shoot­ing mode dial, which is locat­ed on the top of most cam­eras. Here it is on my 11-year-old Canon 7D. Turn the dial to “P”.

Now that you’re in Pro­gram mode, you can make changes to how your cam­era inter­prets the colour of light sources. The set­ting you’re look­ing to adjust is called White Bal­ance and is labelled “WB” on many cam­eras. Here’s the White Bal­ance but­ton on my Canon 7D; and here’s how I change it using the on-screen menu. If you haven’t changed it before, its prob­a­bly set to the default “AWB”, which stands for Auto White Bal­ance. 

Auto white bal­ance gen­er­al­ly pro­vides ade­quate results in scenes fea­tur­ing a vari­ety of colours. Beyond that, many cam­eras let you choose from sev­er­al white bal­ance pre­sets designed to match com­mon­ly encoun­tered light­ing con­di­tions. The most com­mon pre­sets are Shade, for when your sub­ject is lit by blue sky­light; Cloudy, for pho­tos tak­en under over­cast con­di­tions; Day­light, for sub­jects in direct after­noon sun­light; Tung­sten or Incan­des­cent, for sub­jects lit by ener­gy-inef­fi­cient light bulbs; and Flash, for when you’re using your camera’s built-in flash or a speed light mount­ed to your camera’s hot shoe. The Flu­o­res­cent pre­sets found on mod­ern cam­eras are only approx­i­ma­tions for the huge vari­ety of flu­o­res­cent and LED lights on the mar­ket, so pick these with cau­tion and don’t expect perfection.

Some cam­eras have addi­tion­al, more advanced pre­sets, such as “K” and “Cus­tom”, which uses this icon, but they’re beyond the scope of this video.

For now, the pre­sets I described above—Shade, Cloudy, Day­light, etc—should help you get great pho­tos with con­sis­tent­ly accu­rate colours in sit­u­a­tions when Auto White Bal­ance has the poten­tial to be inac­cu­rate. Of course, I don’t want to imply that Auto White Bal­ance is always bad—it’s not, it has a time and place. How­ev­er, you’ll get bet­ter results when you pick a pre­set that match­es the scene’s lighting.

Keep in mind, if you go back to using Auto mode instead of Pro­gram mode, you’ll lose the abil­i­ty to select White Balance.

Let’s take a look at an exam­ple of what White Bal­ance looks like when it’s wrong and when it’s right. The pho­to on the left was tak­en with Auto White Bal­ance, and my cam­era incor­rect­ly read the scene as Day­light, which is a set­ting intend­ed to match direct after­noon sun­light. My grand­moth­er was sit­ting by a large win­dow, and although it was sun­ny out­side, direct sun­light wasn’t the main light source. Her face was illu­mi­nat­ed by the light of the sky. That’s why the scene, as shot, looks too cool and pro­duces skin tones that are almost grey—that because sky­light is cool­er than Day­light. Chang­ing the camera’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the scene to Shade, which is the cor­rect set­ting for sub­jects lit by the blue sky, pro­duces much more authen­tic and pleas­ing colours. Keep in mind, this exam­ple is sim­u­lat­ed, and in prac­tice, you’ll have to make the right choice before tak­ing the picture.

By the way, White Bal­ance is a cre­ative choice as much as a tech­ni­cal one. The most accu­rate White Bal­ance set­ting isn’t always the “right” one; some­times, the right White Bal­ance set­ting is sim­ply the one whose look you pre­fer the most. So feel free to exper­i­ment and dis­cov­er your preferences.

3. Incorrect auto exposures (and fixing them using exposure compensation)

The last com­mon prob­lem that many begin­ners encounter is inac­cu­rate auto expo­sures. These are often expe­ri­enced as pho­tos that come out too dark or bright in com­par­i­son to what you saw with your eyes, or per­haps what you were hop­ing for. For­tu­nate­ly, there’s a very sim­ple and intu­itive way to nudge the camera’s auto expo­sure in the right direc­tion. This is done using a func­tion called Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion. Sim­i­lar to White Bal­ance, Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion doesn’t work in Auto mode, so you’ll have to keep your cam­era set to P mode to use it. 

On many begin­ners DSLRs and mir­ror­less cam­eras, Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion is set by push­ing the but­ton labelled with a plus and minus symbol—it looks like this—and then rotat­ing your camera’s main con­trol dial. Rotat­ing the dial either adds or sub­tracts the amount of com­pen­sa­tion, which is typ­i­cal­ly expressed using pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive num­bers in your viewfind­er or on the main screen. Pos­i­tive num­bers tell your cam­era to make auto expo­sures and neg­a­tive num­bers tell your cam­era to make them dark­er. 

As a gen­er­al rule of thumb, very bright scenes and sub­jects call for a pos­i­tive adjust­ment, while those that are dark need a neg­a­tive adjustment.

Let’s take a look at a sim­u­lat­ed exam­ple. In this pho­to of a white dog on snow, the dom­i­nance of light tones through­out the scene fooled the cam­era into think­ing there’s too much light and a reduced expo­sure is war­rant­ed. Being smarter than the cam­era, we know that both the dog and the snow should look white, not grey. So for this scene of a bright sub­ject, adding pos­i­tive Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion pro­duces a much more desir­able and authen­tic result. And once again, in prac­tice, you’d make this adjust­ment before tak­ing the picture.

Bear in mind that Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion is a per­sis­tent set­ting. To avoid acci­den­tal­ly sab­o­tag­ing your next series of pic­tures, it’s good prac­tice to reset it to zero before turn­ing off the cam­era. 

Now you know how to rec­og­nize and rem­e­dy the three most com­mon mis­takes made by new pho­tog­ra­phers. If you have requests for future top­ics, let me know in the com­ments, and I’ll address them in future videos. In the mean­time, you can learn more about pho­tog­ra­phy on ExposureTherapy.ca. See you next time.

3, 2, 1, Launch

Girl touching window and looking at planes at Hong Kong International Airport.
Watch­ing the bag­gage tugs, Hong Kong, 2016.

The web­site has launched. This post is a brief doc­u­ment of the launch. Addi­tion­al­ly, it serves as a soli­tary place­hold­er for the blog’s archive page.