Taking Pictures in Winter…Without Snow

So December is almost done with, and not a flake of snow has fallen  that I know of.  Well, at least not in Connecticut, or Southern Maine.  Normally by now we’d have at least a few pictures of pristine, newly fallen snow (on top of something, say, a nice New England landscape).

It has been a bit of a struggle to find things to shoot.  One grey day has been followed by another, sometimes with rain and mud thrown in. However, grey days often make for great contrast with colorful subjects, and they lend a certain mood to images that can’t be captured otherwise.

We were in Maine for the past week, and we ran across this mangled lobster trap with some intertwined colored rope while walking the beach.  When combined with the desolate beach in the background, I think it made for a nice shot.

What kind of things do you take pictures of on snowless winter days?


Mangled Lobster Trap on a Maine Beach



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How To Take Pictures Like a Pro with Your Phone (A Landscape Photography Guide)

Professional Photography with your Phone…Is It Possible?

Chances are that if you’re reading this post, you’ve also read articles which start out with headlines like “Throw out your DSLR!  New Smartphone Cameras are Waayyyy Better!” or “Famous Landscape Photographer Earns Living using Just an iPhone 6″.   It’s true that modern smartphone cameras are revolutionizing the way people think of taking pictures.  There are lots of sensational claims out there, and a lot of crazy numbers being thrown around (such as Noxia’s 41 megapixel camera on the Lumia 1020).

I’m not here to tell you that making a living as an artist with only a cell phone is possible. However, I have seen some very nice images in print, including some in a prominent automobile collectors magazine, that were taken with phone cameras.  Kirsten has sold a picture that she took with her Galaxy S4. So, it would seem that these tiny, inexpensive integrated cameras are at least up to the task, on occasion, of producing a great image.

Moto X Camera

The Moto X (gen 2) Camera – 13 MP.

I have been able to get good images out of both point-and-shoot cameras and phone cameras.  In fact, some of my favorite shots were taken on my old Canon Powershot A510 (3 megapixels) and my HTC Vivid Smartphone (8 megapixels). For the purpose of this post, I’m going to stick with the smartphone camera as my main point, but suffice it to say that you can coax a beautiful image out of almost any camera. You just have to know the limitations…and specialties, of the tool you have.

Kirsten has sold this print, which she took with her Galaxy S4 (it actually worked better than her DSLR for this specific shot)

Autumn Leaves

My new phone has tons of  megapixels!  Of course it will take a beautiful picture!  

For some time now, the point and shoot / smartphone camera industry has been trying to convince consumers that more megapixels = better camera.  This is simply not true (or else all the wedding photographers would ditch their 24 MP Full-Frame DSLRs for Nokia Phones!).  Resolution is probably the least important (yet most advertised) spec.  For viewing on the web, all you need is about a half MP to 1 MP for an image to appear clear on a webpage.  Any more resolution is wasted. Additionally, even for large prints, an 8 MP camera (circa 2004) can produce spectacular results.  The number of dots (pixels) only becomes important if you are printing really, really big (think sidewalk billboards for close viewing), or if you are going to do a lot of cropping.

Since this topic has been covered in detail by many, I’m not going to say any more about it here.  My point is that modern cell phone cameras are not magically amazing because they have as many (or more) megapixels as DSLR cameras.  The pixel count on your modern smartphone isn’t what is going to let you take an awesome picture.

If you’re interested, check out these write-ups on the subject of megapixels:




The Limitations of Smartphone Cameras

Smartphone cameras these days have plenty of megapixels.  However, cramming in all these photo receptors on a sensor that’s smaller than a pencil eraser means that the signal to noise ratio of each receptor is low.  Simply put, the tiny photon receptors are not very good at doing their primary job.  The light-catching buckets are too small!  Because of this, the dynamic range of a smartphone camera pales in comparison to that of larger cameras.

Canon Rebel SL1 vs HTC Vivid

Canon Rebel SL1 (Canon’s Smallest DSLR) Dwarfs the HTC Vivid

Phone cameras suffer from poor low-light performance, and they aren’t very good at capturing the range of light in a highly contrast scene.  Action is an additional problem. Have you ever noticed that pictures taken with your smartphone or low-end point and shoot camera tend to be blurry?  It’s because in order to catch enough light, the camera has to keep the shutter open for a long time, which is a recipe for motion blur.  By comparison everything about a DSLR (from the sensor to the lens) is larger, allowing much more light and much faster shutter speeds.

So Megapixels Don’t Help, and the Sensor is Too Small.  So, How Do I Take A Great Shot with a Smartphone?

The key to using any camera properly is to consider the device’s strengths and work around its weaknesses.  The following is a step-by-step guide for how to take a beautiful shot with a smartphone camera.  The camera I used in this example is my 2nd Generation Moto X (2014), which has a 13 MP fixed-optic camera that has marginal to poor reviews (see reviews at the link below).

Moto X - Back View

Moto X 2nd Gen Smartphone (2014 Model)


Chris’s Step By Step Guide to Awesome Smartphone Photography

Step Zero – The Photographer!

Learn Photography Basics!

I’m not going to cover these in detail here, because they don’t apply to the camera (the least important item).  They apply to the photographer!  You are the most important part to getting a good picture.  Read about lighting, composition (framing), and perspective, then go out and practice.

Here’s some good reading on composition:


Step 1 – Find a Beautiful Landscape Scene!

Before starting, realize that your phone is not going to take a good picture of anything moving.  Even in brilliant daylight, most smart phone cameras and many point and shoots don’t let in enough light to support a fast shutter speed.  Hence, limit yourself to still subjects.  For the purpose of this article, lets assume you are going after a beautiful sunrise landscape.

Step 2 – Landscape Orientation

Phone cameras typically have a very wide aspect ratio.  Unless you are taking a picture of an ancient tree or shiny skyscraper, you will likely capture the most pleasing image by using your phone in landscape mode (holding it so the long dimension points left-to-right).  This aspect naturally looks the best for most landscapes, as well as for viewing on most computer displays.  If you are intent on taking a vertical picture, at least try a few landscape shots as well.

Step 3 – Adjust Exposure to Preserve Highlights (or Shadows)

If you are taking a picture of a relatively flat scene (narrow range between light and dark), then you can probably skip this step.  However, chances are there is at least some variation between light and dark in your scene.  If you are trying to catch a sunrise or sunset, then you’re going to be fighting a war with your camera’s tiny sensor to catch the range of light and color.  So, think about what it is that you want to capture and adjust the exposure to one side or the other.  For a sunrise or a sunset, catching the glory of the highlights (the pretty sky) is a good idea.

Example: Default Exposure Setting with Moto X

In the picture below, I used the default exposure on my Moto X to try and capture this high contrast scene (focus / exposure at center of image).  Notice that the highlights (the bright part of the image) are slightly washed out, and the shadows (the dark background and the colored filters) are difficult to see.  The smartphone camera just doesn’t have enough dynamic range to capture it all, even though my eye could see the details in both the highlights and shadows just fine.

Moto X Default Exposure

Moto X Default Exposure

Most smartphones let you point at the part of the picture you want to expose (and focus) for.  Since you are taking a shot of a landscape, you probably don’t have to worry about the focus too much (one advantage of tiny smartphone sensors for certain situations is that they have a very deep depth of field.  Everything tends to be in focus unless you have a subject right in front of the lens).  So, try dragging the focus crosshairs to the sky to expose for the highlights.  This will result in the darker areas of the photo being thrown into deep shadow (the sensor can’t capture this information).  However, this is usually OK, because silhouettes can look very good!

Example: Expose for Highlights with the Moto X

Notice in the photo below that the illuminated reflective filters are less glaring, and the print is easier to read.  This is because the exposure was adjusted to let in less light, and thus prevent the highlights from washing out.  The shadows, however, are impossible to see.

Expose for Highlights using the Moto X

Expose for Highlights using the Moto X

Alternatively, if you are taking a picture of an object (say, an interesting boulder) and you want the background highlights to blow out (thus contrasting with your subject), feel free to expose for the dark areas (the shadows).  This will bring out the detail in your subject. The real problem occurs when trying for a neutral exposure (asking the sensor to capture the full range of highlights and shadows).  This will result in both blown out highlights and dark shadows…basically, no information on both ends of the spectrum.

Example: Expose for Shadows with the Moto X

In this picture, I dragged the focus / exposure point to line up with the dark part of the image.  This time, the “shadow” part of the image doesn’t appear to be a shadow anymore (the colored filters and the background are easily visible).  However, the highlights are completely blown out (the reflective filters).

Exposing for the shadows with the Moto X

Exposing for the shadows with the Moto X

In my case, I was using the twin cannons of Fort Trumbull in New London, CT as the subject of my landscape shot.  Since these cannons were actually pretty close, they went out of focus if I tapped the sky in the background.  To keep the cannons in focus, I ended up tapping my finger on the canons (causing the sky to blow out because the phone also metered for the cannons).  Then, I adjusted the exposure settings (one option is the click-drag icon on the Moto X) to bring the exposure back down, casting the cannons back in shadow and saving the sky from being a white blob.  Manual exposure adjustments are generally possible on most smartphones.  The procedure will just be different on each one.

Example: Manual Exposure Adjustment on Moto X

In the below pictures, which includes the actual graphical user interface of the Moto X’s camera, you can see that I adjusted the little slider to the right of the focus bracket to change the exposure setting between the two images.  This is another way of adjusting exposure on this particular phone (the first being to drag the focus crosshairs to different parts of the image, as described above)


Moto X Default Exposure – Manual Adjust Visible

Moto X Increased Exposure - Manual Adjustment Visible

Moto X Increased Exposure – Manual Adjust Visible

Step 4- Be Ready – Get Steady

Before clicking the shutter button, remember that any motion of the phone will cause your image to blur.  Take a deep breath, hold the phone steady, and get your finger as near to the shutter icon as possible.  Practice doing this with a two-handed grip, with just your index finger from one hand hovering over the shutter button.  (You get extra points if you have found a makeshift tripod, such as a rock or fence, to rest your hands and phone on.  It will make a difference!)  If you have a slippery phone, consider getting a nice rubberized case for it…extra grip for any camera is never a bad thing!

Step 5 – Gently Press the Shutter

This takes some practice.  If you have a screen protector on your phone, you might want to consider removing it depending on how hard you have to tap the screen to get the camera to shoot.  A gentle press, if possible, keeps the phone from moving and the image from blurring.  You could also investigate the camera menu on your phone to see if it has a countdown timer.  This is the best option, as you could trigger the timer and then hold the phone steady until it takes the picture.

Step 6 – Don’t Move!

Just because you pressed the shutter button doesn’t mean the job is done.  Smartphones have slow shutter speeds.  Don’t move the phone until the camera completes its job, and the image appears on your screen!

Step 7 – Take it three more times!

This is critical.  I found that even with concentrated effort, I still have motion blur in my photos.  You can really see it if you zoom in.  So, take a few more shots (I recommend 3, you get better at holding the phone steady).  The one that’s the least blurry is the one you want.

Step 8 – Review the Picture under Max Resolution

Just to be sure you have no blur, zoom in on your shots and check.  There’s nothing worse than going home to find all your shots are fuzzy.

Here is the shot that I had at this point.  Notice that I was able to catch the range of color in the sky, including the starburst of the sun.  The trade-off is very little visible detail in the shadows, which is OK, because these cannons and the fortifications look pretty good as a silhouette.  Click on the image to see the original, full-resolution image.


Step 9 (Optional) – Post Processing

One of the problems with getting the exposure just right with the Moto X (as well as my older HTC Vivid) was that if I stood too close to something, the phone would set the light meter for that object and would fight me tooth and nail as I tried to manually adjust for something else.  In this shot, I stood a bit further away from the cannons to prevent this. Thus, I did some cropping in post processing to really bring out the subject.


Finally, I lightened the shadows a bit, tweaked the crop, and added a slight boost of color saturation.  Here is the final image.


The processing in this case was done in Adobe Lightroom 6.  However, you can actually do a lot of this on your phone if you download a photo editing or camera app.  In a future article, I’ll take a look at overhauling the Moto X’s built in camera app with a full-fledged camera replacement suite to get even more performance out of the phone’s camera.

This photo will be up for sale soon on our store.  If you’d like to make a print this one yourself, just copy it from this blog (Just click on the image for the full-resolution freebee)


What Really Matters

The best think you can do to take that great picture is to have an eye for the scene you want, and be in the right place at the right time with a camera.  Any camera!  If that camera is a smartphone, just keep its limitations in mind and adjust your way around them.  Combine this with the basics of good photography (composition, exposure, etc.) and you can definitely take a great picture with a smartphone that will leave you smiling!

Galaxy S4 Camera

Samsung Galaxy S4- Happy Smartphone

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Snow Trip!

Finally everything fell into place and we had the perfect day for a snow shoot.  Previously, though we had snow, it was too cold, gray, icy, or dirty to go on a shoot.  But this past couple of weeks have been warm and all the dirty old snow melted and so did the last sheets of ice on the steps and driveway that we couldn’t get off.  Then between yesterday and today, we had a late snow.  It was not too much, just enough to cover everything, but it was still warm and sunny enough to get good pictures.  So we packed cameras and a napping baby into the car and went for a little shoot.

Chris has been wanting to get this house for a while. He took this picture in color, but decided it looked better in black and white. The color one did not have much color because of the snow, so the light and dark contrast was somewhat lost until he turned it black and white.
Old House in Mystic

Chris wondered what the old library in Mystic, CT looked like in the snow. We drove there and I took this picture out the car window. Chris cut off a tiny bit of the edges on each side because there was a little more of the trees on each side than felt necessary, but we were having trouble getting the angle right shooting from the car.
Mystic Noank Library

This was a fun picture. We were driving back after getting the library picture when both Chris and I saw this view. This is the final picture after we played with several lens and angles. I like how the fence leads your eye to the bend in the river. A high shutter speed helped us to get the falling snow.
Snowy Mystic River in March

Chris added three other pictures to our website today too (). One was a picture of the Ledyard Oak. Another is a picture of the Grist Mill at Clyde’s Cider Mill. Both of these pictures were taken last year and are going to be part other posts. I thought I would share the third picture since it is from Mystic too.
This picture is of a ship undergoing repairs at the Mystic Seaport. Chris waited for the right lighting to get this picture. I think the clouds make a nice background for this ship.
Ship Repair in Mystic

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Stonington Point and Williams Beach

We took a couple of pictures at different places around south-eastern Connecticut. Hopefully, we will be able to go to these places again and get some different views of them. Two of these places were Stonington Point and Williams Beach.

Here are pictures some from Stonington Point, a little point in Stonington, CT where there is an old lighthouse. Chris took this one of a sunset. He had some fun working with the exposure both during the shot and afterward to try to get the picture how it was as he saw it.
Sunset at Stonington Point, CT

Here is Stonington Point during the day.  I like the clouds in this picture.  They are interesting.
Stonington Point with Clouds

There is a tiny river beach in Mystic, CT called Williams Beach. It is a quiet little place. We liked to visit it last year, especially as I appreciated less crowds as pregnancy progressed.
Chris took this picture of a bunch of kayaks stored by the beach. It is fun because the differences in colors of all the kayaks really stand out.
Kayaks on Williams Beach

He also took this picture of the lifeguard chair with the sun shining through it.  The lens flare adds to the picture, I think.
Lifeguard Chair on Williams Beach

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Avery Point Trips in 2014

We visited Avery Point in Groton, CT a couple of times.  Chris went by himself one or twice as well.  Once we shot engagement photos for a friend there.  All times we ended up with a couple of nice shots of the area.

Here is a sunset over the water that Chris took.
Sunset at Avery Point

I took a picture of a white egret. Actually, I did not want to take a picture because I was getting tired and hungry (pregnancy = grumpy when hungry). But Chris asked me to just take a quick picture out of the car window. So I did. It came out surprisingly better than I expected!
Great White Egret

Independence Day brought fireworks to the Thames river. Avery Point was a nice place to watch them from without getting overwhelmed by masses of people. The fireworks were okay. We couldn’t see a lot of the smaller, lower ones. But we did catch this beautiful sunset.
Rooftop Sunset at Avery Point

Of course, you need to shoot the lighthouse when you visit Avery Point. So we did, but we didn’t like most of our pictures because they came out a little bit boring. Here is our one of our better ones.
Avery Point Lighthouse

I thought the light house shot of the New London Ledge Light came out much better.
Ledge Light in Black and White

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All about Seagulls

Chris really likes to take pictures of seagulls. He says they are generally looked down upon and considered the pigeons of the beach. But they are a really common New England site. So he tries to take cool pictures of them in action to show how pretty they actually can be.

Here is a picture of a seagull in flight. I like the dramatic white against blue. Chris made this a black and white picture too because it highlights all the detail in the wings, but I really like the contrast in the color version.
Seagull in Blue Sky with Under-Lighting

Seagull in Blue Sky but Black and White

This seagull is getting ready to land on the beach. This Ferry Beach in Saco, Maine.
Seagull Landing on Beach

We went to Pine Point in Maine and Chris spent most of the time trying to get seagulls in action. Here is a neat shot he took of a seagull banking in flight, but the really pretty thing about it is the tail feathers. They are all glowing from the lighting.
Seagull with Glowing Tail Feathers

I like this shot of a seagull in flight. It is a simple black and white and the seagull is nicely lit.
Simple Black and White Seagull

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Spring and Summer of 2014 (2)

When visiting Maine, we like to go to Camp Ellis to get shots of boats and lobster traps. Chris took some neat orange shots during one of our trips. Here is one of his shots with a bird just landing on a post.
Bird at Camp Ellis

The pilings near the dock create some interesting visual lines besides being great for seagulls to perch on.
Sunset on Pilings at Camp Ellis

During a day stop at Camp Ellis, I found this cute boat.
Cute Boat at Camp Ellis
Chris likes it in black and white too.

We went to Pine Point in Scarborough, Maine, once.
Here is a fun picture looking down the ramp to a bunch of lobster traps.
Lobster Traps at Pine Point

Chris took this picture of a bunch of boats and made it all black and white except for the front two boats. I think it really looks cool that way.
Two Coloured Boats in a Black and White Pine Point

This last picture is of a row of boats at Pine Point. I thought it was funny how they were all lined up. It took me several tries to get a good angle of them all.
Boats in a line at Pine Point

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