Planning a Photograph


© Richard Cox

Great light is essential to capturing a shot that is outstanding among other well composed and executed photographs. Once in a while you may get lucky, but learning to plan your photography will really improve your results.

For example, I was lookin for “a portrait of a tree”, when he stumbled upon this tree in a park on the bank of Lake Massabesic in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was a cloudy day, so he took a quick shot to document the place and to plan how to best capture this tree on film. The composition is good, but the photograph is dull and uninteresting.

Further inspection of the area revealed that this park is well traveled, and grass was patchy. Since the shot was was facing east, this eliminated a sunset shot where the tree would be illuminated by the setting sun.


© Richard Cox

I determined that a sunrise shot would be best where the tree was silhouetted against an array of pre-dawn colors. He watched for a weather report for a clear morning sunrise and returned for the shot.

I has recently developed a more “scientific” technique for planning a shot. This technique considers the precise angle of the sun at sunrise or sunset in order to predict the best time to return to capture the subject lit the way you want.

These instructions tell you how to determine when the sun will be low in the sky and the direction of light with respect to your subject. Ideally, you would take your photo during the magic hour — either a half hour before and after sunrise or sunset, but which? The answer depends on the direction in which your subject is facing and the angle of light that you seek. Further, The angle of the sun at a given location will change throughout the year.

Here are the steps to determine which days of the year will best meet your lighting specifications:

Use a compass to determine your subject’s direction

  • Align the colored end of the needle with “N”
  • Find the direction on the dial that points to your subject and note its location in degrees (usually written around the outside edge of the dial)
  • Make a note of the location.
  • For our tree example, we will assume that the compass shows its direction as 75 degrees.
  • Note that unless you have a compass that automatically adjusts for “True North”, this location is expressed in terms of “Magnetic North”.


If necessary, adjust your location for “True North”

  • This requires that you obtain the “declination” value for the area in which your subject resides
  • Click here to calculate declination. Enter a zipcode and then press “Compute!”. The declination is the first value in the table, marked with a “D”
  • Declination varies by date, which is why printed maps may show different values than you obtain with the online calculator.
  • A negative declination indicates that magnetic north is west of true north, positive values are east
  • To align your compass, you need to add the opposite of the declination value to your compass reading. Using our example in Manchester, NH, we get a declination of -15, so we add 15 to 75 and are now using 90 degrees (East) as our location.

Select the angle for the sun.

Do you want back lighting (like our tree at sunrise), direct lighting, or some angle in between?

  • Find the location where you would like the sun
  • For backlighting, its compass position will be the same as your subject (75 degrees in our example)
  • For direct lighting, add 180 degrees to the adjusted position of your subject (if the result is not between 0 and 360, then subtract 180 degrees). In the tree example, the result is 270 degrees (90 + 180)

Check sunrise/sunset forecasts

  • Be sure that the data includes the angle of rise and set with respect to “True North” (Azimuth)
  • Click here for data for the New England area. (Please send us links to data you find for other areas)
  • Check the sunrise and sunset Azimuth data for each month until you find the values that are near 90 degrees (for backlight) and 270 degrees (for direct light). Using the Manchester data, we learn that sunrise or sunset on September 24, 2003, will be “perfect” for our subject. For backlight, we would plan to arrive for sunrise (6:35 AM), or we would choose sunset (6:40 PM) for direct light.

Avoid getting too controlled by the science

  • Days immediately before and after the target will also work well
  • Check weather reports (The boating forecasts are useful for photographers) and other factors (like your personal schedule!) to refine your plan.
  • Consider tide information if your subject is at the seashore

The perfect light is very fleeting

Be sure to arrive well in advance of the “magic time” in order to be set up and ready to shoot.



How to Take HDR Photos with an iPhone


© Richard Cox

Learn how and when to use your iPhone camera’s built in HDR mode.  You don’t need to be an expert on High Dynamic Range photography to leverage this powerful feature to capture better photos. Your iPhone camera has a built-in HDR mode that will automatically produce HDR images.

Camera Settings

  • Select the “Settings” icon
  • Scroll to “Photos & Camera” on the Settings page
  • Enable the “HDR (HIGH DYNAMIC RANGE) option
  • Enable or disable the “Keep Normal Photo” option. If enabled, this will save both an HDR and a normal version of each photo. It is recommended that you enable this feature because HDR will not always produce a better photo.
  • Take photos. You will get HDR photos as long as you keep these settings.
  • Turn HDR on and off for individual photos by tapping “HDR On” or “HDR Off” on the top bar of the Camera app.

Try HDR in the following situations

  1. Closeups
  2. Outdoor shots. HDR will be particularly useful for portraits and scenes with strong lighting differences
  3. Scenes without moving subjects. HDR works by blending multiple images (normal, under-exposed, and over-exposed) so if the subject moves between these shots, the final HDR image will be blurry.
  4. Dimly lit scenes when you are not using flash. HDR is not available when using flash, so you will have to choose one or the other. HDR is the better choice when photographing a scene beyond the reach of your flash. You may also prefer result in cases where either approach would work. Try them both!

Related links

  • How to Create a High Dynamic Range Photograph

How to Photograph a Baby


© Richard Cox

Be Ready

  1. Have your camera ready at all times so that the child is comfortable with being photographed and you can capture spontaneous moments.
  2. React quickly to what the child is doing. It is unrealistic to expect very young children to sit still and pose.
  3. Identify times when the baby is at his or her happiest. These are the best times to capture a smile.

Capture the Image

  1. Get down to the baby’s level.
  2. Make the photo session fun for the baby to get the best expressions and most cooperation.
  3. Make sure that the eyes are in sharp focus.
  4. Keep the shot simple. Too many props or distracting clothing draw attention away from the baby.
  5. Try shooting the sleeping baby. These peaceful shots can be easier to take and capture the essence of the baby’s life as a newborn.
  6. Try macro shots of tiny body parts. Closeups of little hands and feet capture an important part of the baby’s story.

© Richard Cox


Process the Image

  1. Use PhotoShop or other editing software to take out distracting blotches or specs of food that don’t enhance the image.
  2. Try converting the image to black and white. This can soften the image and minimize blotches and other distractions.

How to photograph a dog


© Richard Cox


  1. Allow plenty of time for the dog to become comfortable with you.
  2. Instruct the dog owner to have the dog bathed and groomed prior to the photo shoot.
  3. Bring attention-grabbing toys to get the dog to focus on your camera when it is time to capture the photo. Surprising the pet will create an alert look that will last a few seconds. Toys that squeek are a good choice.
  4. Use treats sparingly to encourage the desired behaviors. A treat-focused dog may become unruly.
  5. Consider the use of props. Too many props can be a distraction in the composition and make it more difficult to capture the shot you want.
  6. Plan the shoot for when the dog is somewhat sleepy (either just waking or ready for a nap) when he is likely to be easier to keep still.

Photographing the dog

  1. Use natural light to avoid startling the dog with the flash of artificial lighting. Shoot one hour after sunrise or one hour before sunset to get the best available light conditions.
  2. Get down to the level of the dog to shoot at his eye level.
  3. Focus on the eyes to make sure that they are in sharp focus.
  4. Photograph the pet in positions and activities that are typical in order to capture the true character.
  5. For an alternate composition, try shooting down on the dog from a higher level, using a stairway or ladder.
  6. Try filling the frame with a portion of the pet (e.g. just the face) for a different view of the subject.

How to Create a High Dynamic Range Photograph

Learn to overcome the limits of your camera sensor’s dynamic range with HDR techniques

© Richard Cox

For any given exposure setting, your camera’s sensor is capable of capturing only a portion of the color and brightness information visible to the human eye. HDR techniques increase the amount of detail visible in a single image by merging the information gathered in multiple shots taken at different exposure settings. If your camera has a built-in HDR mode, it will typically merge two shots: one exposed for the highlights and the other exposed for the shadows. You can do HDR with any camera that allows you to change exposures and then use post processing software to merge the images. [Read more…]

How to Photograph Food

The Food

  1. Make food look shiny. Polish fruits and vegetables like apples, tomatoes, and peppers. Try coating them with a thin layer of Vaseline or spray with a mist of water. Using both techniques will cause the water to bead on the surface.
  2. Work with a food stylist or learn from their work. Study magazines and cookbooks to learn how to garnish and plate different types of food in the most appealing manner.
  3. Undercook food to preserve their color and texture in the photograph. Slow simmered stews may be more delicious, but they are generally not too photogenic. Barely cook the vegetables and just sear the meat.
  4. Mist the surface with hair spray to create the illusion of frost.
  5. Use a steamer or a microwaved sponge, tampon or cotton ball to create steam. The moisture from a steamer can be hard to control. With either method it will take practice to control the steam and time the shot for realistic results.
  6. Make it beautiful by employing non-edible arts and crafts techniques. Glue seeds and nuts onto the surface or paint in an attractive and realistic color. Note that in some types of product photography it is illegal to misrepresent the contents of the package with this type of trickery.

The Photography

  1. Use flash to augment available light. Bring light diffusers and reflectors to avoid hot spots on the subject.
  2. Mount the camera on a tripod and use a cable release or timed shot to minimize camera shake.
  3. Light hot food from the back or side and use a dark backdrop to make the steam show in the photograph.
  4. Be aware of your surroundings when working in busy kitchens. Stay out of the way as much as possible and always say “behind you” when passing behind a worker. Look for opportunities to capture some photojournalism shots of chefs in action.

How to Photograph Night Scenery


© Richard Cox

Capturing the beauty of night scenes is a challenging photographic problem due to the low levels of available light. With practice, you can master key camera settings and work out a formula that works well for your particular camera and lens combination.

[Read more…]

How to Photograph 2-D Subjects

The key to photographing two-dimensional subjects, such as works of art, is to illuminate the subject so that it is sufficiently lit with only diffuse reflections. The setup required to accomplish this goal varies depending upon its subject and its environment. [Read more…]

How to Capture Texture on a Flat Surface

Capturing the texture of a flat surface requires illuminating it so that each element of texture has both a highlight and shadow area. Dark subjects require special handling leveraging direct reflection to compensate for the lack diffuse reflection. [Read more…]