How Many Images Should You Shoot?

Finding a balance between very few and too many

There’s an old expression among professional photographers: “Film is cheap.” Anybody who’s recently done a lot of shooting knows that this certainly isn’t the case. Whether shooting print or slide film, by the time you buy the film and have it processed at a good lab, it can cost anywhere between $15 and $20 per roll.

Burning Film for One Great Shot

Professional, commercial and editorial photographers blow through film. A sports photographer assigned to cover a baseball game might set his motor drive on the “continuous” shooting mode and fire off a half-dozen shots every time a batter swings over the plate or when a play is made in the outfield. By the end of the evening, he may have shot 20 or 30 rolls of film. With so many photos to choose from, it’s much easier to get that all-important shot for the next day’s front page in the sports section.

Similarly, an editorial photographer I was writing about mentioned that he had just finished a small assignment for National Geographic. He was asked to rake some supplementary shots for an assignment that another person originally photographed. The assignment involved traveling some 500 miles and staying in the area for about a week to document specific subjects for the magazine. During that time, he shot 160 rolls of transparency film. After all that, only one of his shots was used, and it ran small, stuck in the corner of a page.

While many newspapers and magazines buy their film in bulk and some do their own processing, buying and processing those 160 rolls can still cost a few thousand dollars. Even by professional standards, that’s not particularly cheap.

But there is a certain truth in the old adage when talking about professional assignments, as film is usually the least expensive item in a commercial shoot. When you factor in fees for the photographer, assistants, crew or models, studio charges or location costs, and a myriad of other expenses, the price of film isn’t that high by comparison.

The Digital Advantage

Until recently, most casual photographers didn’t have the luxury to take an unlimited number of shots, as pros do. They couldn’t shoot as many frames as they wanted, just to come up with one optimum image. But now, with a digital camera and a computer, they have the option to shoot away.

Once you’ve purchased the equipment, there’s no additional cost to shoot as many frames as you’d like. The only limitations are the capacity of the removable memory and the need to transfer images to a computer before the media can be used again.

Even the limitation of the amount of hard disk storage space available on a computer is no longer much of a problem, since many computer systems come with writable CD drives. And more-powerful imaging systems frequently come configured with high-capacity Zip or Jaz drives. When the new hardware is paired with album software or an image database, it becomes very easy for a photographer to shoot as many images as he or she wants, without overloading the storage capacity of the hard disk.

On the Plus Side

There are both pros and cons in having the ability to shoot copiously. Obviously, positive aspects include becoming a better photographer through practice. Even the most accomplished photographers admit they lose their keen edge if they go for long periods of time without shooting.

Another positive aspect is the opportunity to experiment. You can try different styles, techniques and subject matter, without incurring additional photographic expenses. Even if you don’t find the experimentation interesting after a while, much of what you’ve learned can be incorporated into other types of photography or assignments. It’s amazing how seemingly unrelated capabilities come in handy for different kinds of photography.

The third positive aspect is the ability to be comprehensive. Instead of shooting one or two frames of a subject, which might include an overview or scene-setting shot, and a few close-ups, it’s possible to shoot a subject from many angles and capture it in as great a detail as you need, without worrying about wasted film and unnecessarily high costs.

The Downside

One of the most negative aspects of being able to shoot as much as you like is that the importance of individual shots is reduced. A characteristic that sets great photographers apart from the rest of the crowd is the ability to get that one great shot at the exact instant that it mattered, not a moment too soon or too late.

Before the advent of 35mm cameras, there were cameras available that accepted various sizes of roll film. But their image quality was marginal and they didn’t offer the creative controls that professional photographers needed. Instead, studio and commercial photographers used large-format cameras, while editorial photographers used Speed Graphics. Both types of cameras required sheets of film in individual holders. After one shot, the film holder had to be turned over or replaced.

Imagine how difficult it was for the famous police photographer Weegee to cover a crime scene with a heavy, boxy Speed Graphic. If he shot too soon or too slowly, it would take several seconds to get ready for the next shot. By that time, all the action might be over.

Even after 35mm SLRs became popular, getting that all-important frame was still an art. A photographer might be able to click off a few shots in seconds without jamming the camera, but it was still a matter of taking individual photographs. Motor drives changed all that. At six frames a second for as long as there’s unexposed film in the camera, getting that decisive shot has gotten a lot easier.

Capturing the Moment

Digital cameras take the continuous shooting mode one step further, to the point that some cameras are able to capture individual frames at almost video-frame speed. Some consumer digital models can shoot three or four frames a second. Professional models can capture even more frames per burst.

To guarantee that one great shot, a new Olympus digital camera starts shooting before you’re actually ready to take the picture, in case you’ve missed the action by the time you decide to fully depress the shutter. It stores up to five frames when the shutter is halfway depressed while you’re still making up your mind whether to shoot or not. If the shot is taken, those pre-images are saved; if not, they’re discarded. So, for each shot that’s taken, five additional shots are saved. Taking just 10 shots results in having 60 shots to choose from.

With such fast continuous-shooting modes, and a proliferation of images due to different types of automatic image capture, and the cost of film and processing being eliminated, there’s no reason to shoot judiciously. Increasingly, photographers just shoot everything, and then figure out what they want to keep. The problem with shooting that much is that you don’t do any pre-editing, and you never really hone your photographic judgment.

The secret is finding the balance between taking too few or too many photos. If you can learn that, you’re well on your way to becoming a better photographer.

Look Into the Light: Handy Outdoor Lighting Techniques

To create a successful image, there are three key elements photographers need to be aware of: light, composition and subject. The subject of the photo is related to its purpose–for a real estate agent, it’s a piece of property; for parents, their children; for a naturalist, a solitary mushroom can be a captivating subject. The placement of the subject is also critical to the composition. But of these elements, light is of utmost importance.

Without light, an image can’t be etched onto film. The term photography implies light’s significance–photo, meaning light; and graphy, meaning to write. Thus, light is essential to create a photograph. Over the years, a key lesson has been driven into my head. Each time I think I can make an exception, this point is now ingrained–if the light is poor, the pictures will be poor. A good subject within a good composition illuminated by flat, gray, boring light, will net a flat, gray, boring shot. On the other hand, when an ordinary subject is within a decent composition and the light is both radiant and dramatic, the resulting image remains in my active files.

Light falls into many categories. The most obvious are front, side and backlight. Each possesses an advantage depending on the purpose of the photo. Other types of light include twilight, dawn, moonlight and soft, reflected light. The light of sunrise and sunset is majestic and takes on its own quality on a daily basis.

Front Light

This is “beginner’s light,” where the light comes over the photographer’s shoulder and falls evenly on the scene. Shadows are minimized due to its flat quality. Frontal light is very easy to work with but produces mundane results. Depth can’t be depicted, textures are flattened, and details are washed out.

In nature photography, front light has its advantages and disadvantages, but to a landscape photographer, front light is the enemy. The scene has no dimensionality, an important quality in the success of a dramatic scenic shot.

On the other hand, many wildlife shooters prefer front lighting. Although it may not produce the most awe-inspiring illumination, it can reveal the animal to its fullest extent. A favorite subject of mine is the hummingbird (one of the most common species is the broadrail). The male, with its iridescent ruby throat, has to be photographed with front light to show off the radiance of its feathers.

Front light can be an ally in many other circumstances. Every facet of the subject is illuminated, thereby revealing the greatest amount of information in your image. Real estate photographers can show every detail of a home to a potential buyer; in forensics, a crime scene can be analyzed to its fullest.

Frontal light has its place–it’s effective to portray information. It’s also a great source for beginning photographers. Getting proper exposures is easy, as there are few shadows or highlights to throw off the meter. Use this light, but don’t rely on it.


You can get dramatic results when backlight is the primary source. Subjects can be portrayed as silhouettes or bathed in a rimlit glow, revealing shape and form.

Because it isn’t commonly used, the backlit image stands out as being unique. So why not use it all the time? Because it’s hard to master. You must deal with exposure and lens flare problems to create a successful image. With backlit subjects, exposure can be tricky. The darker the subject, the more difficult it becomes to determine proper exposure.

The best way to get proper exposure for any backlit subject is to use spot metering. If your camera doesn’t have it, get closer to your subject and take a reading off the most critical area. Lock in the reading by holding the shutter button down halfway, reframe the image, and fire the shot.

It sounds simple, but here’s the rub. Now that you’ve gotten proper exposure on your subject, the background may overpower it. The subject looks great, but the highlights in the background are washed out and hold no detail. If you use print film, a custom print can be made in which detail can be restored to the background. But slide shooters encounter a bigger problem due to the film’s unforgiving contrast level.

However, don’t despair–there are solutions. The easiest is to move closer to the subject. By doing so, there will be less background in your photo. If you can move the subject, place it in a location with fewer background distractions. Backgrounds that are darker or those that can be thrown out of focus work well.

To make a photo look more professional, try using a reflector. They generally come in three colors: white, to keep the light source soft; silver, for a harder source; and gold, which warms the light. With the sun aimed directly at the reflector, you simply redirect the bounced light toward the subject. With more light on the subject, the balance of light between the subject and the background becomes more even while you maintain the beauty of backlighting.

Fill-flash can also portray a professional touch. By balancing just the right amount of flash with the ambient light reading, you can achieve great results. With today’s technology, fill-flash has become simple to use–many point-and-shoot cameras have the technology built right in. Shoot some tests and witness the fabulous results.

For those who shoot with a more sophisticated SLR and have a fairly powerful auxiliary flash, here’s a great trick. To emulate the light of a reflector while having more control over the intensity of fill-light, modify the light from the flash. Straight flash emits a harder light source. To model the light of a white reflector, diffuse the flash by covering it with a handkerchief or a small detachable softbox. To add warmth to a scene, tape a small gold or amber gel to the flash head. Regardless of the modification, you’ll maintain proper exposure with TTL compatibility.

Lens flare is also a problem with backlighting. If the light source is facing the lens, flare will result. The overall contrast of the image is reduced and circles or hexagons appear depending upon the aperture at which the photo was made. To eliminate flare, you must block the sun or other light source from striking the lens, either with a lens shade, hat, newspaper, or another device.

You can shoot most subjects successfully using backlight. My favorites include silhouettes, which can be very dramatic. I use no modification because I want my subject to become an outline. Just take a meter reading off the background. Subjects rimmed with tiny hairs produce a glow when backlit. Spider webs are also great backlit subjects.


This light emphasizes a subjects three-dimensional aspects–textures, patterns, shapes and form all become more well defined. As light rakes across the subject, peaks and valleys of light and shadow are revealed. By creating these areas of contrast, you can convey more depth.

Direct sidelight comes from a 90[degrees] angle to the camera. If you shift the source of illumination 10-20 [degrees] in one direction or the other, you can still maintain a strong effect. When using the sun as a sidelighting source, you need to shoot at sunrise or sunset, as these times produce the greatest amount of sidelight for outdoor photography. When shooting in a studio, the photographer has the luxury of being able to change the position of the lights or the subject.

As one of my favorite subjects is landscapes, much of my photography is done out in the field. To bring life to landscapes, I photograph them only when they’re sidelit. If the time of year is wrong, yet the composition is dramatic, I note in a journal that I should return to the same location during a different season.

Sidelight can be used to separate a subject from the background. In a front-lit situation, both the subject and background receive light. The background becomes just as important as the subject, so if it creates distractions–regardless of how beautiful the focal point is–the photo will fall short. By returning to the same location at sunrise or sunset, you’ll find light striking the subject from the side, resulting in a background that doesn’t compete.

Soft Light

This type of illumination is nondirectional and produces an even, wrap-around effect. As highlights and shadows aren’t strong, no details are lost. Outdoors, soft light is usually present on bright overcast days or in the shade. Indoors, it can be achieved with a softbox, umbrella, or by bouncing the source of light off a white ceiling or wall.

Soft, ambient lighting conditions flatter some subjects better than others–flowers and people are two that come to mind. When photographing people in soft light, shadows under the nose and eyes are nonexistent. Flowers also work well because of their delicate qualities. The petals of a flower often vary in color from very light to very dark. When shot in sunlight, slide film can’t handle the extreme contrast range. The use of flash or a reflector can even it out, but the quality of light is still harsh. There’s nothing like bright overcast conditions to bathe a flower in soft light, revealing detail overall.

In studio portraiture, the photographer emulates bright overcast conditions by using softboxes or umbrellas. Soft, wraparound light is very forgiving in exposure and doesn’t emphasize lines or wrinkles. Outdoors, bright overcast conditions are ideal for photographing people. When strong sunlight persists, professional photographers go to great lengths to mimic soft light. An easy fix is to place the subject in the shade, but the peripheral areas lit by the sun will be overexposed. The proper exposure on a subject in the shade is very different from the background illuminated by the sun. To balance the exposure between the two, you must use flash or reflectors.

Another way professionals achieve soft, ambient light when it’s sunny is by using large diffusion panels placed between the sun and the subject. They’re quite large and require the use of assistants, can be unwieldy in the wind, and also require additional light on the subject to balance the exposure with the light on the background.

Scenic photography definitely works well with gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. The sweet light of early morning and late afternoon produces dramatic results. But if clouds stick around, creating flat light, it’s time to look at the subject matter differently. You can still make excellent pictures by moving in close and seeking our details. Lichen-covered rock, wildflowers, waterfalls, and rock patterns all make great subjects under these circumstances.

The Cutting Edge

Front, back, side an soft light all have their pros and cons. Learning how to use them to your advantage takes patience and practice. But there’s a special, rare quality of light that produces the most spectacular and dramatic conditions: I call it light on the cutting edge.

Sunrises or sunsets that envelop the sky in a blood-red canopy, an iridescent rainbow that emerges from storm clouds behind it, or a spotlit scene against ominous skies all produce a special, fleeting quality of light that beckons to be photographed. Working quickly and carefully is key. It’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement and overlook the fundamentals.

Rainbows appear when the sun is near the horizon and the sky opposite it is filled with moisture. A rainbow’s colors can be enhanced by a polarizer but can also be obliterated if the filter is rotated to the wrong position. Finding an interesting foreground subject must be done quickly. Obtaining the proper exposure is straightforward, but I recommend bracketing.

There are many other types of light in which a photographer can shoot. The light of dawn and dusk occasionally creates an alpenglow that can take your breath away. Shooting at night under a full moon produces a unique quality unobtainable by any other light source. The light that occurs on stormy days produces a unique mood. The most important thing is to remember that light is the essence of any photograph.

Just One More…

What is the only way to be happy about your photos? By being unhappy with them. Confused? Allow me to explain. Just about every photographer I know is never completely happy with his photos. No matter how perfect, photographers always push to make it just a little better. If you work in a black-and-white darkroom, you know what it’s like to make print after print, getting that little nuance to be a little better. Just a little more burning in. Just a little more dodging. Just a little darker. Of course, after you get out of the darkroom and dry the photos, you are hard pressed to remember which is which, they all look alike.

Then there are the words that every photographer is famous for. “Just one more shot,” “Just one more roll,” “Just one more step back,” “Just a little closer.” And so on. We’re never happy. At a monthly salon I have with several other photographers, it amazes me when someone like Howard Schatz is always asking opinions about his images in progress. He wants feedback from his peers, seeing how he can improve them. Of course it’s hard for us to talk about them as our jaws are usually opened to the ground.

This drive to always improve, to make it just a little better, is what separates the good photographers from the great photographers, in my opinion.

I just finished a job that would have taken much less time than it did, if I was just willing to settle. It was a shot at Grand Central Station in New York on the last day we could shoot before the Christmas decorations went up. The job was to be shot on 4×5 film so the client could get all that fine detail of the station on a big piece of film. You can talk it to death, but there is no substitute for a larger piece of film to get that fine detail. 35mm is great and 120mm is even better, but 4×5 and 8×10 always knock your socks off. Unfortunately, spontaneity is not a word associated with those formats. It’s always a trade off. Speed and convenience vs. quality.

When shooting jobs like this, one of the better tools to have is a set of nice big walkie-talkies. They are vital in communicating and positioning people. I could just give instructions to one of my assistants and he would move the models on the ground level. Another reason to have big walkie-talkies is that it gives you an immediate look of “official.” Ask someone to move without anything and maybe they will. Ask them to move while pointing a big Motorola walkie-talkie and holding a clipboard, and the world jumps to your requests.

The client was more than happy with what we shot from the mezzanine level of the terminal. I shot from two different vantages and on one I tilted the swings and tilts to put most of the image out of focus, while keeping the main point of interest and the three models on the floor sharp and in focus. It’s a good look that is very easy with a 4×5 camera because of the swings and tilts.

After three variations we were getting tired from a very early start to the day. But I knew we had permission to go up into the catwalk above the terminal floor. In fact, we went up there when we scouted for vantage points. The art director was willing to call it a day, but I wanted just one more variation. As scared as the art director was of heights, we trucked up the elevator to the top level at Grand Central. It’s a little scary if you are afraid of heights because the “floors” of the walkways up there are made of thick glass. Thick glass with cracks in it. Luckily, I don’t have a fear of heights.

The contact person from Grand Central told us not to bunch up on the walkway and not to take too much equipment. I listened very carefully and followed each instruction. Ahh, but it was beautiful. What a view. I can’t show the 4×5 images the client commissioned until their license runs out in a year, but I did shoot a quick roll of 35mm up there for myself and now for you dear reader. Here’s the view. Looks great. Except I just wish I coulda….

An Extravagant Use of Space

Whenever we look through the camera’s viewfinder we instinctually begin our process of composition within the imposed frame. That search inside the frame for an appropriate placement of our subject is the crucial task of all artists. Even though there are theories and systems on how great composition is achieved, no two people really ever approach this issue in the same manner. Even intentional imitation can’t approximate the personal charismatic arrangement of another’s clear artistic process.

Rectangular format seems to me to be a most popular and versatile fundamental shape in which to compose our photographs. We grow up looking at rectangular shapes in the form of windows, paintings and books. Subconsciously, that experience assists us in creating in our own pictures something I call personal visual order. Before there is a picture made in our camera, there is a psychological impression of the actual scene. The final composition exhibits the impact of your ideas and decisions about all the relationships in your composition, perceived initially as subject/frame.

The primary important choices with the rectangle are your options concerning horizontal or vertical orientation. The horizontal display describes the world in a representational manner. It gives the viewer opportunities to navigate laterally through your frame. Whether you are working in 35mm, 120mm or large format, the rectangle consistently embodies characteristics that emphasize and employ height and width as basic tools in pure display. A full-length portrait set in a vertical format strengthens the height, intensifying the feelings behind the vertical choice. A horizontal format would tend to lessen or integrate the tall figure into the world instead of displaying or exaggerating height.

Whereas a square-shaped frame emphasizes the central drama it contains, rectangles are more eccentric in their operation. There is more space to choose from left and right or over and under the center. That space does not have to simply surround it, but drama can happen there as well. Those adjacent zones operate independently from the central activity without distracting the viewer from the central impact. Tension is still created when placing elements close to the edge of the frame, but there is more room than in the square.

You can effectively begin to implement all this information in your portraits by first becoming familiar with the camera itself. Confusion with the camera is a guarantee for less than excellent results, technical and aesthetic. Second, by creating a comfortable climate for you and your subject, you can allow some time to make the important decisions about composition that will assist you in efficiently telling your story.

Our own personal experience, style, and knowledge offer us most of the artistic genius needed for personal photographic expression. That stated, we all have one particular frame that we are more comfortable working in than others. That is probably why we love the camera that we do, relying on it to assist us in clearly seeing where things go, and how to simply and efficiently go about our business of making our pictures.

Hyperfocal Photography Simplified

There are times when you’ll want edge-to-edge sharpness in your images–here’s how to get it

Hyperfocal photography is a technique that allows an image to be in sharp focus at all visible distances throughout the scene. Subjects in the foreground of a hyperfocal image are clearly in focus, as are subjects in the background.

This technique allows you to emphasize a great expanse of space in your pictures, which is a great tool for landscape photography. By using hyperfocal techniques, a skillful photographer can lead a viewer’s eye through a landscape photo from features in the foreground to the background. But this wouldn’t be possible without an understanding of hyperfocal distance in photography.

Generally, hyperfocal photos come in two “flavors”: wide-angle and macro close-up images. On these pages, we’ll concentrate on the wide-angle variety. Hyperfocal concepts for macro images are essentially the same, but additional considerations come into play because of the extremely small depth of field in close-up photography. Wide-angle hyperfocal images are much easier to compose and produce spectacular results.

Depth of Field

The basic strategy in shooting a hyperfocal photo is to adjust the depth of field of the image so that everything is in acceptably sharp focus. This means that objects in the foreground are sharp, on through to objects in the far distance, usually referred to as objects “at infinity.” A hyperfocal image is one with a great depth of field, which spans from a close distance to infinity.

The term “hyperfocal distance” is used extensively when discussing hyperfocal photography. The hyperfocal distance is the nearest distance that is in sharp focus when your lens is focused at infinity. This means that when you have your lens focused at a point in the far distance, some nearby objects will also be in focus due to the lens’s depth of field and aperture setting.

At this point, you could compose your image so that all objects from the hyperfocal distance to infinity would be acceptably sharp. But hyperfocal photography gives you better results. When your lens is focused on infinity, half the depth of field is effectively wasted because it can be considered to be extended beyond the horizon, and is therefore unseen. Since the goal is to maximize depth of field, we want to reclaim the depth of field that’s wasted in the far distance.

It’s simple to do this–just re-focus your lens to the hyperfocal distance. Now, the depth of field will be extended from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity.

For example, consider the following: Suppose you are shooting a mountain scene using a 24mm lens. There are mountains in the distance and an interesting fence roughly five feet in front of you in the foreground. You want both the fence and the mountains to be sharply in focus.

Now you can use a hyperfocal distance table or hyperfocal markings on your lens (which will be explained later) to determine the aperture setting. In this case, an aperture setting of f/16 is necessary to create sufficient depth of field so that both the fence and mountains are sharp.

Set the lens to f/16 and re-focus at the hyperfocal distance (five feet). The depth of field of the image will span from half the hyperfocal distance (2.5 feet) to infinity, and you will get the sharply focused image you desire.

Putting Hyperfocal Photography to Use

You are now ready to take advantage of these basic depth-of-field and hyperfocal concepts and design truly effective hyperfocal photographs. First, think big: use a wide-angle lens on your camera and begin composing the scene. Use visual elements to guide your viewers eye through the image–natural elements like fences, ridges, rivers and trees can be used to direct the eye. Typically, a strong photographic element in the foreground and an equally powerful counterbalanced element in the background is a straightforward way to begin composing hyperfocal images.

Composing an image well is truly a challenge. Experiment to find a composition that works for you. Move around: lay down on the ground, climb onto a boulder, lean over a wall, and try both horizontal and vertical orientations. Be creative! A tripod is important for this task.

How to Determine the Hyperfocal Distance

Once you’ve got a great composition, you must now set the depth of field to adequately cover the elements in the scene. This is generally accomplished by changing the lens aperture to achieve the hyperfocal effect.

The hyperfocal distance and associated aperture for a particular lens can be computed mathematically. However, most photographers don’t carry calculators in their camera bags in the event that they may want to shoot a hyperfocal image.

Instead, two methods are commonly used. First of all, most wide-angle camera lenses have depth-of-field distance markings on the lens barrel. To use them, select a small lens aperture and focus your lens at infinity. Now look at the depth-of-field indicator marks on the lens barrel that corresponds to the lens aperture you’ve selected. The near distance on the depth-of-field indicator is the hyperfocal distance for the image. For example, a 24mm lens set at f/16 has a hyperfocal distance marker on the lens barrel of nearly five feet.

Next, re-focus the lens at this hyperfocal distance. In the case of the 24mm lens, you would focus at five feet. At this point, all objects from half the hyperfocal distance to the furthest distance will be acceptably sharp. Thus, objects from 2.5 feet to infinity would be in focus on a 24mm lens.

This rakes a little practice. Look at your lens’ instruction manual for additional explanations of the depth-of-field markings for your particular lens.

Hyperfocal Tables

The second method to obtain hyperfocal distances involves old-fashioned hyperfocal distance tables. Someone has gone to the trouble of computing hyperfocal distances for various lenses at common aperture settings.

Remember that hyperfocal tables show the hyperfocal distance of a particular lens setting, which is twice the near distance of the depth of field. So look up your hyperfocal distance in the table as explained below, and divide by two to get the near limit of depth of field.

To use the hyperfocal distance table, follow these steps:

1) Choose the column that corresponds to the lens you are using.

2) Move down the column to the desired hyperfocal distance (two times the nearest distance you want to be clearly in focus.).

3) Read the corresponding f-stop in the aperture setting column on the left.

4) Set your lens to the f-stop and set the focus at the hyperfocal distance. Everything from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity will be acceptably sharp.

This table is very useful in the field, and I recommend cutting out this hyperfocal table and putting it in your camera bag for future use.

A Final Word of Advice

Keep in mind when shooting hyperfocal images that the basic idea is to use the smallest aperture that will give you sufficient depth of field for your image, but don’t go any smaller than necessary. In other words, if f/16 is sufficient, don’t use f/22 or f/32.

There are many more aspects of hyperfocal photography than I’ve explained here, and I encourage you to further explore this creative photographic tool.

The Sharper Image

When I went through photo school many years ago, one of the main things the instructors tried to teach us was how to get sharp images. At first we thought this was a no-brainer. After all, who can’t learn how focus a camera and lens correctly? As our schooling continued, we found that there are many ways photos lack sharpness, and inaccurate focus is only one reason. In most cases, the solution for obtaining sharper images causes, the photographers often just forget to use. So, it’s off to the land of sharper Images 101, where we will offer you some simple solution.

Tips for Hand-Holding the Camera

Since most picture taking occurs while the camera is hand held, we will discuss its problems first. The most common mistake new photographers make is to press the shutter at the moment they want to take the picture. As they do, they force the camera in a downward motion, and often blur the image. If you gently squeeze the shutter, there will be less camera movement. Sometimes you need to anticipate the action in order to correctly time the shutter squeezing.

Even the act of breathing can affect your camera movement. When your lungs expand against your chest and arms, the movement can blur the image slightly. The best bet is to hold your breath at the time you squeeze off the shutter.

To reduce camera vibration, always look for something to lean against to brace yourself or your camera. It can be a tree, wall, ledge or even a telephone pole. Some photographers carry a small “bean bag” to cradle the camera and lens. Rest your elbows on a railing, countertop or even the back of chair to steady your camera. Sitting down for your picture taking will provide you added stability.

If you are standing and have no support, spread your legs apart slightly like a tripod to give yourself a broader base support for your camera. Bring your elbows and arms down tight to your side instead of having them up in the air like a bird. Crouching down on one knee and bracing your elbow on your other knee for support also works in a pinch. Each of these actions will bring you a little closer to achieving a sharper image.

Tips for Using a Tripod

Most every picture you take will have improved sharpness if you use a tripod correctly. The problem is that cameras mounted on tripods don’t automatically take sharp pictures. If the tripod is small and flimsy, you may be reducing the problem, but it is still there. The sturdier the tripod, the less the vibrations that will occur during exposure. Make sure to extend the tripod legs for added height rather than extending the center column of the tripod.

A cable release will help reduce movement when your camera is on the tripod. You can incur vibrations even when using a cable release with a light tripod. When making exposures from about 1/2 second to 2 seconds using a cable release, the vibration of the shutter will move the camera for a very short time. If the exposure is less than 2 seconds the camera does not have time to settle down so you will still get a blurry image. Longer exposures give the camera time to settle down, so the camera vibration has little effect on the overall image. You can add a sandbag draped over the camera legs to increase stability, especially when working in windy conditions. If you are very careful, you can lean lightly on the top of the camera when using a lightweight tripod to increase stability.

As a last resort, you can be like those photographers of the 1800s and use a card or large lens cap in front of the lens. There is no tripod movement, since you don’t touch: the camera during an exposure. Simply place a card in front of the lens, open the shutter, remove the card, time the exposure, replace the card and close the shutter.

Using Higher Shutter Speeds

The shutter speed on a camera serves two functions. Alone it controls the action in a scene and in combination with the aperture, it controls exposure. The faster the shutter speed, the more the action is stopped, and the sharper the image. Shutter speeds can be increased two ways. If you open the aperture control to a larger opening, you let more light through the lens. In order to achieve an accurate exposure, you must increase the shutter speed to compensate. The other way to increase your shutter speed is to use a faster film. Again you must increase your shutter speed to achieve an accurate exposure.

There is a downside to using either of these methods for increasing your shutter speed. With a wider aperture, the depth of field is reduced and the areas in front and behind the subject become less sharp. If this depth-of-field reduction involves your subject area, then you have traded increased shutter speed sharpness for loss of depth-of-field sharpness. The trick is to balance the shutter speed and aperture so you have ample depth of field yet maintain a fast shutter speed.

Going to higher ISO films will increase your shutter speed while keeping the same aperture. If the image you are shooting includes an out-of-focus background, the apparent grain becomes larger. It now becomes debatable as to whether the increase in ISO film speed will offset the sharpness created with increased shutter speed. Again it is a balancing act and it just takes practice. Soon you will know when to increase your ISO film speed, or open up your lens to increase that shutter speed.

Fine-Grain Film

When you have mastered minimizing camera movement, you can use a slower film to achieve a finer grain pattern. Most film manufacturers today make some nice films that can resolve very fine detail. When you use these films, the apparent sharpness increases. This is especially true with macro nature shots, or any type of image that includes a lot of fine detail.

Often this type of photography will require an electronic flash to add ample light to the scene. Flash has the added advantage of a higher speed, from around 1/1000 at full power to around 1/20,000 at low power (or at the minimum distance, in auto mode). This high speed will insure that there is no movement during the exposure by stopping the action, thus creating a much sharper image. This is assuming that you focus the camera on the subject properly.

Lens Quality

Today the quality of lenses is superior, but even so, some still lose a small degree of sharpness at the edge of the picture when using a wide aperture. It’s true that the wider aperture allows higher shutter speeds, but the loss of image quality may offset the gain in sharpness that you achieved using a higher shutter speed. There are some expensive fast lenses that are designed to overcome this problem. If you want the best edge sharpness, you may have to pay a little more for the privilege.

On the flip side of the problem, if you stop a lens all the way down to get maximum depth of field, you may find the overall image sharpness start to decrease. It’s true that depth of field will increase, hut overall sharpness will decrease due to diffraction. Most lenses are designed to have their sharpest point at about two stops down from wide open. The exceptions are the 50mm and 100mm macro lenses that are designed to be sharpest at about two stops from the smallest aperture.

Telephoto lenses present another problem. A general rule of thumb when hand holding a camera and lens is to use shutter speeds at least the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. For example, a 500mm lens works best at 1/500 second or faster. This is why telephoto lenses are good candidates for tripods and why you see so many used at sporting events.

Another sharpness problem occurs because of the air space between your lens and your subject. On a cool day there is very little problem, but on hot days die heat rises from the ground and distorts the air space, resulting in softer images


As the lighting ratio increases, so does the apparent image sharpness. The subject is not really any sharper, it just appears to be sharper when the contrast range is increased. You can accomplish this increased contrast range by using studio lights, electronic flash, or selecting the rime of day that you photograph your subject in sunlight. The fact that it is only apparent sharpness does not really matter, as long as your photo looks better. A problem occurs if there is too much scene contrast, as it can reduce the amount of shadow detail, so again it is a juggling act.

Lens Hoods and Filters

When you shoot at an angle to the sun where it strikes the front element of your lens, it will cause lens flare which can reduce the image quality. The use of a lens hood can reduce this problem, but some flare can still occur, lens hood or not. A simple solution is to block the sun by placing your hand in the air between the sun and your lens. It may look a little strange, but it works.

Filters can do some great things for images, but if they are not free of dust and scratches, you may find your image quality is reduced. If you suspect a lens is not as sharp as you hoped, check to make sure that a dirty or sub-par filter is nor the problem.

The Bottom Line on Sharepness

As you can see getting sharp images isn’t as easy as it sounds. Accurate focus is only a small part of the solution. It requires a good working knowledge of photographic basics and plenty of practice. Take a little extra time and effort to use a tripod, or at least brace yourself before squeezing that shutter, and consider and the things cited here, you will find yourself putting fewer images in the round file.

Never Say Never

What’s the one thing that will guarantee that 2/3 of your shots will not be what you want? In a word, bracketing. I never bracket a shoot when I’m in the studio. Never. Think about it. If I bracketed when I shot kids, two our of every three frames I shoot will be off in exposure. With kids, that’s deadly, because you usually get one chance and only one chance. Little kids and babies do not yet have that “do over” gene. They will show you something that is brilliant; most of the rime while you’re changing film, and then it’s gone forever, never to be seen again. If you try and have them re-create that moment, that gesture, that look, you end up with a terrible, fakey photograph that even the kid’s mother wouldn’t like. And they like everything about their kid.

What some photographers do to avoid bracketing and to see what the film is looking like before any lab corrections is to do “clip” tests or snips on their film. That means sending the film to the lab with instructions to clip a piece of film, say two or three frames worth of a 120 roll or six to eight frames of a 35mm roll, and process just that small piece of film. When you see what that frame looks like, you then run the rest that roll and run similarly shot rolls at the same processing speed at the lab. That means if your chrome film is running a little dark, you can “push” the processing at the lab to brighten it up. It will in many cases also add a little bit of contrast. Enough so that some photographers always shoot their film a little underexposed so they can push the film, just to get that little extra contrast and “oomph.” I don’t like doing clip tests as you always lose one frame of film that the lab has to blindly cut into. And you always see just enough of that cut frame to realize that would ha ve been your best shot.

So what do I do when I shoot to get the film the way I want it? I use what we call “test” backs on my Mamiya RZ and a “test” camera body for my Canon 35mm. I’ll shoot one or two frames on every situation. Every time we change a light, change a model, change a lens, change a prop, I shoot a test frame. Medium-format cameras like the Mamiya have interchangeable film magazines that can be put on or taken off the camera in mid-roll. So one magazine is dedicated to my “test” roll. With 35mm, I dedicate one camera body to hold my “test” roll. One roll of film may have five or six different shots or situations on it. That roll goes out to the lab ASAP, or sooner. I have a two-hour turnaround at my E-6 lab. When I get that roll back, I send out half the film I’m holding. When I get that back, I send out the last half of the film. Why? Simple. I don’t trust the lab-any lab. This policy of never having all the film at the lab at once has saved my bacon three times in my career. Having saved the client’s shoot, or at l east half of it this way, has meant I still have a career.

The last key to this is keeping very good film notes. I’m a fanatic about that. The film notes tell me what test frame goes with which rolls of film. It tells me the film I used for that job, the batch or emulsion number, my exposures, the crew, and who is writing the notes. It also tells me how many rolls I shot for this job.

I have an example of my film notes in my “Commercial and Studio Photography” book and explain it a little more in depth.

The bottom line is “Don’t bracket!” Don’t lose good shots when you don’t have to lose them needlessly. Shoot smarter.

Now here’s the part that will drive you crazy. Even after saying the above, the next rule never to ignore is “Always bracket to get the ‘correct’ exposure.” When I shoot personal stuff on my 35mm, I bracket like crazy. I asked JayMaisel once how wide a range he uses when he brackets and he answered “From one end of the lens to the other,” meaning from the widest aperture to the smallest. Now knowing Jay and knowing the caught moments he captures of people, that isn’t always what he does. He’s too much a master of the medium. But I understood his point. You never know what a good exposure will be. It could be two stops underexposed or three stops overexposed. Experience helps when I’m our in the field and I wouldn’t have a test camera and I’m not going to clip test my film. But I also know that what the camera is telling me is skewed to produce what the camera thinks is a correct exposure. Experience tells my brain to override the meter and over- or underexpose to get the effect I want.

So the point of this column? For every rule in photography, there is an equal and opposite rule. And each one is absolutely correct. Never bracket. Always bracket.


Miro Ito’s unique images take you into a fantasy world. Much like a fairy tale, they weave a little magic. “I try to find visions,” she explains. “If you see something in a different way, you can achieve a vision; to capture something beyond reality.” Yet this photographer doesn’t categorize her work in any way–“I can’t label myself; a good photographer should be able to do everything.” Yet according to Ito, there is a common thread: “What I always try to capture has been the unfaltering form of beauty.”

Ito divides her time between her native Japan and new home of New York City to service clientele in both countries. Although she’s been an established photographer in Japan and Europe for over 13 years, she says, “I’ve been gradually getting settled down in New York during the past few months.” She is working to continue her impressive track record here in the U.S.

In Japan, her major clients have been music-industry giants, such as BMG, Polygram, and the like–mainly portraits of well-known Japanese rock artists–in addition to Kanebo (the second-largest cosmetic company in Japan), and several prominent publishing companies. This high-end clientele appreciates Ito’s signature style.

“They like my artistic solutions,” she points out. Her photo-industry clients include Agfa and Tamron-Bronica.

Ito’s early aspirations to be a painter are very apparent in her work today. After graduating from the renowned Keio University in Tokyo, she recalls, “I wanted to be an artist but my father was against it, so I decided to be an art critic instead.” Early on, she was an assistant editor of an architectural magazine in Japan.

But it was during her university days in Tokyo that Ito discovered the fine art photography of Jerry Uelsmann, whose surrealistic style was a great inspiration to her. “Up until that time, I thought photography was only about documenting life. Then I realized I could become a painter of light.” She bought her first camera, a Canon Al, and began shooting portraits of other women at the university.

She later moved to Germany where she got married, and continued her education at Ruhr University. Early on, her style began to evolve. “I like to photograph women because we share common feelings,” she says. Ito’s first exhibition–entitled “Female Sequences”–was held at the Fine Arts Center at Ruhr University, Germany, in 1986. “The college had facilities where students could learn practical art–I learned how to use strobe lights there.”

With little in the way of job opportunities for women in Japan in those days–but with her new photographic leanings-Ito opted for an education in communication design and photography at Essen University in Germany “to pursue my dream of being an artist.” Her portfolio allowed her to waive basic photo classes and enter as an advanced student. But Ito soon found that she was working at Essen’s photographic studio more than she was attending classes. “I had no time to study, so I quit school.” With her marriage and formal education now behind her, Ito set up a photo “atelier” in Duesseldorf and worked as a free-lance photographic artist.

During the late ’80s, she held several solo exhibitions in Japan and Germany, including “Japanese Body language” (Munich, 1987); “Woman to Woman” (Tokyo, 1988); and “Esoteric Incantation” (Hamburg, 1989). In 1989, she was invited to participate as a photo-artist in Hamburg’s “The Summer of Photography.” Throughout the ’90s, she continued to participate in group and solo photo exhibits, in addition to having work published in numerous books and magazines.

In 1992, Ito returned to Japan “to integrate my artistic experience with commercial photography.” She expanded the scope of her photography from fine art to advertising. Her work appeared in many photography books and visual media, such as Nymphs–Masterpieces of 8 Japanese Top Star Photographers, Sensual Images–100 of the World’s Top Photographers Interpret Sensual Beauty, and CD-ROMs like Encyclopedia of Photography, Vol. 1.

In 1997, Ito became a member of the Photographic Society of Japan, and in 2000, a member of the Art Director’s Club of New York. She is also a member of Professional Women Photographers, and will speak for this organization in the fall of 2001. Ito has also recently been deemed an “extraordinary photographer utilizing new media forms” by Japanese television and journals.

In Germany, one of her primary clients was Bronica. She is an avid GS-1 shooter and uses Zenzanon PG lenses, both 65mm and 100mm. Ito has conducted workshops and has had photo exhibits on behalf of Bronica at the international photographic trade show, Photokina, in 1988 and 1990.

Her film preferences vary, depending on the project and the desired effect. “If I want very colorful results, I use Fujichrome Velvia (ISO 50).” For portraits, she often uses Agfa RSX 100 or 200. For magazine photojournalism, she uses Kodak EPN 200, and in her catalogue work, she uses Fujichrome RMS Multi-Speed. For black-and-white, her choice is Agfa APX 100.

Ito says that although she relies primarily on her own vision to interpret an image, “digital imaging is sometimes an extension to reach the final solution.” Some of her digital imagery was on display at “Elegant Encounter of Photography and Digital Technology,” a 1998 exhibit in Japan.

Ito prefers to take a lot of time for advertising projects–sometimes a week, by her admission–to prepare sets and props. Sometimes she works with a prop artist when doing a shoot for a big client. “I have to produce my vision,” she explains. She may spend days gathering flowers for models to wear, and she often buys clothes or jewelry for future photo sessions while traveling. “I have an awful lot of stuff in my studio,” Ito laughs. Her attention to detail is apparent in her beautifully executed imagery.

“I think it is important to strive for real quality in photography,” Ito says. “Otherwise photography has little chance to survive.” In addition to her artistic vision, Ito is driven by an almost spiritual or missionary zeal. “I want to pass on quality photography to the next generation,” she says. Not surprisingly, Ito devotes a good deal of her time to training promising artists in the finer points of photography.

So what does the future hold for Miro Ito? She says she wants to continue to convey her own vision, and to “hopefully have a positive influence on others in the process.