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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

DSLR Made Easy - Part 6 [Silhouettes, Metering and The Rule of Thirds]

Part 6:

With that knowledge [from the previous 5 Parts of the DSLR Made Easy series] and a lot of trial and error, you can really become familiar with your camera. You can use those manual controls to make specific effects in your photos, like silhouettes.

Silhouettes & Metering:

Metering is basically the act of using the exposure meter in your camera to judge the amount of light needed. It sounds so complicated; I know. That’s what I thought when I first heard of it too. But it’s really not. We covered the basics already; picking your aperture [or your specific shutter speed] and then adjusting the second to create a properly exposed photo.

A lot of the time, metering isn’t really thought about. It’s not greatly involved because the light is pretty evenly dispersed throughout the setting in which you are photographing. If you are taking photos in a room and there aren’t any major windows or maybe everything is lit pretty evenly and thoroughly, then there won’t be much of a difference in light in the room. But, if you are taking photos of a building, against a sky, then you will have some difference in the strength of the light. There’s where metering comes in.

If you are like me, then you have been out taking pictures, and you’ll try to take a picture of something only to look at the result and say, woah, that’s way too bright. Or that’s too dark, you can’t even see anyone’s face! The usual culprit of this is because your camera was metering off of the wrong subject.

Here’s an example. You are taking a photo of a tree, outside. You set your aperture at f/5.6. Then you point your camera [the middle of your viewfinder] at the tree. You scroll the shutter speed dial until the light meter in the viewfinder is around 0. A properly exposed tree results!

Now, instead of pointing your camera at the tree, point it up to the sky. You’ll see that the exposure meter will sky-rocket and tell you that your photo is going to be TOO BRIGHT if you leave the shutter speed where it is currently at. This is because the sky has much more light than the tree does, so you need to compensate for that. So you make the shutter speed faster, and limit the amount of light coming in, so that your photo will show up and not be too bright.
If your camera is metering off the sky, it’ll tell you that you need to have a fast shutter speed to compensate for all the light coming in from the sky. In return, your tree will be very dark. The opposite is true – if you are metering off the tree and you pick a shutter speed that lets in enough light for the tree to show up, then your sky will likely be very bright. You might not see much except a big white wash.

So, your photos that aren’t turning out right are a result of incorrect metering. You can use the concept of metering to determine what settings of light you’ll need for the subject of your photo.
How do I use the process of metering to achieve a silhouette? I’ll tell you!

Silhouettes occur when the sun is either setting or rising. I’m sure you have seen some stunning silhouette photos; I know I have! They are pretty simple to do once you understand metering.
If I’m trying to take a photo of Matt at the beach during a sunset, I want to meter off of his face so that I make sure his face shows up. Because it’s getting dark, I’m going to need more light [a slower shutter speed] to make sure Matt’s face shows up. The flip side of this is that my sky will usually be pretty bright and my sunset might not turn out too well, because it’s getting too much light still.

See this photo of the Grand Canyon. It’s sunset and in order to make the depth of the canyon show up, I had to pick a pretty slow shutter speed to let enough light in to expose the bottom of the riverbed. See the sky, how it’s blown out [too bright]? In order to see the bottom of the canyon, I let in light, which made the sky turn out too bright.

A silhouette is the opposite of this. You meter the sky instead. If Matt’s standing in front of me, I’ll point the camera at the sky and pick my shutter speed value off of the sky. Since the sky is bright, it’ll tell me that I can pick a pretty fast shutter speed in order to control the light in my image. Once the picture is taken, Matt will be a big black blob. That’s what happens when there is no light to expose his face. But the sky will likely be bold, bright and beautiful because it is properly exposed. A silhouette is achieved!

Here’s another photo of the Grand Canyon. It was taken right after the previous one. This time, I metered off of the sky. The sky shows up bold and colorful because I used the sky’s readings to control the amount of light I let in. The sky is properly exposed. But the return is that the canyon floor and the rocks right in front of where I was standing didn’t get much light on them at all. The result: blackness. Hence, the silhouette effect.

Try it! If you want to achieve a silhouette, point your camera at the sky and pick a shutter speed based on that value. For the moment, ignore your subject. Then, when you take your photo, your subject will turn out solid black, and the sky behind it will be bold and colorful. Oh, the magic of the Silhouette!

Rule of Thirds- The Rule of Thirds is part of the more general photography aspect called Composition. Composition is basically creating your image. What the subject of your photo is, what makes up the background, where in the frame everything is situated, etc. Composition is a crucial part of photography; it makes the photos visually interesting to the eye.

The Rule of Thirds basically breaks up an image into three parts the vertical way and the horizontal way. Look at this photo: There are two lines that vertically divide the photo into three parts and two lines that run horizontally to divide the image into thirds that way as well. The theory goes that when an image has its subject positioned on one of those ‘third’ lines, it is more visually pleasing than if the subject was in the dead center.

This is often just the opposite of what we would typically think. We would think that the subject should be right in the middle, and for a Type A person like me, it’s sometimes hard to think that offset might be better. Type B people might always shoot off to the side. I’ll ask my husband… haha, kidding Matt!

Here are some examples of photos following the Rule of Thirds. What do you think; do you agree with the people who say the Rule of Thirds makes an image the most visually pleasing?

There are some situations when I choose not to follow the Rule of Thirds. It depends on what I see when I’m taking the photo, but there have been times where I’ve just felt that it would better suit the image to be centered. Whether others would agree, that’s up for argument. But, just know that you might run into circumstances where you feel like a centered image would be best. Follow your gut, or better yet, take two: one centered and one following the Rule of Thirds, and then you don’t ever have to wonder or wish you’d had both.

The one time that I have some trouble remembering to follow this rule is when I am photographing things involving the horizon. The horizon on a photo should not cut the image in half horizontally. I know, that crushes everything I thought I knew in the last two decades of my photographing life. The pros say that when you are taking a photo involving the horizon, place it either in the upper third of the image or in the bottom third.

Next time you are watching TV or a movie, pay attention to the Rule of Thirds. After I learned this rule, I started to notice that more often than not, when there is a single person on the TV screen, they are off centered. They follow the Rule of Thirds in videography too!

Tuck the Rule of Thirds in the back of your mind for the next time you are photographing, well, anything. If you are taking pictures of a baby, put the focus of the image out of the direct center. Put the horizon in the lower half of the frame, next time you are taking sunset photos. Try it out, find what you like, and stick with it. I’ve read that you can tell an amateur from a pro by [one of the ways] looking at how they compose their shots.


  1. yes, I definitely like the rule of thirds. And you're absolutely right about its use in videography! (except now I can't enjoy a good movie without critiquing the composition and technique!)

  2. I love your explanations... I'm finally getting it. Thank you. Do you know anything about shooting basketball? I'm trying to get decent shots of my 2nd grader & 5th grader. The gym's lighting is terrible and the action happen's quickly. I've been using Sports mode on my Nikon 5000 and single point focus, but I only get a few of the kind of pictures I want (people facing me, ball in the picture).. sometimes it's my own fault because I start watching the game & forget to click!

  3. Oh gosh, I can fully relate to critiquing each and every movie or TV show I watch! I guess it makes us more aware and maybe continues to inspire us, right?? :)

    Beth - I'm so happy that my explanations can play a part in helping everything click for you. That's what happens, it'll all click and you'll never forget it! Serious! Then you'll wonder why it confused you in the first place [although I still have to stop and think sometimes... what am I doing again??] As far as basketball goes... I would try shooting on the burst option, if you don't already. With this, you hold the shutter down and it'll rapidly fire anywhere from 3-7 [or more depending on your camera and the settings] in a row. Chances are that if you shoot like that, you'll get more good ones, just statistically - without changing anything that you're doing. Indoor lighting really makes things difficult sometimes... Try messing with the ISO, cranking it up to 800 or even 1600 to see how the photos turn out. What you want is the shutter speed to be as fast as it can be indoors, while still allowing your photos to turn out bright enough. Try ISO 1600, camera in A [Av] mode, and put it as low of an f number as your lens will allow. [f/3.5 or f/5.6 maybe?] This will let your camera pick the fastest shutter speed possible for the situation. How do the photos turn out? If the pictures are too noisy, try ISO 800. Trial and error. The magic of digital is there's no harm in taking 1,000 photos! Bad ones - DELETE! No harm done! Happy shooting!!!

  4. Laura, Thanks for the suggestions! Noise is my issue. I've never shot in Av mode. I can't wait to try it. I was all ready to use your ideas this weekend at the basketball games - but they were cancelled due to a snow storm. Guess I have to wait until next week. The good thing about having active kids is that nearly every weekend I can practice... and some weekends I get better shots than others. I use the center focus only (not sure I'm explaining it right) rather than multiple focus points. I use the burst and come home with 300 or so pictures/game and I delete a ton of pictures. I always hope to get 10 - 20 good shots. Maybe with your suggestions I can get more good shots. Thank you for sharing!


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