Tools of the Trade: How to Get the Perfect Shot

In order for you to understand how I achieved my final results, I have to suck it up and show you my failure. In this case, it is a really bad picture of a water lily. Now, in both images, I used the same camera, Nikon d5000, and the same lens, Nikkor 55-300mm. But what I did to correct photos number one and two is worth mentioning.

In this first image, I used Aperture Priority, F4.5 (the largest aperture that lens will do) and stood directly overhead at the minimum distance the camera would focus. As you can see, the petals are blurry, and the shadow inside the blossom is heavy, making the lighted area too bright.

The blurriness is the result of shallow depth of field. At F4.5, only the very center of the blossom is in focus, and frankly, the blurry petals are distracting to the image. Using that lens, I can't get any closer, so I knew I needed my first correction tool. I opted for one of two circular close-up lenses I own. This one is a 5T. With this additional lens attached, I dropped the distance between the lens and the flower considerably. Better. I could see the stamens now.

However, there was still the issue of the shallow depth of field. I corrected that using a smaller aperture - F16. At F16, I virtually eliminated the blurry petals. Now, I want to stop and say I use a small aperture on macro photographs A LOT because the closer you try to go, the more magnification you try to give an object, the less focal distance you will have. This is camera 101 and one of the best tools of the trade to remember. It's simply a matter of turning your dial. I typically start with a midrange aperture, like F8, then work my way up (up, meaning smaller).

Of course, you have to take lighting into consideration when you do that. If it's a low light area, then add ISO to the mix and you'll have a better shutter speed. Always know what shutter speed you can hand-hold a photo at. For me, it's about 1/15 before the shake is too bad. Knowing this, I can adjust my ISO and aperture to fit the lighting for most subjects. But in today's photograph of the water lily, that wasn't necessary because the sun was directly overhead.

Which brings me to lighting. At one o'clock in the afternoon, the flower is at its peak. If I wait later in the day, it will be closed. That makes waiting for a better lighting time-of-day not possible. So what are my options then? Out comes another tool. A circular white/gold diffuser. This handy little device folds up into a zip case that fits right in my case when I'm not using it.

Truthfully, I don't use it that often, but in situations like today's flower, it's optimal. It has two possible uses; one is to redirect the light on an object. By holding it at a certain angle, I can shift the light where I want it - in this case, onto the center of the flower. Both the gold side and the white side will do this, but I typically prefer the warmer gold side. This gave me my next example (above). (I also increased my aperture to F22, the smallest I could get for additional detail.)

I have to warn you that holding a diffuser while balancing a camera AND hitting the shutter button often takes great dexterity and sometimes funny positioning of yourself. It's helpful to have a second person, but then sometimes that means yelling at them because they aren't in the right spot. I only had myself for this photo shoot, so I had to make do.

I loved the result. The colors were bright. The center was clear and warm. But I knew I had yet one more option. For the photo above, I used the diffuser to do just that, diffuse the light. This is equal to the lighting on a cloudy day. (Here's a fun cheap idea. If you don't own a diffuser, use white tissue paper.) I positioned the circle to block the direct sunlight. Then, using the same F22 aperture with the Nikon close-up lens, I aimed. Except now my shutter speed is too slow for such a close focal distance. So I altered my ISO to 400 and tried again. Perfect. The shadows are gone, the petals are all crisp, and the center of the flower has nice detail.

All the photo needed after this was my final tool of the trade, Photoshop. Now, I caution you against doing too much photo correction. I always photograph in RAW, so I have to use something to convert files. But any corrections I make are typically very minor. In this case, I did something I picked up in a photography magazine. I used Unsharp Mask to add a little contrast with the following settings: Amount 20, Radius 50, Threshold 1.

This gave me the result in the last image. Had I not known how to adjust what I was using, however, I would never have been able to achieve it.

Good photography is the result of knowledge learned and applied and sometimes a little manipulation, but the final goal should always be what's best for the image, for the environment you are in, and for those around you. That makes it far more enjoyable, and you come away with something you want to look at again and not throw in a drawer.

Suzanne Williams | Blog

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.