There are many elements from which to choose when taking a photograph: format, exposure, aperture, shutter speed, band of focus and more….

As photographers, we’re always making choices. Some of them are simple, and some are more complex. When you’re creating an image, your decisions will be based on careful evaluation of what you see and of how you want to present your vision to the viewer.


The first and most basic decision you will make is whether the image should be a vertical or a horizontal. There is no right or wrong answer to this question, just your opinion about which choice will better convey what you want to show.


The next is where you should place your horizon line. The center of the image tends to be more static than any other position and, thus, can be the most restful. But try other positions. Keeping the horizon low emphasizes the sky, especially when you’re using a wide-angle lens. Keeping the horizon high emphasizes the foreground. The location of the horizon line is an active choice you can make.


Another decision you’ll make is your exposure. To review, an exposure is made when light strikes the camera’s sensor. Exposure is controlled by two factors–first, the length of time light is focused on the camera’s sensor and, second, the amount of light being used. The length of time is determined by the time the shutter is open. This camera control is known as shutter speed. In contrast, the amount of light striking the sensor is controlled by the size of the opening the light comes through. This camera control is called the aperture or F-stop. For you to make the proper exposure, these two variables must stay balanced. For example, if you make the shutter speed slower, then you must make the aperture smaller. Or, if you make the aperture larger, then you must make the shutter speed faster to maintain the balance.

However, there are times when–for artistic reasons–you might want to put that perfect exposure balance out of kilter. Should you underexpose or overexpose or shoot the scene just as the camera meter directs you? Sometimes the dramatic effect of an underexposure can be wonderful. However, if you want to keep the snow white (and not 18% gray), you want to overexpose. Selecting the proper exposure for the effect you want is probably the most confusing area for most beginning photographers.

Learning how to bracket your shots will help. Briefly, bracketing a shot means that you take three shots: one just as the meter says, one slightly overexposed, and one slightly underexposed. For example, if F11 at 1/125 is what the meter reads, then take one shot at F8 and one at F16, but KEEP YOUR SHUTTERSPEED AT 1/125 FOR ALL OF THEM.

Or, if you prefer, when the camera’s meter reads F11 at 1/125, take one image at that setting. Then take two additional shots. Keep the aperture at F11 for all of the shots but change your shutter speed. Take the second image at F11 at 1/60 and the third image at F11 at 1/250. Now you have a variety of exposures from which to choose. Whether you bracket by changing your shutter speed or by changing your aperture, you have the same selection of exposure ranges.


By picking your shutter speed, you can choose to make an adjustment in the length of time your shutter stays open to allow for motion to be recorded. You can have a very fast shutter speed and freeze everything. Or, you can leave the shutter open for a little longer and catch the motion. The feeling in each image will be entirely different. Shutter speed selection is a tool that can be used very effectively but is commonly overlooked as an active artistic choice.


The aperture, or F-stop, controls the size of the “hole” that allows light to strike the camera’s sensor. When you use a large aperture, like an F4, the depth of field (amount of sharpness from front to back) becomes narrow. Thus, you get lovely, blurry backgrounds. This effect will make a sharp subject stand out from the background. However, if you use a small aperture, like an F22, everything in the frame will be sharp. This choice is great for landscapes and wide vistas, but if you’re shooting small insects or flower edges, it might not be desirable. Aperture is just one more artistic choice you need to make.


To understand the band-of-focus choice, you need to understand that your aperture controls the depth of field, but that depth of field is a band that can be moved from the foreground to the background in the image. In the Aperture Selection choice, you learned how altering the aperture can change whether the background is blurry or sharp. The band of focus that is created by the aperture selection can be moved, depending on where you decide to locate the sharpest point of focus. You can easily see this effect by using a telephoto lens (200-300mm) and a large f-stop such as F4.

How can you use this information to your advantage? If you wanted to photograph something that was in the middle ground of the image but had an unattractive foreground or background, you could block either one by making it blurry. I frequently do this with flowers, critters, and such. Sometimes when I want soft swirls of colors, I hold a leaf or another flower against the lens when I’m shooting. The object will be completely out of focus and add softness that will transform my flower photo into something special and romantic.


The subject of your photograph can be placed anywhere you want it in the image, as long as the rest of the composition supports your selection. I don’t strictly adhere to the rule of thirds (i.e. the image should be divided into thirds by imaginary lines drawn horizontally and vertically) that says that the photographer must place the subject only where the lines intersect. I find the rule of thirds pleasing for the most part, but sometimes–for impact—the subject should be placed dead center. In fact, the subject can be situated anywhere it works and adds to the composition. One of my favorite shots is of a frog partially submerged, hugging the bottom right corner of the image. The placement of the frog in the picture breaks the rules, but it does work and, to me, that’s what matters.


We can often choose the time and climate conditions when we photograph, but when we’re traveling, that decision can be taken out of our hands. So, we need to learn to make the best images possible under all kinds of light and weather conditions. Sometimes, we’re fortunate enough to be able to shoot at sunrise/sunset, even when we’re traveling. Those are magic moments when the light emphasizes compositions by softening and changing color, and the shadows deepen. More frequently, as travelers, we find ourselves in a wonderful place at high noon and need to make the best of it. Or, perhaps the weather is rainy or foggy. Bad weather photography can have as much magic as sunrises or sunsets. Colors become richer when the sky is overcast or rainy than they are when the sun is shining. For me, the real choice is when and how to photograph what I see and feel. I don’t pay too much attention to the time of day or the weather.


Most of the most memorable photographs I’ve seen have a story to tell. The photographer managed to intrigue me and make me wonder and ponder what was going on. Learn to make your photographs say something to the viewer, even if that something is a only a simple comment such as “I never thought of it that way” or “I never saw that before” or “I wonder what’s happening or going to happen next?” Make your photograph interesting to yourself, and it will probably be interesting to others.


Motion in a photograph can tell a story like nothing else can. It can add drama, but it must be done carefully. Learning to pan (follow the movement of the subject) and slowing the shutter speed (so the motion of the subject is shown) are key choices that can add zip to an image. I always suggest learning and practicing these techniques, but they are like seasoning in a favorite recipe. A small dash is great. It adds flavor. However, a whole lot can be overkill. So, when you’re creating a slide program, including one or two of these kinds of shots would look great. More than a couple might be too much.


Having fun is a choice that photographers frequently forget. The joy of seeing and capturing an image is wonderful. It can also be the source of great frustration as you try to work out the details.

Zooming, panning, keeping your shutter slow and painting with light, or dancing and moving while the shutter is open can result in wild and wonderful images. (I tend to dance around with my camera at night when city lights are on to make the images look better and when I’m not as noticeable dancing in the dark.) Try experimenting, because I’m positive a new “freedom” will transfer over into great creativity in your images. Learning to relax, to explore and to approach your art with wonder can keep your creative juices flowing. Learn to ask the question, “What if I tried…?” Learn to play and have fun. Don’t ever be afraid to try something new or different. It just might work.

© 2000 Noella Ballenger

by Noella Ballenger

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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