My Guide to "Capturing" Scenes via Photograhy

I've found that true camera buffs, including myself, tend to see "pictures" around them now and then, and frame / compose them in their minds.  The steps between seeing a "picture" in your surroundings and holding a good slide or print of it are where experience come in.

Basic Rules of Photography

Control the camera.  If taking pictures on the road, from vehicle, either be a passenger & properly frame & focus image or pull over to stop to do the same.  Do not assume that holding a Quick-Snap out the window at an angle near horizontal or vertical will be a good use of resources or even capture what you're seeing.

There has to be a long enough exposure for the picture to come out right, yet under low light and other conditions you can't have camera shake show during a needed long exposure.

Have a picture to take before exposing the film.  If it doesn't really grab you, let it go.

Get your exposure right.  Set & lock the exposure looking at only the subject, not off-luminance surroundings at all.  If necessary, use your hand to block lens light until you are sure your subject will be well exposed.  It is better to risk overexposure than underexposure.  Have something along to wedge the camera towards the correct pitch to shoot with it firmly held to as stable a surface as possible to avoid underexposure or a shaky image.  Prints have about a three f-stop color depth range, with about a whole f-stop of error tolerance range, while with slides, the ranges are five f-stops and one half f-stop respectively.

Lenses & typical accessories for each

Wide Angle, and Flash & Polarizer Use

A good wide angle lens, like a 28mm f/2.8, is needed for museums (any that allow photography that is) due to cramped space and minimal lighting.  Try to go on a bright, sunny day so you can have the best possible combination of low graininess, hopefully being able to avoiding 1000ASA film, and maximum depth of field from being able to stop down the aperature (f/4 or better if lucky).  If insufficient light is available, you can hopefully back up a bit and not worry about other planes, whatever, from intruding on the image as you use the widest aperature available.  The greater distance will allow a greater depth of field along the subject.  Flash units are helpful, but won't show background.  If photographing an airplane close-up, for instance, often a flash will saturate the nose, propellors and front of the engine nacelle(s)  while everything behind about the wing center will fade off into near blackness.  Use a flash only for fill flash - when photographing a plane from the front, ideally, the back of the plane should be relatively well lit already (be at such an angle so the sun does that if at all possible), the front moderately so, with the flash filling in the rest of the front's needed light.

Only one accessory can be used at a time on a wide angle lens like a 28mm because the end one will intrude on the field of view, cropping off the corners.  You'll use that lens often enough for landscapes and skies that a polarizing filter may find the lens to be its new home.  That will remove two f-stops of light (down to 25% of original light), but on hazy summer days it can remove much of the glare and radically increase cloud to otherwise hazy blue sky contrast.  It allows you to customize the subject's look sometimes, balancing reflection reduction for the foreground against reflection reduction of off-angle backgrounds.

Normal Lens, and Star and Sports Photography

A bright,.fixed normal lens, like a 55mm f/1.7, is required when fast exposure speed is the priority.  If shooting stars (a whole sky, not a specific constellation or galaxy), they move at 15 degrees per hour around the North Star.  For the maximum number of stars to "burn in" signifigantly on the film, a maximum amount of light must get to the film.  This does not allow framing of the sky by nearby branches, etc. since such a wide depth of field allowance (via stopping down the aperature) would take the exposure time to over an hour (for normal, fine-grain film), thus smearing the stars into dim arcs.  (The arcs are extremely cool when the aperature's wide enough to let enough light through onto fine-grain film.)  I have little sports photography experience, but a normal lens would be needed for arena sports to compensate for the low light.  No flash unit will reach players.  If using a longer lens, the combination of less light reaching the film and increased susceptibility to camera shake will prevent success in low light (when holding the camera by hand).

General-Purpose Zoom w/ Macro: the Versitile Lens

A moderate wide to moderate telephoto zoom lens, with macro (close-up) capability, will probably be the workhorse of your shooting.  The penalty with zoom lenses is that the widest aperature at the most "normal" (55mm) focal length will be at least two f-stops dimmer than a fixed lens, and at least an f-stop dimmer than a fixed lens at the far end of the focal length range.  As long as a fair amount of light is available, however, they allow fantastic flexibility in composing an image.

Telephoto, and Tripods & Alternate Camera Mounting

my normal photography accessoriesThese are my most-used accessories. Clockwise from upper left: 1) strap-to-pole mount, 2) basic cheap tripod (note altercation), 3) a real, sturdy tripod (which now has the pole mount's Bogen ball head attached), 4,5) piece of wood and then dead batteries for telephoto aiming on bench or other sturdy surface, 6) remote shutter hold / release cable, 7) standard external light meter, 8) my special ultra-sensitive Night Meter for night photography, and a triangle ruler, also for telephoto aiming.  They are on an opened envelope for offset printing plates.

As you get into telephoto range, you get into dim light levels and exponentially greater need for sturdy equipment mounting.  A 300mm lens has such size and heft that it has its own tripod mount, normally used instead of the camera's (which if used alone instead, would see too much stress).  The mirror in an SLR (single lens reflex) camera normally flips open upon trigger pressing, although some better cameras allow it to flip up before film exposure.  When the mirror flips up, its movement also moves the camera if allowed to.  When using a long telephoto (300+ mm) mounted on a tripod with the camera behind the tripod attached to the tripod via only the lens, this mirror movement can easily vertically shake the camera enough to ruin a picture.  I usually use my mini-furniture camera mount to securely strap the camera body & lens to a structure, be it a house, flagpole or whatever.  This is to use both sheer structure rigidity and added effective camera bulk to reduce camera shake.  Since the non-damaging strapping can be only so strong, the fact that the wooden mount itself has plenty of heft and rigidity helps greatly.  Having much of the mount 3" below the camera, with a Bogen all-metal ball mount connecting the two, helps greatly with vertical camera shake reduction.

Whenever possible, I use sturdy miscellany objects to support the telephoto on a table, bench or other sturdy surface.  I usually have my 2X teleconvertor attached to the 300mm f/5.6 lens (basically making a 600mm f/11 lens), resulting in an extreme need for utterly stable camera / lens mounting.  A good ball joint mounted to sturdy carpentry is ok for general use, but something as demanding as a 600mm f/11 lens practically requires a boulder for support.  The image has already been compromized by the addition of the teleconvertor's lenses to the image's light path, and especially if the 300mm lens isn't professional quality, adding a 2X teleconvertor will literally magnify both lens' softness / slight bluriness.


I managed to find a 2X teleconvertor for my discontinued-two decades ago Petri FTE.  (I just explained later mention of manual focusing and an analog internal light meter.)  While throwing away 75% of the otherwise available light (1x1 image from a 2x2 available image), meaning two f-stops worth, it doubles the effective focal length.  It's therefore both colossal pain in the rear and a delight when used with my 300mm telephoto.  The addition of of the teleconvertor's extra lenses in the path the light takes to reach the film will increase the "circle of confusion," or blurriness, of an image vs. using just the original lens, plus it will increase it by 2X from the magnification alone anyway.

For moving subjects, a teleconvertor should be used only when

  1. you really need that extra focal length,
  2. there's surplus light and/or the motion is slow, and
  3. (fast) grainy film and/or some motion blur is ok.
General Purpose Accessories

A rubber sun shield for the lens, a U.V. (ultraviolet) filter (haze reduction) and perhaps a rubber viewfinder sunshield, in that order, are mandatory accessories.

Rubber Sun Shields: Lens & Viewfinder

A 28 mm lens will see at such a wide angle that it will show a cropping tunnel effect at the corners when stacking lens accessories.  A sun shield is generally the best to choose.  The sun at many angles can flood the viewfinder, making manual focusing difficult.  By flooding the viewfinder, it will also add stray light to the camera's light sensor, leading to an underexposed image.  The effect is worst when aiming at a shaded subject through a dim lens with direct sun on you from behind; manual focusing becomes nearly impossible and you can see the needle increase nearly an f-stop when able to use an available hand as a shade.

Star Effect & Magnifier / Macro Attachments

A star effect lens is neat for special effects when small bright spots are in the image, and magnifying lenses are also available.  They work well with a fixed normal lens for photographing dim small subjects when a tripod, etc. and/or long exposure times are not workable.  The macro feature of modern zoom lenses can mostly do the same thing, but at a maximum light quantity penalty vs. the former.

Slides vs. Prints & Color Filters

If the negative (print) film processor's equipment sees that a segment of film is overall dark or overall light, it just increases or decreases the print's exposure time to compensate (but black is turned to grey, or white to grey).  It does the same, but on a reduced level, to center the overall color balance of the image.  Color and exposure centering for slides is impossible since you get back the same film run through the camera in the first place.  It isn't known whether it's under or overexposed until after all of it is fully developed.

Since different films have different color sensitivities, color filters may be a good investment, depending on intended film type useage, shooting technique and expected subjects.  If you do alot with slide film, filters will be needed to balance greenish indoor flourescent light, blue-less normal incandescent light, and yellow-intensive direct sunlight.  As mentioned, the ultraviolet filter is needed regardless for haze reduction.

Film Variations


Kodak film is generally "cooler," meaning better at and leaning more towards the blue end of the spectrum, than slightly "warm" Agfa and Fuji Velvia films for example.  The are irridescent colors of pheasant feathers I've seen that showed well on Velvia film, but which otherwise good Kodak Royal Gold film couldn't do justice to.

Kodak also has new "T-grain" film out which has better detail capacity at a given ASA speed than other film, but I've seen it only in one local high-end camera center.

Black & White

Black and white film has better contrast and detail capacity than color film, and is excellent for stark, high-contrast images.  It can make for extremely direct artwork.

There is 50 ASA Kodak B&W film suitable for aerial photography, with tighter, finer grain than most lenses can take advantadge of.  The "circle of confusion" of a lens' focusing an infinitely small but bright dot onto film will nearly always be signifigantly larger than this film's grain (use a teleconvertor with less expensive film).

There is another Kodak B&W film than has the grain (photosensitive crystal) size of normal 1000ASA color film while having a 1600ASA standard rating.  It can be "pushed" in processing to be used, with increasing graininess, at 3200, 6400ASA and beyond alternate ratings.


Infrared film comes in two varieties (that I know of).   One is less sensitive, 50ASA, and is false color.  Various invisible light frequencies (mostly infrared, some ultraviolet) are translated into the visible spectrum.  The other, faster but slightly grainy, translates the infrared (and again some ultraviolet) light's intensity level into corresponding levels of black and white.  With the latter, clouds and lit vegetation will be very bright, while land and background sky will be very dark.  Both types seem to see images from some parallel universe, and different color filters will have a great effect on either (especially on the false-color film).

Digital Cameras & Camcorders

The best of today's digital cameras have, at best, a twentieth the detail level capacity of normal 35mm film based cameras, but processing is as simple as a quick download to your computer.  Many have small electronic viewscreens for viewfinders, some color, so you can discard and retry a picture to no end.  While color information is stored basically instantly in a digital camera, film accumulates color info over as much time as desired with silver halide based crystals.  Digital cameras are fairly sensitive, and camcorders more so, but neither have a chance against either the timed-exposure low light possibilities of film, nor the quick response of the many 100+ASA film types available.  Most digital cameras can hold a maximum of about 20 640 x 480 shots (vs. up to 36 shots at about 5200 x 4000, or much beyond with good 100ASA or lower film).  Normal camcorder resolution levels are a fraction of that of even digital cameras, but motion tends to hide that (and the greatly reduced color depth compared to other media).  They can however see infrared light, translating it into normal, visible red alongside the rest of the visible spectrum, that only infrared camera film is designed for.

Sun angles
Dawn is general-purpose best, with sunset following it, with noon light being just too harsh.

The Three Essentials:

  1. Sharpness
  2. Exposure
  3. Color (temperature of source light)
Rule of Thirds (basic composition):
Picture the mental photograph as having a 3x3 grid over it:
Where to put image focal point

The center is only for hunters to put their desired food in.  The eye follows from left to right (except in the Far East), so it's better to let the eye trail across the photo to the focal point.  The eye also follows from dark to light, so the focal point should be the overall brightest object in the picture.  Having too many well-focused objects in the image is usually distracting as well.  In some cases, sharp focus from very near to infinity is best, while in others massive blurring of all but the focal point of the image is desirable... depends on how your mind sees the image at its best.  For depth of (well-focused) field, focus on something 2/3rds of the way to the back of the desired focused area to get best focal spread.

It generally works to have the area the focal point is headed towards opposite the focal point.
This has the small plane in the foreground for perspective, with space for the airliner-sized B-17 to "travel" within the image area, whereas the parked, shielded windscreen small plane doesn't need "room." (The lens had a focus problem approaching infinity, and this was a severely scanner-cropped image anyway, hence the blurriness.  Without a 36bit, $2000 scanner, one has only so much ability to digitally sharpen an image.)

Lines for the eye to follow:
The triangle gives strength, and the S-curve provides grace.  Circles are ok but tough to do well.

What Little I Know of Photographing Wildlife & Wildflowers

I attended a wildlife & wildflower photography seminar held at Middle Creek Wildlife Preserve in roughly south-central Pennsylvania, where I learned quite a bit on capturing nature on film.  Here's some of what I learned:

You have to know your subject.  If photographing a wild bird, you have to set up a duck blind - type arrangement, with only your lenses poking out.  If you and a "walk-away" assistant walk to the blind together, and the "walk-away" then leaves, the birds etc. will think the blind is uninhabited.  You have to notice a spot (end of branch, top of pole of something) that the bird likes to stop on between its nest and its feeding ground.  Manually focus the camera at that spot and wait, without making the slightest sound or movement.  The professional photographer who gave the seminar sat inside his very small, fully enclosed duck blind, in the tropics, utterly quiet and basically immobile, for something like 14 hours to get one of his photographs.

For photographing wildlife, if they start to circle around you it means they're trying to get downwind to pick up your scent.  When they do, they'll flee.  So basically, it's over the moment they start to circle around you.

One device the photographer had along was a fully adjustable camera mount for the door of his vehicle (SUV in his case, bracket works with anything).  One part clamps over an inch or so of protruding window, with the rest braced against the armrest.  It looked like something that could be built with some wood and creativity.

You have to know the migratory and feeding habits of your subject if it's mobile, or the precise location and growth patterns of whatever rare flower you want to photograph.

My Experiences with Night Photography

This is my "Night Meter" - a project box with a solar cell wired through switched resistors (three sensitivity levels) to my inexpensive pocket digital multimeter (there's a third switch for disconnecting the solar cell for normal test meter use).  It's sensitive enough to easily get a solid reading at the base of a tree lit by nothing but starlight and minimal light pollution.  Taped to the right side of the case top is the calibration chart, made by calibrating the unit with a standard meter while the Night Meter's solar cell had various objects like a much-folded dark T-shirt blocking light to it.  It works, with only about a couple f-stops extra needed to compensate for film's needing extra, extra long exposures at very low light (at least double what simple math would suggest).

The solar cell can easily be slid back and forth within the case via a piece of coat hanger wire which goes out a hole in the controls side, with the other end fixed to the cell.  This keeps stray side light sources (streetlights, etc.) from messing up the reading.

The display enclosure lid ishinged plastic, with a hole in it to view the VOM display.  The display enclosure is lit by yes, a small flashlight (none of its light reaches the solar cell).  The reason for the lit display enclosure case is for getting a reading in enclosed areas.  You usually need a flashlight to read it, and it would be entirely too easy for it to utterly trash the reading accuracy without the display enclosure.

The multimeter itself is so sensitive that just moving a hand near it causes, I suppose, a magnetic flux from natural electrostatic charge moving around slightly near the wires.  That would be probably the only possible explanation for the reading's tendency to swing wildly with no box movement, only very nearby hand movement.  It usually takes several seconds of stillness, more under very low light, for the reading to settle.

To get good night photographs, I've sat in my car in mid-winter (cold air = low humidity = high visibility = high detail sharpness) for a session total of over half an hour (many 16+ min. exposure times, bracketed with 4, 8 and sometimes 30+ min. exposures).  You can't drive off because your lights will trash the exposure, and your camera could get stolen, or knocked over / chewed on by something.  You have to stay with it the whole time.  Cars will drive by and burn streaks in the film frame with their headlights and taillights.  If from a distance and over time, the effect can make the picture.  Too direct, of course, and there go those 14 minutes!

One of the most rewarding things about night photography, however, is that forced exposure to yourself of nature.  You hear the trees, any awakened birds / cows / whatever is nearby, smell the nighttime landscape, and your night vision lets you soak in the mysterious, alternate nighttime world.

Bits and Pieces of my Photo Album (that you haven't already seen, some highly magnified with my scanner)

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