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In the irregular postings of photo assignment walks, today’s topic is on triangles. I went for an hour walk, looking for triangles. They are relatively easy to spot, but getting a good photo brought me back to the theme that a photo should clearly show the one idea that you are trying to present. I’ll start with a few duds and then move to the better examples.

"A" from a street sign

What do you see here, an “A” or a triangle? Due to a lifetime of training, it is harder to see the abstract shape because there is a meaning to the shape. People from an area where the alphabet does not contain this shape would have an easier time seeing the triangle.

Car wheel with triangular shapes in the wheel

Since I was looking for triangles, I saw them. Upon looking at the resulting photo though, the circle dominates.

tabgle of branches in a cottonwood

At the extreme of bad, the triangle(s) in this image completely get lost.

utility pole and power lines

This is an example that better shows the concept of “triangle”.

triangles on a concrete sound wall

These are also clear triangles in a simple composition.

At the conclusion of this walk, I might see triangles more now. While I already knew that a photo has to do a good job of conveying the idea I am presenting, this exercise really reinforced this concept. It is why I regularly ask myself, “What am I trying to show with this picture?”. I can then use the answer to choose how to compose and expose the image.



Two things recently came together: I need to raise my exercise (as most Americans do), and I want to improve my ability to see. I like going for walks, so I am taking my camera with me and applying a theme to the walk.

Today’s theme was patterns. First I had to figure out what is a pattern? I decided that a pattern is three or more repetitions of a theme. I decided that three was the minimum; you might have an argument that two is sufficient. I also think that the “theme” part is important—A pattern does not need an identical repetition, as long as the theme is clear.

I also decided that I did not want to futz with the camera, so I simply set it on P so I could focus on the pattern and not the exposure. All I did was ensure that I captured the pattern in the camera. And, I was pleasantly surprised that the camera did a reasonably good job.

In looking at the photos and doing web image searches, I think that a pattern by itself is less interesting, but can give the impression that something repeats forever. When something breaks the pattern, that draws the eye, and this makes the image more interesting to me.

Here are a few of today’s patterns. Are they clear to you? What do you think about the place where the pattern breaks? What would you do differently?

The plant does not place the areolas at exactly regular locations. Does this help or hinder?

I purposely placed the wires diagonally. I think that a hawk on the upper arm would complete the picture, but alas, none were around to assist me.

I find an interesting tension between the two holes. Does it work for you, or do you think one hole is better?

Also, the insulators have their own patterns


I recently shot sexy photos of a friend, both to increase my experience as well as to provide a favor to her. When done, I showed some other photos to her that I was in the process of editing. I also asked if she wanted a dump of camera photos now or to wait for the editing to be done. Having seen the difference between the camera version and the edited version, she chose to wait. She also pointed out that she, as well as many other women would focus on the bad photos and not even see the good ones we captured. Speaking of which, we did get several great photos of her.

Here are a pair of photos (of a different friend) showing the camera version and the edited version:

This is the image straight from the camera

This is what the image looked like when I was done editing.

I adjusted the white balance and exposure, I removed a few skin blemishes, and I removed a couple of minor wrinkles. Note that my camera is recording in RAW mode, so I have a lot of data to work with to produce a good photo. And, I’m expressing a bias here, but it never hurts when the subject is a beautiful young woman.

So, one (of many) lessons I learned from this photo shoot was that I need to edit photos and not just give them out, in spite of doing my best to get it right in the camera in the first place.

Photographing scientists and science in action in the field

One of the three foci of my photography is science in action. Scientists need good photos to convince other scientists that their research is well-done and that the topis is one worthy of study. A well-done photo can make a point much more succinctly than amny words of text (something about 1000 words? :-). Scientists also need photos to convince the public that a scientific site is worth preservation as well as the cost of the study.

As a photographer, I get several benefits:

  1. These photos are often technically challenging. Figuring out how to capture an image that accomplishes both my and the scientist’s goals is a fun challenge and I often learn a lot in the process. The result is that I become a better photographer.
  2. Sometimes the scientist’s work gets picked up by the media. I therefore gain exposure and sometimes income from having the scientist mention my name to the media.
  3. In working with the scientists, my view of the world is enriched. I get to spend time looking at something that I might have previously overlooked, and find wonder in it.
  4. Science photography has taken me to many strange places in the world, such as a cave in Mexico with deadly gasses (hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and others) and a cave in Australia with low oxygen levels. However, not all science trips are to dangerous places. I have taken science photos in the Azores, Hawaii, Australia, and other places.

An example of how my photos have been used is to illustrate the article Extreme Culture by Josie Glausiusz, in Nature, vol. 447, 21 June, 2007.

A researcher swabbing a cave wall for a microbiology project

To convince Bacillus to go into spore form, it is put in a bath of hot water.

In addition, scientists use photos for posters and talks, both to the public as well as to other scientists at meetings. Scientific granting organizations such as the National Science Foundation require that the scientists do communication of their results to the public. For example, this image was used to illustrate the idea that microbes can help produce cave formations. Note the (probably microbial) filament in the water drop.

This image was used in a scientific paper to support the idea that microbes could be involved in cave formation creation.

Scientists at universities need to recruit new students and otherwise “advertise” their lab’s accomplishments. They, reporters, or sometimes I produce media for the general public, such as magazine articles. They use your photos for illustrations and possibly even the magazine cover. My most recent magazine cover was for the scientific Journal Astrobiology.

To conclude this blog entry, taking science and science in action photos has been a good partnership for both the scientists and me. They get good photos to use to illustrate the science. I learn more about photography by solving challenging problems and get to go to interesting places throughout the world to take the photos. If you are a photographer and live near a place where research is done (universities are a great place), you might consider partnering with a scientist. If you are a scientist, you might consider talking to some photographers. In the future, I will write additional material for photographers and scientists about how to do a better job at the photography.

I would like to acknowledge my wife, Diana Northup, who is the scientist I most often work with. It is through her that I have met many of the other scientists I work with.

Soft Light

Soft light comes from a diffuse source. The classic example is an overcast day, where the light comes from everywhere and there are few, if any shadows. Other examples of soft light include studio softboxes, diffusers, and reflected light from a large surface (e.g., a ceiling). All of these need to be near the subject, otherwise they begin to act more like hard light…move an umbrella reflector away from the subject and the light becomes harder.

Shadows on an object lit with soft light have a less-defined edge, and they are not as dark. Because it does not highlight blemishes, scars, and wrinkles, soft light tends to be more flattering for people. For this reason, portraits normally use soft light, as do some glamor shots.

Here are some of my favorite soft-light shots illustrating this type of lighting.

The light on his face is bounced from the rock he is looking at, creating a light soruce that is effectively as large as the lit area of the rock.

The primary light source is a large diffuser to the right that the flash unit is lighting up.. Effectively, the size of the light source is about three by two feet . You can see that the shadows have plenty of detail in them.

This is the second in a series of blog entries about hard and soft lighting. The previous entry is Hard Light.

Hard Light

I am not the first to write about the distinction between hard and soft light. However, I recently prepared (and gave) a talk for the 2011 National Speleological Society (NSS) convention, and I learned a bit in doing the preparation for the talk. The results for this will be spread across a few blog entries to keep each one tight and on a specific topic. As I finish them, I will link them all together.

First, definitions. Hard light is light that has sharp edges to the shadows. It comes from a small light source or a large one far from the subject. Most speedlite/speedlight flash units are relatively small light sources. The sun is large, but it is far away, so it also is a hard light source, especially near noon.

Hard light is good for showing textures and fine details. This is great for photos like geological features, but few people want every last blemish and wrinkle highlighted in the photo unless it is to show character as in this example.

high-contrast image of cave pearls lit by a single hard light source

Note the texture, sharp shadow lines , and deep shadows in this high-contrast image.

Young people, such as this lovely young woman, can also take hard light because they have great skin.

Her skin is good enough that the hard light is not a problem; she has no blemishes or wrinkles.

Shadows in hard light tend to be dark with few details. The high contrast can create a moody image that can be dramatic. Film noir movies are classic examples of this type of lighting.

You can also soften hard light by using a second (and possibly more) light source. If you have no modification devices that soften the light, this approach alone might be sufficient. Position the extra light(s) so they fill the deep shadows. I normally set the second light to be about a stop darker than the primary light, but the exact ratio depends on the situation.

Cave formations lit by two light sources, the second filling in the shadows of the first

The primary light is a hard light to the upper left. A second light to the right fills in most of the shadows with a lower light level.

To summarize this blog entry, hard light comes from a small light source and produces high-contrast images with dark, well-defined shadows. Sometimes, it is exactly what you need to set the mood of an image.

The importance of getting it right in the camera

I have been in India the last several weeks on non-photography business. When I did get out to take photos, I was yet again shown the importance of spending more time when taking the image to save much more post-processing time later. Here are a pair of images (you can click on them to see a larger version):

The one on the left is the one I took. I was so focused on the woman’s face that I missed the very distracting motorcycle parked behind her. And, I had the camera set at a higher aperture to give reasonable depth-of-field, making the problem worse. The second image is what I wish I had taken. I’m not completely happy with my post-processing of the motorcycle out, so before I would really use the image, I’d need to re-do it. Overall, the result is spending much more time than it would have taken to stop, think about the picture I wanted to capture, and then getting it right in the camera. To get it right would have taken maybe five minutes. To post-process reasonably well will require an hour or few. Multiply this by several such photos, and these photos are a real time sink to make any use of.

So, the lesson is a repeat of what has been said several times before by several other photographers: Create an image, do not take a picture. The difference is the difference between a snapshot and a good photograph.