Aspect Schmaspect?

A question I answered on another forum bears a repeat here. The photographer asked:

I just had a client order an 8×10 of a picture but when I crop it in Photoshop, it goes beyond the picture. (like it only fits for a 4×6 or something) What do I do?!?

A common question. For some reason known only to the good Lord, cameras use a 3:2 aspect ratio, while prints, frames, camera stores, and so on usually use 8×10 (i.e. 4×5) or 5×7, which are entirely different aspect ratios.

This means when you print, you have to do one of only three possible options:

  1. Crop off part of the image;
  2. Leave white bands on the sides;
  3. As in 2, but fill those two white bands with fake picture (what Photoshop calls “content aware fill”).

For methods 1 and 2, you probably want to use Lightroom, not Photoshop: in Photoshop you get burdened with having to know the picture size (pixels, DPI/PPI) when all you want to do at this point is set the aspect ratio. In Lightroom, you can simply set the aspect ratio (like “8×10”) without yet having to worry about the size you will eventually want to print at.

For method 3, however, you do need to use Photoshop. You expand the canvas to the size you want, then fill the white areas using that “content aware fill”, and adjust as needed.

But why is this all necessary? I have many people asking me this with a certian degree of perplexity.

Simply because you cannot fit a square peg snugly into a round hole.

To help understand, imagine if the print the client wanted was square. Does your camera take square pictures? Probably not. So to print square you either need to crop, or have white edges (or fill the edges with fictitious material).

Last tips:

  • This has nothing to do with picture size, or with things like DPI/PPI. It is simply about the shape of the picture (square, rectangular, etc).
  • I typically crop to the aspect ratio I like – not to the one dictated by the frame makers of this world.
  • That said, it is often wise to shoot a little wide, then crop later – just in case of this kind of aspect ratio nonsense getting in the way.

Have fun shooting!


Manual exposure

Why do we use manual exposure mode?

We use manual exposure mode (“M” on the dial on top) when it is more convenient to do so than to use an automatic or semi-automatic mode – i.e. when the drawbacks are outweighed by the advantages.

Grand Case, Sain Martin (Photo: Michael Willems)

Aug 2011: Grand Case, Sain Martin - 1600 ISO, 1/30th sec, f/2.0

Automatic modes (camera sets both aperture and shutter) and semi-automatic modes (camera sets one after you set the other) are convenient and quick, but are also error-prone. In particular, they do not handle the following well:

  • Backlight
  • Dark or light subjects
  • Varying subjects
  • Varying light across a scene

In those situations it is often better to use manual, assuming you have a moment to work out the best setting – and then to stick to these settings. So “indoors” is often like that, as is “night scenes”. As you get more experienced, you will use manual more often.

(One more note for beginners” manual exposure mode is not the same as manual focus, or manual focus spot selection, or manual white balance setting – etc. Unrelated!)


Zip it

Travel tip repeat: you have heard me mention bags before, but now let me get specific: when traveling in a warm climate, carry Ziploc bags. Because they close with a pretty much airtight seal. And then put the camera and lenses into those bags when you carry them out. And then wait until the equipment has warmed up – maybe 10-20 minutes.

If you don’t, then the moment you walk from the airconditioned inside to the moist, warm outside,  this happens:

I.e.due to fundamental physics, the camera mists up. Viewfinder, lenses: possibly even inside. And that is bad – misting up means moisture – water. Water can lead to fungal growth in tropical climates, and in any case, it is never good.

For the camera, that is.

But it can work in pictures – low contrast pictures can carry a mood very well, like in the following image of tropical storm Irene, which turned into a hurricane later:

Storm in Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

That slight residual fogging helps, here. But I would of course not recommend that, for your camera’s sake.

One more thing – carry a microfibre cloth, as well, and wipe off any excess moisture as soon as possible. Keeping your camera healthy is a good idea.


The Importance of being colourful

Colour is an interesting thing. It can help or hinder your pictures. It helps if you are using it where it is wanted; it hinders if you use it when it is not, or if you fail to use it when it is.

The Caribbean is all about colour. People are happy, the sun is hot, and everyone uses wonderful bright colours. So a scene like Philipsburg, Sint Maarten, needs colour:

Philipsburg (Photo: Michael Willems)

Technique needed:

  • Flash: I needed to use my Canon 580EX flash for this sign.
  • Exposure: I made the colours vibrant by exposing the rest of the image down a little: 1/200th at f/13 at 100 ISO.

In the following image, I needed no flash – or rather, it would not have done anything:

Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

In the next example, I needed the flash just to light the plants that make up the roof, or they would have been black:

Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

And one more, where I used the flash:

Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

One more – a street grab:

Philipsburg vendor (Photo: Michael Willems)

And one more, again showing wonderful Caribbean colour:

Philipsburg (Photo: Michael Willems)

I suppose this all boils down to a few simple rules:

  1. Decide if color is needed; is it an important part of the image?
  2. If so, expose well – underexposing ever so slightly will make colours more. saturated; overexposing leads to washing out. (Note: you are allowed to “expose to the right and fix in post – you get better quality).
  3. Use a flash if needed to light up areas that need lighting up.
  4. Use the right white balance.
  5. Consider a polarizer on sunny days.
  6. Add a little saturation in post if you have to.


All very logical once you think about it.