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Sunday, June 21, 2015


Anna Castle is the author of the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas mysteries. She’s earned a series of degrees and has had a corresponding series of careers—everything from waitressing to software engineerin to assistant professor to archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. Learn more about Anna and her books at her website. 

Point and Shoot: Tips for Taking Better Photographs
The more I write and the more I blog, the more I need photographs of the places where I do research for my books. A good photograph grabs potential readers on social media and might draw them toward my words. The photographs also cue my memories and the better they are, the more they help.

The good news about photography is that cameras have gotten so clever, you don’t have to do much more than point and shoot. You don’t need a bag full of lenses, filters, and little brushes for cleaning the lenses and filters. You don’t even have to remember which film speed is best for evening and which for afternoon. Most digital cameras allow you to manipulate light, focus, and depth of field if you want, but it isn’t necessary unless you’re shooting for special effects.

The camera on your phone is good enough for quickies, but I still prefer a single-purpose camera, like my Canon Powershot. Search for “compact digital cameras” and you’ll find half a dozen, most under $200. This little gadget is about the size of my phone, though three times as thick. It fits in my jacket pocket, the fanny pack (a stylish one) that I use when traveling, or an outer pocket of my purse. I bought spare batteries and memory cards, so I can take hundreds of photos when I’m traveling for book research. (Back up your photos every day!)

My little camera isn’t professional grade, but it does a great job of jitter control (aka image stabilization) and auto-focus, the two things that used to knock most of my pictures into the wastebasket. I have an astigmatism and can’t focus worth a darn. This camera has all the options, like adjusting the ISO (film speed) to take better pictures on a bright day. I’ve played with some of them, but usually I let the camera do the technical part while I focus on composition.

A word about formats: photography experts advise you to take pictures in RAW format, the highest quality your camera can produce. Those files are big; you can take 2-3 times more photos in jpeg, which is good enough for everything but professional editing or submitting to a court of law. I suggest you use jpeg and take more pics!

Fill the frame
My father was a truly gifted photographer. He had two cameras around his neck on all our wonderful trips. He taught me the first rule of amateur photography: fill the frame. Get close enough to the thing you’re shooting to see it in all its glory. The best thing about this guideline is that it’s easy to remember. You just need to be a little bolder than you might normally be.

Or zoom in, sometimes the only way to get close. The zoom function on my camera is better and easier to use than the one on my phone. This beautiful gothic goose stands high atop a building at Cambridge University.

The rule of thirds
This classic rule of composition (shown at the top of this post) applies to book covers and other artworks as well as photographs. It’s easy to understand, but takes practice to internalize. Divide your subject or visual field into three parts, both horizontally and vertically, to create a grid with nine cells. The photo of a bee comes from the  Digital Photography School online. The goal is to place the feature of main interest along one of the grid lines; that is, somewhat off center. To me this trick seems to provide a space for the observer, encouraging us to enter the frame.

I recommend going out sometime during your trip -- or even just around your hometown -- to play with your camera and experiment with this technique.

Frames and spirals
The golden spiral is a compositional term. It means look for lines that draw the eye into the world of the photograph. Water swirls, streets curve up hillsides, paths lead into woods. Framing is another device for adding depth to a photograph. This picture peeks through the keyhole in a hedge in a renaissance garden in Warwickshire.

Framing is easy enough, though it often requires backing up, violating the first rule. Find a pair of trees or gateposts for a vertical frame or frame horizontally by including a bit of the shore or a fence at the bottom of your composition. Spirals are more serendipitous. I’m still learning to keep my eyes peeled for curving lines in the landscape.

Patience, Penelope
This is the true secret to good photography: waiting for the tourists to move along, the cloud to pass, or that odd sheep to turn your way. My father used to lurk behind the group, enjoying the event, but also watching for that telling shot. It helps to have an extroverted travel partner who can chat with the tour guide or the flower seller while you drift to one side to get them into your nine-point grid. This photograph shows my mother chatting with a Zoque woman in Mexico.
Good timing might also mean getting up early to get that sweet morning light and do your streetscapes before the traffic starts rolling. I often tour a place first, to learn about it and see what catches my interest. Then I’ll go back again just to take pictures. When I went out at 6:30am in Cambridge, I kept bumping into three other people out doing the very same thing.

Finishing touches
You can take courses in Adobe Photoshop if you really want to get serious about editing. I’ve learned a few tricks, like erasing all the cigarettes from my old photos, by searching the net for “remove unwanted objects from photo.” Add the name of your software and you’ll likely find a step-by-step tutorial to do that one simple thing.

I use Photoshop Elements. All I usually do with my photographs is crop to improve the composition and apply the built-in auto-fix functions to correct color and brightness. Not even a great camera can fix a gloomy day! Cropping can help with less-than-ideal conditions, too, by reducing the amount of flat gray sky in the background. That’s my typical problem in England; in Texas, the light is always too bright.

I roam about with my camera, trying to think like my photographer protagonist, getting a little better at applying the classic rules each time out. It’s another fun way to dig into these intriguing locations that inspired me to write the stories in the first place!

Black & White & Dead All Over
When the internet service provider in a small town in Texas blackmails one client too many, murder follows. Photographer Penelope Trigg has to rattle every skeleton in every closet in Lost Hat to find the killer and keep herself out of jail.

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Angela Adams said...

Wonderful photos! I wish I had your talent (my photos usually turn out blurry).

Anna Castle said...

Angela, that's the great advantage of the modern digital point & shoot cameras! Without that auto-focus, all my pix would be blurry too. I have an astigmatism in one eye and can't focus worth a darn! But I don't have to, because the camera does.

June Shaw said...

How interesting! I'm going to try to suggestions -- and your book.