Lightning Pictures

I totally cheated and started with my favorite shot. From here, the rest will seem boring. Sorry ’bout that.

Driving home from visiting my family, we had a big lightning storm ahead of (and behind, and generally everywhere around) us. That’s pretty normal for Florida, but what was different about it was that we could actually see a lot of sky. There are enough trees and houses near our house that I’ve never been able to try lightning pictures before.
The other complication: lightning storms usually come when there’s still a lot of daylight. Even though it’s overcast from all the clouds, it’s not truly dark. The key to good lightning pictures (or getting them at all, actually) is long exposures. You can’t do a long exposure when there’s a lot of light!

So, how to do this:
for Point-and-Shoot cameras, use a “nighttime” setting.
For dSLR, put it on shutter priority, and put the shutter speed as slow as it can let you go. Lower your ISO to the lowest number (unless it’s late at night that you’re doing this, and then that doesn’t matter quite so much, but it should still be on the low end).
Prop your camera on something stable. A tripod is ideal For these pictures, I put the camera on the dashboard of our car. I like the fact that the headlights are a blur in the shot! And since my lens is so heavy, I put my lens cap under the end of the lens to prop it up, so it was looking at the sky and not at the front of the dashboard.
Then…shoot! Again and again and again! You will have a LOT of throw-aways, but hopefully eventually you’ll get lucky!
Obviously, very active storms are easier to pull off, but if you’re patient you can get something good.

If you want to experiment with cool long-exposure shots in the car (just make sure someone else is driving!), you don’t even need lightning to make a fun shot. I liked the other-world-ness of this bridge at 70mph:

A simple tip for sunny days: a cheap fix!

How many times do you take pictures in the summer, when you end up with strong shadows?

There’s an easy fix. It does involve a second person, but it’s super-easy.
Grab something like a big piece of white foamcore (a few dollars at any craft store), have someone hold it up as a shade, like this:

and then you suddenly get this:

(used “kissed by the sun” on both versions)

As it gets into spring and then summer (well, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, anyhow), this will come in handy more and more!

Have you tried this? Come show off your “after” (bonus points if you can also show off your “before”)


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Tutorial: Natural-Light Photos

What you have: any camera at all.
What you don’t want: Flash. Fluorescent lights. Yellow walls.
Ideal situation: an overcast day

Here’s what you don’t do:

  • take the picture in the kitchen. The lighting in there is always weird.
  • take a picture in the bathroom. The flash will go off. It will be ugly and unflattering, and the color will be wrong and the flash will make a big white spot on your picture and no one wants to see the toilet in the background and for heaven’s sake, just don’t do it! (not even going to take a picture of that one.)


Here’s what you do:

  • Find a friend, or use a table to set your camera on. Just about every camera out there (except maybe cell phones?) have timers. Use that if you don’t have someone to help you get the shot.
  • Stand near, but not right next to, a big window. Ideally, one that’s North-facing (South-facing for those south of the Equator). If you can’t do North-facing, just make sure you’re not standing immediately by the window. Sheer curtains can help soften the light even more, as long as they don’t have a color, because that will mess up the color the camera sees.
  • The best kind of light to shoot under is cloudy days. It’s a much more even light, and it’s like using a huge filter over the sun. It’s pretty cool! See, those overcast days are good for something!

Here’s what my setup looked like. Don’t worry if you don’t have two windows like this; the only one letting light in was the one to her right.

Take a test picture. Check it out.
If one side of your face is much lighter than the other, you can use something simple to reflect the light and make it more even.
The easiest, most available reflector: take a cookie sheet and cover it in aluminum foil. You can put it a foot or two from your face, on the opposite side of the window, to even the lighting.

Come share some samples of what you get when you try this on Charm Box Studios’ Facebook Page!

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Tutorial: Getting out of Auto Mode

You probably know someone who shoots in manual. (actually, I know you know at least one…I almost always shoot in manual!) There’s so much more you can do if you leave auto mode, but you don’t have to go directly from auto to fully manual. There are a ton of options in between.

Step one:
understand why you’re doing this.
Your camera makes pretty good guesses most of the time. It gauges white balance, light levels and shutter speed pretty well. But sometimes it just guesses WRONG. And often, it thinks it should use flash, and you just know better. So the more you learn, the more you can control those situations when your camera isn’t as smart as it thinks it is.

This was taken in automatic mode. I couldn’t choose the focal point. (no flash; it’s bright enough in the Florida sun not to need it)

Not a bad picture, but just wait to see what will happen!!

Step two:

Learn about your options.

I’m not going to focus on white balance or the photographic triangle right now. This is just about seeing what you can do when your camera is confused.
You can do several different things to give yourself more control without having to do all the thinking just yet. (it’s pretty fun to get to the point that you can set every single dial yourself, but when you’re taking pictures of kids, it’s pretty nice to let the camera do part of the work so you can just chase them!)
–the modes that most cameras now have are a great way to explore the camera’s options. —If you go to a concert or a baseball game, try sports mode. It knows things are moving quickly but won’t use flash to get the shot. Instead, it bumps the ISO to speed up the shutter speed. (if you aren’t familiar with the photographic triangle, just ignore that last sentence.) The down-side with this is that many cameras choose for you where you’ll be focusing, and you can’t override it. That may not bother you as much as it bothers me.
—the “night” mode is a slow shutter speed to get things like fireworks. You need to have it sitting on something stable, though, or you’ll get horrible blur. (ask how I know).
—“portrait mode” is good for, well, portraits. It does use flash frequently, though, which is a downfall in my book. You may end up with really washed out subjects, so I’ve rarely used this mode.

–The second direction you can do is go to the “P” mode. This still uses automatic shutter speed and aperture, but you can tell it flash or no flash, you can adjust the white balance if you want to, and you can change the ISO if you just don’t want the noise that high-ISO pictures can get. It’s a good, safe way to try to adjust things without going too crazy.

“P” mode: (I could choose the focal point and the white balance.)

The colors look better, and the focus is right on his face instead of wherever the camera decided to focus for the top one (I think the neckline of his shirt)


–A (AV on Canons) is a really fun setting. You don’t really need to understand what all the aperture does, but it’s a fun way to experiment.
(quick explanation: the smaller the number, the more blur in the background of the picture, and the shutter speed will be the quickest, which is great when your room/area is on the darker side. The higher number is good for getting a landscape-type picture, though then you’ll start getting slower shutter speeds.) This is the setting I usually leave mine on.

Aperture priority (choosing f/2.2 for my aperture, which is my favorite for shooting a picture of one person)

Look at the difference!! Check out the blurred grass!! It gives so much more emphasis to his beautiful face! 
(disclaimer: I used my 50mm f/1.8 lens. Most lenses and cameras don’t give that kind of blur for the grass. But it does still change things tremendously!)


–S is shutter speed. I don’t recommend using this one as often as A/AV. It’s good for if you want to get a “panned” look picture, like getting someone riding their bike and getting blur behind them but keeping them in focus. (warning: this is a HARD shot to get!) It’s also good for waterfalls, because if you have a tripod, you can do a longer exposure and get that beautiful soft look.

(I didn’t get one in shutter priority for him, because I wouldn’t have changed anything.)

Which mode are you going to try? Come share some samples of what you get when you try a new mode on Charm Box Studios’ Facebook Page!
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Tutorial: 10 Composition Rules

This is a guest post, by an awesome photographer, Christal Collette of Collette Photography. She decided to tackle one of the subjects I pay attention to when I take pictures, but I get bogged down when I try to explain it. So thank you for helping me through this, Christal!  She can be found all over the web:


Twitter: @CollettePhoto

Instagram: @CollettePhoto


Composition is a pretty general term. For this tutorial we’re going to focus on a few fun aspects of composition – and the quick tips to incorporating them into your photography skillset. Let’s get started.

1.       The Golden Ratio

These tips are in no particular order, although the Golden Ratio is a very key element to most photography. While the mathematical definition is pretty dense – generally speaking, the Golden Ratio indicates that there will always be a large and small section of the image. The Golden Ratio may also look similar to a spiral (see fig. 1) although almost all elements of design fall under the ratio of 2:1. For example: the painting of the Mona Lisa starts small at the head (1) and slowly fills the space of the canvas with her body (2). The Mona Lisa would be considered a 1:2 ratio (see fig. 2).

Fig. 1 Source.



Fig. 2 Source.

Snap back to the 21st century and I give you my version of the Golden Ratio.

Here I used the dock as my 1 and the lake as my 2. The boat and water add an extra element of movement which is also great for compositions sake. You will see that there is a 2nd golden ratio between the sun and the mountains/water. You can have multiple ratios in your photo.

2.       Bird’s Eye View

This one is very simple. Shoot from above the image. This photo was taken off of a walkway about two stories above the sidewalk below. This stranger rode through at the perfect moment. Oh and here’s a fun tidbit – this photo was taken with an iPhone 4S.

Remember, with the right composition and lighting almost any camera will work for you. You don’t need a fancy DSLR to create fascinating works of art.


3.       Leading Lines

I LOVE leading lines. I have so much fun finding these in my photographs. Basically the concept is to find lines that go in the same direction and create movement. They ‘lead’ your eye to a specific focal point. This is a bridge over the Otter Creek in Middlebury, VT. It’s part of the Marble Works district.

As you can see, the leading lines go both vertically on the railing and horizontally on the wooden boards of the walkway.


4.       Depth of Field and Leading Lines

To play with leading lines a little more I’d like to introduce a photo which incorporates leading lines AND depth of field. Depth of field is essentially putting one section of the photo into focus. You can focus on the closest object to your lens, or the farthest. I typically use autofocus on my Nikon DSLR. If you’re into manually focusing then simply point towards the object you would like to focus on, set your focus, and zoom out as desired.


5.       Structure and Color

If you’re more of an artistic photographer you may enjoy photographing buildings and other types of architecture. The balcony is this photo is actually where I photographed the earlier Birds Eye View photograph. In this photo you can see that I also played with elements of color. The palette of salmon, charcoal and tan mix well together alongside the leading lines of the stairs. Can you find the Golden Ratio as well?

6.       Color Pop

Another fun thing to do with color is to pull one color into a black and white photo. This pops the colorful element and is a fun and different way to showcase specific elements of the photo. I chose to focus on the color green and paired the grass with the frog on the infant’s jumper.

7.       The Rule of Thirds

Alongside the Golden Ratio is an easier composition understanding – the Rule of Thirds. This rule helps you to use the Golden Ratio but in a much simpler way. Put your focal point into 1/3rd of the image. The photo below is also a great use of white space (meaning there is a large portion of the image with nothing showing).

8.       Focus on the Eyes

There is one way to ensure that most of your photos of humans and animals will turn out correctly, if not superbly. Focus on the eyes. The eyes tell a story, they convey the emotion in the photograph when taking photos of humans, and yes … even animals! For this example we’ll use a human. The intent of this photograph is to be professional, for an author. Her eyes tell a story. What is she saying?

9.       Coordinate Color and Pattern

I’ve been lucky to have photographed families who like to coordinate their fashion. Don’t be afraid of patterns in clothing. Mix it up! This is also another good example photo of focusing on the eyes.


10.   Break all the rules!

Okay, perhaps this photo follows some of the rules, but it breaks others. The space is almost filled, leaving little Golden Ratio. The focal point isn’t too specific either. Items are in and out of focus. BUT … it’s still a great photo! The focus on the eyes breaks apart all the other necessary rules … and, well, it’s just fun. Chances are if the photo feels good to you visually then it probably is. Don’t get too hung up on rules.

Which element will you try today? Come show some of your take on these rules on Charm Box’s Facebook Fan Page!

(to see more tutorials, don’t forget to sign up for my Charm Box Studios newsletter!)

Overlays: tips and tricks

Overlays add awesome texture, grunge, color, or sparkle to pictures. But if you’re like me (in which case I’m so sorry), you might be overwhelmed, not knowing how or where to start. First up: the basics Open your photo and overlay. (for this example, I used overlays from “More Grungy Overlays“) 

Drag (or duplicate) your overlay to the photo file. Resize as necessary. The picture is no longer visible, so go to the dropdown menu (“normal” is what you see before you change anything). Unfortunately (?) there’s no one-size-fits-all as far as layer styles. It depends on the photo, the overlay, and the user. I usually just try all the options until one of them gives it the look I want. You may want to reduce the opacity if it’s just too much, but you know the overall feel is close.

You can add another overlay and repeat the process, using different layer styles, if that’s the look you want. (I seem to like 2-3 stacked overlays).


Next: tweaking it more What if there’s a funky texture on someone’s face? You could just delete the overlay where it covers the face, but if the overlay adds color, it will look pretty weird. What I typically do instead is use a gaussian blur. Using the marquis tool (“marching ants”), select the part of your overlay where it distracts from your photo. Set “feather” to about 30 px. Go up to Filter>blur>gaussian blur, and adjust the slider until it’s the look you want. Hit “okay.” (OR…use “Blur Just Here” from “Scrapper’s Toolbox” and all you have to do is select the area you want blurred out. The action does the rest of the work for you!)

Want to try this, but don’t have an overlay yet? If you sign up for my newsletter (where you’ll get tutorials every 2 weeks), you’ll get this beautiful overlay as a free download: