Sunday, February 28, 2010

Details for a Great Postcard Photo. Part 1.

Truly great postcard photos don't come right out of the camera. They are built with the aid of the computer. Starting with a photograph that satisfies both The 10 Basic Elements of a Good Photograph and The 7 Elements of a Good Scenic Photograph, a great postcard photo leaves no elements to chance. This does not mean that in order to get a great postcard picture the scene needs to be staged, but at least the photographer must make the most out of given elements, and even import new ones if necessary later on. This is precisely what is presented in this next picture: one that is not intended to "wow" the viewer, but present a clean flawless representation of a scene that make it worthy of a postcard or similar reproduction.

Below is an image depicting a street scene in Old San Juan, focusing on the architectural idiosyncracy of the place. As you mouseover the image you will be able to see the original untouched image with its annotations for fixing. Included is a list of items to watch for in this and similar images, and how a little Photoshop saves the day.

(Mouse over image to see original capture)

1. Thorough clean-up. Depending on the subject, we may want to see spotless paint on buildings, clean whites. He, he... it sounds almost like a fabric detergent commercial, right? But that's just the kind of care a great postcard photo deserves. Also the scene is free of unappealing or non-contributing objects to the intent of the picture. In this picture a security alarm box had been removed, among other objects that do not contribute to the rather intended feel of the scene.

2. Things on the right place. This means no odd or accidental elements justified because that's the way the were in the scene. If the photographer did not fix it while composing, then better Photoshop it and put those elements in a more scene flattering place. On this scene the charming house number sign that was hardly visible previously has been "moved" to a more flattering location, creating also a more pleasant composition - a triangle for the eye to move around without leaving the frame.

3. Added elements. This is the glitter and pizzaz. The details that bring the image to another level:

- Cobblestones added. Sometimes it is hard to find the perfect combination of right light, right subject and right supporting elements on the same scene. We lacked cobblestones streets on the original scene, thus were added to complement the character of the place.

- Neatly lit lamposts. Though they not be lit during the day, it certainly makes for a nice detail.

- Flowery plants. Flowers always make a better scene.

4. Life - the human element. The right person or model, on the right place can make for an outstanding photograph. In this scene, the red-dressed lady was borrowed from a similar picture out of the many taken on the same place. Thus no model was really necessary, just a little patience, luck and careful eye from the photographer.

So here we had, the little things that make huge changes in the final appreciation of the scene. Next we should look at other examples that further illustrate this point.

©A.E.Amador. All Rights Reserved.
You may see my scenic photography of Puerto Rico and The Caribbean at

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The 7 Elements of a Good Scenic Photograph

After applying The 10 Basic Elements of a Good Photograph (see previous post), we will now consider specific factors in the creation of good scenic photographs. Scenic photography is the art of capturing with a camera the beauty of a place, whether natural or urban. This category may also include travel and landscape photography. By good scenic photograph we mean one that would be appropriate for most publications like magazines, travel guides, books, and more.

1. The Sky is Key. One of the first elements that distinguishes good from bad, snapshot from pro-shot is the quality of the sky on a scenic landscape picture. Washed out skies, as well as totally black ones point to substandard quality overall. A happy day sky is solid blue and may have white uniformly scattered clouds. Dramatic moody skies are usually cloudy. A good night picture should still hold some tone in the sky. These are done just before total darkness.

2. Representative Supporting Elements. Elements that are common to the place should be emphasized in a scenic photograph, particularly for the travel market. Out of context or unrepresentative elements, while eye catching, may simply cause confusion to the viewer. A tropical beach scene looks solid with a coconut palm tree included; a pine or spruce would do the same to a snowy mountain.

3. Framing. Many good scenic photographs are framed using elements of the scene that, beside acting as supporting elements, direct the attention of the viewer to the main subject. A bed of flowers in the foreground or a prairie picture; part of a cactus on the side of a dessert shot; a palm tree branch from above a beach scene, are all effective ways to frame a picture. These are usually closer to the camera, thus improve the composition by adding spatial contrast to the scene. Sometimes these elements themselves are as important and necessary as the main, broader, subject.

4. Good Color Saturation. Tropical waters should look turquoise or aqua; foliage should look healthy green; skies should be deep blue during daytime. Watch out for reflections on surfaces, particularly on foliage and water that desaturate the otherwise rich color. Due to bad lighting, improper exposure and other factors, colors may not look as they appeared in the real scene.

5. Straight Horizons, Vertical Columns. Though not all photographs will include a horizon, there is always an imaginary horizon line that must be leveled. Building photographs should ideally have a corrected vertical perspective, whereas columns or wall edges should be vertical in the frame and not crooked. Though this is mandatory for most architectural work, it certainly elevates de quality of the image when done properly. This rule should be ignored for extreme low-angle shooting or wide-angle effect, as the converging lines may be the intent of the picture.

6. Control the Elements of the Scene: No Distracting Accidentals, Neat and Clean Look and Simplification. A good scenic photograph will have elements that are harmonious or look natural with the scene. Distracting accidentals should therefore not be included in the scene; an unappealing cyclone fence behind a beautiful blooming tree; a delivery truck parked right in front of the entrance of a historic building, etc. The scene should look neat and clean, meaning not only the obvious absence/removal or litter, but the good condition of the elements involved; or the neat blending of objects in relation to the character of the place. It is important also to seek simplification and avoid overall clutter, juxtaposed competing elements and messy or hard to define silhouettes.

7. Timing. In the broader term, a good scenic photograph would have been photographed on the right hour, on the right day and even on the right time of the year. The sun position as well as the climate changes throughout the seasons, making a scene better or worse suited for photography at a particular time. The photograph of the north face of a building on a sunny day during the winter may just be too dark too difficult to balance with the amount of light of the sky above. Timing also refers to the exact moment you click the shutter. A truly effective photograph would have that moving element at the place where a painter would have put it; the perfect surf over the sand; the cyclist at the right place of an empty street scene; flags on a pole, waving fully extended.

So there it is and as mentioned in a previous article, due to photography's nature, it normal for even great photographer to have a rather small percentage of his library follow all of these elements. But the potential and possibility to transform any image is always there, waiting to be done.

Next I will discuss the elements of great scenic photographs; that is, photographs that have been carefully and masterfully worked for an outstanding result.

©A.E.Amador. All Rights Reserved.
You may see my scenic photography of Puerto Rico and The Caribbean at

The 10 Basic Elements of a Good Photograph

Not all pictures are created equal. Just like not all cars, furniture or chocolate are. Since the digital camera began, we have seen a boom in images that have flooded the internet, making it seem there is excess offer. And there is. But just as there are shoes out there, good and bad undistinguishable on a store shelf, so there are photographs on the internet. Once you take a closer look, or try those shoes on, you will find that only a few pass the standard of quality you are seeking. And suddenly you find there is actually a scarcity for the good stuff. This guide should help you develop that critical eye and be more able to unmistakably narrow your choices in your selection or appreciation of photography.

A good photographer doesn't just capture what he sees, but actually tries to create a picture; by manipulating or controlling the elements, the angle, timing, equipment, among so many other variables. Today, we have the further advantage of digital manipulation, giving us a powerful tool to express our vision; to portray the scene they way we saw it, experienced it, felt it; or how we want to project it.

How would a painter do it? Is perhaps a good question a creative photographer would ask in his mind. A painter has the power of his brush to add, ignore, alter or enhance a scene, even when he may be in front of it, or painting from a reference photograph. He would control every element in order to come up with balance, feeling, and impact. So does a good photographer, albeit with different limitations and challenges. By its very nature, photography lends itself more to the recording of reality, for which reason we cannot expect even the best photographers to have a record of perfect pictures all the time; many pictures will be snapped without major pretensions. Many will be snapped for the relatively easiness of doing so. Nevertheless the good photographer will be able to constantly produce a wealth of quality pictures, that speak of his skills, style and vision; pictures that will outshine the sea of average recordings of reality available out there.

Following are the basic elements that must be present in any good photograph, according to my own experience of 20 years in the field. Though they may seem obvious, it is surprising how many fail (oh, I have failed many times) at one or more of these basic concepts. In a future writing I intend to get into the specifics on some or all of these elements.

Correct Exposure. One of the first things you will notice in a photograph is whether it is dark or light. Though a picture can be low-key (dark tones predominate) or high-key (light tones predominate) there are always indications whether it is under or overexposed. An underexposed picture will have muffled highlights and shadows may be totally black, without any discernible detail. On the other hand an overexposed picture may have grayish shadows and hot or blown out highlights. When a picture has been captured with lack of detail in the shadows or washed out highlights, it becomes impossible to fix later on.

Pleasant White Balance. This means no unappealing color casts throughout the picture. Clouds should look white, foliage should look green (not cyan or yellow), and skin tones should look reddish (not magenta, not yellow). Exceptions to this rule are color casts purposefully left on the picture, as the reddish light of the late afternoon sun or the bluish light of a snowy morning. Still, most pictures will benefit from a correct or pleasant white balance.

In Focus. A good photograph is in focus and sharp; or at least one of its elements (usually the most important one). The best way to see the focus is by zooming in at 100% and seeing up close its details. Though some soft pictures (slightly out of focus) can be worked up digitally and made usable, bad cases have no fix.

Good Contrast and Definition. A good photograph must look crisp and have well defined elements. It is properly sharpened, with controlled noise, and good differentiation between objects and its surroundings. It should be free of apparent artifacts, pixelation, and posterization of tones. Watch out for glowing highlights that point to overall softness. Equipment, optics, camera shake and settings used are factors that have an effect on the quality of the final image.

Colorful but No Clipping. Blobs of color without any detail or contrast are the result of overly saturating an image. This is called color clipping and is a very common problem, consequence of digital manipulation. A good photograph will have the right amount of color boost without losing any color detail. Check objects of saturated colors up close, like flowers, to spot this flaw. Of course, the smaller the object in the picture the less importance any clipping will have.

Proper Lighting. A properly lit scene will make a photograph with good highlights and good shadow detail, as well as present the subject in the most flattering way. Overblown highlights or totally black shadows may be a result of poor lighting. While a photographer may not be able to control the natural lighting conditions, he can and has to control the angle, subject, and/or timing in order to achieve a well lit photograph. As a matter of fact, the difference between a good photographer and a snap-shooter is how the former plans for the perfect timing, even when that involves returning to the scene as many times as necessary, while the latter will only photograph the scene as it was accidentally presented to him.

Enough Resolution. The amount of pixels the photographs has will determine how much it can be enlarged. It is important to point out that not all resolution is equal; a maximum blow-up from a good 10MP DSLR will certainly look far better than the same resolution from a consumer snapshot camera.

Good Composition. A well composed photograph will look balanced and will lead your eye to the most important element(s) of the frame. The eye should rest within these elements, and should stay within the picture. Other qualities as movement, tension, energy are also key to good images and are a consequence of composition. Watch out for competing elements, ambiguous subject, and disproportionate empty spaces. When in doubt, the "rule of thirds" may aid in judging a picture's composition.

Cleaned-Up. A good photograph is clean of dust specs, scratches or any other foreign marks to the picture. Zoom in to the sky area to search for such imperfections.

A Strong Subject. Last but certainly not least. The subject photographed must be interesting, or else no one will care to look at the picture. It can be beautiful, it can be big, it can be old, it can be unusual or unique. A waterfall, a skyscraper, an old door, a close up of an insect. Of course, this will depend on the intended audience, as not everybody is interested in a man catching a football, or a cute puppy chewing a shoe. Be also aware that a subject does not necessarily need to be a well defined concrete object but it can also be a color, a texture, a pattern, a shape and even light itself. A picture of an open sea may just be about the color blue, just as a close-up of the bark of a tree may be about texture or patterns.

So there they are. Hope this help you gain better insight in the identification of basic good photography. As implied previously, it is actually quite unrealistic to expect all the work of a photographer to comply with this rules, and I am certainly not one of them. Nevertheless it may contribute in the raising of the standard for both image creators and image reviewers. In upcomming posts I will discuss the 10 Elements of a good
scenic photo and also those for a great scenic photo. Cheers.

©A.E.Amador. All Rights Reserved.
You may see my scenic photography of Puerto Rico and The Caribbean at