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Better photography (part 1)

Original Post
Matthew Kidd · · San Diego, CA · Joined Nov 2016 · Points: 4,325

(I had to split this into two parts because I hit the 10,000 character post limit. Best to limit responses to this first part to avoid a jumble.)

A stated goal of the Hiking Project is to "provide guidebook quality" descriptions. How well is that guideline working for user contributed photos? Color photographs are expensive to print but very cheap to serve online. Moreover, even the black and white photography in many guidebooks is mediocre. So by this standard, we are doing okay.

But we could be doing much better. We have a lot of crappy photos and we have grade inflation in the reviewing process. The user interface does well to indicate a meaning for each number of stars: 1 = lousy, 2 = okay, 3 = good, 4 = great, 5 = awesome. Based on these definitions, I think photos are being rated half a star too high on average.

It is unrealistic in a crowd sourced project to expect a lot of great and awesome photos. After all professional photographers need to earn a living. So the goal should be to raise the standard at the low end, giving advice to users about how to produce good, i.e. 3-star, photos and to discourage the submission of significantly flawed photos. Great photos are often the result of a fortuitous location, lucky lighting, the right perspective and framing, good equipment, and sensible post-processing. Good photographers have learned how to be in the right place at the right time, know their equipment and so on, but this takes experience. By contrast, crappy photos are usually poor because they violate basic "rules" of photography that are easy to learn. Below I present some advice based on common problems that I see with photos on this site. It's all the sort of stuff one could learn from an introductory book on photography, e.g. one by John Hedgecoe. (I only consider myself to be a serious amateur "competent" photographer.)

♦ Blurry + washed out colors + saturated ("burnt") sky
Take a look at photo 7008635. Even the low resolution image is noticeably blurry, obvious from the carved General Sherman text. Moreover the colors are washed out and the sky is saturated. It's clear from parts of the photo that this was bluebird day; however, most of the sky appears white because the photo is overexposed. Photo 7009925 and photo 7006255 are additional examples. This trifecta of flaws is common and arguably the site would be better off it we just deleted all these photos.
If these problems are happening to you, the best solution is buy a better camera that will pick a better exposure in the automatic mode. If you want to keep the camera you have, the washed out colors and burnt sky can be solved by underexposing the photo via the exposure compensation settings. The blurriness results from a slow exposure. In low light conditions, cheap cameras (e.g. smartphone cameras) must choose between slow exposure times or a high sensitivity (high ISO) setting, a nasty trade-off between blurriness and image quality.
The first two of these example photos can be improved in a photo editor by adjusting the dark level to reduce the washed out appearance for about a ½ star improvement. It takes just seconds in Photoshop, but can also easily be done in a free program like the very good Paint.NET (Windows). The final example also suffers from being a boring subject. It's irredeemable.
♦ Tall photos (beyond 4:3 aspect ratio)
Your smart phone has a 3:2 or wider aspect ratio for showing videos in landscape format not for taking vertical pictures or the much worse crime of vertical video. Although there are artistic exceptions, most vertical photos shouldn't have an aspect ratio greater than 4:3, and this is particularly true for landscape photos. Almost all vertical photos will benefit significantly from a 4:3 crop.
Take a look at photo 7007736. It's colorful and has real potential, confirmed by the full sized image that shows good sharpness. Feels squeezed in though, doesn't it? And who really cares about all that extra sky at the top and to a lesser extent the shadowed area at the lower left. Download the full sized image, load it up in a photo editor, and make the 4:3 crop yourself. Looks much better doesn't it? To me it's a 2 star photo as presented. But a 3 star photo lurks inside. Maybe 3½.
Photo 7009842 is another example. Here you can't lose too much from the top or bottom without compromising the photo but having a wider field of view would definitely improve the photo.
As an aside, the Hiking Project doesn't handle vertical photos as well as horizontal photos. This isn't really a flaw per se but rather the result of real estate choices that cater to the more common horizontal photos. There is no perfect solution to this problem. Google Photos is illustrative of a different approach, one that abandons grid like arrangements of photos.
♦ Crop appropriately
The great thing about cropping is that it is easy to do after the fact in the digital age. Many photos benefit significantly from suitable cropping. Photo 7002199 is a 2 star photo me. But a simple crop from the bottom and right, preserving the aspect ratio, to make the trail runners more prominent, would make it 3 star.

♦ Nothing in focus
Some photos have nothing in focus, e.g. photo 7003032. Not totally sure? Look at it full size. These photos should simply be deleted.
Nothing in focus needs to be distinguished from the proper use of shallow depth of field where a subject is in focus and a distracting background is somewhat out of focus.
♦ Not enough sky
Sometimes the sky is boring, monotonously overcast or a clear pale whitish-blue. It's tempting to exclude most of it from your photo but this is usually wrong and results in a claustrophobic feeling very much at odds with the great outdoors. Moreover, it violates the "rule of thirds". Roughly speaking, if you frame a picture so that the sky occupies roughly the top third, you'll usually end up with a decent photo. More or less sky than this feels aesthetically wrong.
Let's look at some examples. Photo 7003862 is a bit boring but the colors and interesting water surface make it appealing enough for the Hiking Project. But the lack of sky is a significant flaw. The verdant undulation of Photo 7004673 is beautiful. But the lack of sky makes it feel like I'm viewing the scene while wearing a straight jacket. Photo 7006317 is another example. I'm particularly bummed about photo 7006022. This deserved to be a 4 star photo and the photographer had a great sky to work with. We just need to see a little more sky and a bit more to the right. Photo 7004653 is similar case. It's 3½ stars to me as is. But just a bit more sky, while keeping the cluster of yellow flowers at the bottom, would make it a 4 star photo.

♦ Burned out sky
Both photo 7002322 and photo 7032846 have burned out skies, fully in the first example and only partially in the second example. High contrast situations like these reveal the limits of cheap cameras. To handle these cases well you need a camera with a good sensor that has 14+ bits of sensitivity. Even then it helps to post-process in Photoshop with the Image → Adjustments → Shadows/Highlights dialog in order to compress the dynamic range. This can also be done in other image editing programs by adjusting the curves very carefully but it is much easier to do it in Photoshop if you want to avoid the grotesque results that result from over-adjusting the curves.
Some might object to the Shadows/Highlights adjustment on philosophical grounds. But to me, unlike pushing the saturation which just looks cheap, dynamic range compression is merely an attempt to capture how the eye and brain perceive contrasty situations. The eye has an amazing dynamic range and moreover can adjust its pupil size quickly. In effect the brain integrates different images into a whole scene that doesn't feel excessively contrasty while the camera is stuck with a single contrasty image unless you do an HDR shot. This difference in human vs. machine perception is why a sunny autumn day feels so brilliant and colorful but is so difficult to capture well with a camera.
♦ Amputated limbs
Avoid cropping  ("amputating") hands, feet, or the head. Take a look at photo 7002707. There is much to like about this photo. It's colorful and makes great use of shallow depth of field, i.e the runner is sharply in focus while a potentially distracting background is just a bit blurred with the f/2.0 aperture. Her facial expression is great. But her right foot is amputated by the bottom of the frame. And the timing and angle of the photo is such that her lower left leg looks amputated too.

In a posed shot, this mistake is easily avoided. For an action shot it is much harder. Usually the best one can do is take multiple photos in quick succession and hope one is ideal. Better cameras can take 10+ full sized frames per second. The runner's photographer was shooting with a Canon EOS 60D, an excellent camera and probably did take a quick series of photos of which this was the best.

♦ Horizon not leveled

Level the horizon. It's hardly any work to rotate a photo such as photo 7024424. Any basic photo editor will do the job.

(continued in part 2)

Rajbir Loriet · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2017 · Points: 0

Thank you so much for your great post. Glad to get it here. :)

Mark Bridges · · Michigan · Joined Sep 2017 · Points: 0

Extremely useful post, though. Thank you!

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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