Power, Detail and Emotion
Obviously, I’m either referring to the family dog or a set of loudspeakers (http://www.klipsch.com/why-klipsch). The detail and emotion in the dog’s eyes and expression are what I live for. The best part of my day is coming home from work and seeing such a happy and loyal friend waiting for me. Yet, it’s rare that I’m able to get a photograph of him that looks like this. Dogs have an uncanny ability to sully each picture they’re in by looking anywhere else besides the lens of the camera.
Only recently have I figured out how to actually take a picture of the dog that’s somewhat good, so I wanted to share a few tips on how to accomplish this:
- Use a 35mm lens, or adjust your zoom lens to 35mm. 35mm film and lenses are widely used in photography and cinematography because they are the most similar to what our eyes actually see. If you don’t have these things and want to use a phone, just get closer to the dog.
- Don’t choose the lowest aperture your lens will allow. Instead pick an f-stop that is slightly higher (5.6 instead of 1.8). For example, in the photo above, the dog’s eyes and nose appear sharp, but the drapes behind him do not. This effect is called Bokeh and it’s achieved by using a low f-stop. It’s tempting to default to the lowest, but that’s not always the best choice. I’ve ruined a lot of pictures this way. It’s risky to use an aperture that is too low because it can make the actual subject appear out of focus. Instead, picking a higher f-stop will still allow you to achieve the effect you’re after, but you won’t risk blurring the edges of the subject.
- If the dog looks too orange, make the photo black and white and call it a day. Or, you can fix this by setting the white balance to “tungsten” which confusingly means “indoor light.” Tungsten refers to a typical light bulb you’d find in your house (tungsten filament). However, these are being phased out and many homes have compact fluorescent bulbs instead. This wouldn’t matter, except that most cameras also have a white balance setting for “fluorescent,” so it’s easy to confuse the two. Just remember that the camera thinks of “fluorescent” as the long tubes you’d see in an office building or a school.
- Cheat. I held a Milkbone near the camera lens. I hate to divulge this, because that loving stare is not for me or Kelli, but instead it’s directed toward a chicken-flavored dog biscuit.
Aside from how to take a picture of a dog, I want to point out a couple of general tips that I’ve found useful: Setting the white balance, and using aperture mode “Av.”
Setting the white balance is probably the easiest way to make pictures much better looking. People spend lots of money on a nice camera and are sometimes disappointed when their pictures look bluish or orange. The reason this happens is because the camera sees everything in gradients of black and white and assigns colors to those values. The one it most often assigns incorrectly is white. So it allows you, the user, to tell it what white should be.
The easiest way to tell the camera what to do is by picking a preset. White balance presets are easy to use and are fairly accurate. Essentially, you’re telling the camera that while it’s inside, it should make whites look a certain way. Or, while it’s outside, it should make whites look a different way. Plus, you only have to set it once, at the beginning of you photo session.
Or, if you’re really daring, you can set a custom white balance. This is also remarkably easy, and it’s more accurate than a preset. Look around your setting for something white. Use an undershirt if you have to. Then take an up close picture of only that, you don’t even have to focus. Next, go into the menu and set that as the custom white balance. Now all of your pictures will look much better!
You can also experiment with this as well. Think about what you’re trying to capture and convey to the viewer. You may want something to take on bluish hues to express emotions of sadness or despair. This is almost always done in war movies. It makes sense, because if there are cheerful reds and vibrant yellows mixed into the machinegun fire, the scene would look strange. It’s not supposed to be happy. On the other hand, romantic comedies tend to go the other way. Think of the warm, vibrant sunsets you sometimes see in these movies. This can all be achieved in your own photos by simply adjusting the white balance.
Aperture Priority Mode (Av)
“Aperture” is a fancy word that essentially means how large or small the opening on your lens will be. Think of it like the pupil in your eye. When it’s dark out, pupils get larger to let in more light. On the other hand, when it’s bright outside, pupils get a lot smaller and let in less light. The aperture on the camera does the exact same thing.
Aperture Priority Mode a good choice because it allows you to control the aperture (f-stop) while the camera does all of the rest. The main benefit to controlling this on your own is that you have full control over the depth of field. The dog above has a shallow depth of field. This is achieved by a small f-stop. On the other hand, if I wanted everything to be very clear, I would increase the f-stop.
The reason Av mode is so useful is because whenever you change the aperture, the exposure (shutter speed) and ISO (what used to be known as film speed) must be correspondingly changed. If you don’t want to think about those, then Av mode has the camera make the adjustments for you. So you get complete control of your depth of field, but you don’t have to worry about the rest.
Finally, if this sounds complicated, don’t do any of these things! Just start experimenting. Photography is supposed to be fun, and if it’s not, then it’s easy to skip taking the picture altogether. I used to get frustrated and give up because I felt like I couldn’t do this right and I didn’t understand how to use the camera. I have very few pictures of my dogs as puppies because of this, and I really regret that. It’s important to remember that there is no right way to do this. It’s completely subjective and up to you. So just go out and have fun!