Cropping photos

•April 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Cropping – dealing with a finished image.

So: you took out your camera (or camera phone), and captured this great image, but now you want to do more with it.  That is where cropping comes into play, and it helps to know a little about this subject before you take the Portrait of Jackie with cropsphoto in the first place.  In most cases, you will find that the original image, no matter how good it may be, is usually just a starting place for the finished image.   Probably the easiest way to describe cropping is to say that it is clipping (or cutting) our original image to fit into another format. 

Most typical cameras record in a format equivalent to 4” x 6” prints, and that is why this is our most common format for prints.  When we talk about enlargements the most common sizes you will hear about are 5” x 7” and 8” x 10”.  Therefore, if we do a little bit of simple math we can figure out the 4” x 6” format would fit an 8” x 12” enlargement.  So, what are we going to do with the extra 2” when we want to create an 8” x 10” print?  The simple answer is: cropping.  Probably the most important thing for you to remember with every shot you take; is that you must leave enough room around your subject to execute a proper crop after-the-fact.  If you do all of your composition through the viewfinder, you will find it difficult to edit your images to create the photos you want later.  It is never any fun when you have to pick to crop off somebody’s head or feet, because you cropped in too close when you shot the image in the first place.  When you create the image in the first place, make sure you keep it loose enough to crop to whatever end-result you desire. 

In the example photo that I have provided here, you will see that the original leaves plenty of room around the subject for cropping.  I have drawn some outlines on the image to illustrate some potential cropping options.  You will notice that either a 5 x 7 or 8 x 10 crop can be executed without any issue.  Each crop creates a completely acceptable image without any negative effects on the subject.

One other thing to notice about this photo is the control of the depth-of-field.  It is important that whenever you shoot portraits that you control the depth-of-field carefully.  By keeping your aperture wide-open you reduce the depth-of-field and that will keep the subject in focus while the background remains out of focus.  This helps to provide separation between the subject and the background, giving your subject great definition.  It is also important to note that the closer you are to the subject the smaller the depth-of-field will be, likewise, the further you are from your subject, the greater the depth-of-field will be.  This subject and the same background look completely different in shots taken from just 6 feet further back because of the increased depth-of-field.  Therefore, when you are taking shots of a subject, you might want to consider taking several versions so you can create different effects.

 ©2012 Jeff Cowell,


Photo Composition – sub-title “I wish I could take better vacation photos”

•March 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Ok, we’ve all done it, so let’s be honest about it.  You know, the snap-shot of your grandmother with the tree branch sticking out of the sides of her head making her look like she had antlers.  You could borrow my defense and say, “hey, at least I didn’t cut her head off.”  Just imagine a show on Still-Photo Bloopers and all the contributions we could make such a show.   I’ve got one shot that immediately comes to mind; it’s of one of my cousins at a New Year’s party over 20 years ago.  Now I know that he was reaching up to straighten out his eyeglasses, but the photo looks like he’s just about to pick his nose.  I have to laugh every time I see it because I could not have caught him at a more awkward moment.  I’m still waiting for him to have children so I can send them a copy of it. 

By now, you may have caught on to the theme of this column, that being “composing your photos”, so you’ll be happy with them when you see the images.  I’m going to touch on some basic points that many people have never heard of and if you have, then maybe we’ll just remind you of them so you’ll be prepared for your next vacation.

The first point that I’d like to touch on is simplicity.  If you are trying to get a good picture of your spouse in front of the ski lodge where you spent your winter vacation, there is a lot to consider before snapping the shutter.  The building might be a beautiful structure, but if you’re standing right in front of it your spouse is going to be lost in the photo.  So instead, thing about backing off (with your spouse) so that the subject of your photo can become more about your spouse while still including the lodge in the background.  Avoid signs and cars and wires and such and try to keep your main subjects in perspective.  As you look through the view-finder be aware of everything that is going to be in the finished photo and try not to focus just on those things that you want in the photo.  If they are out there and you can see them in the viewfinder, they are going to be in the image too.  To this end, it is sometimes a good idea to turn your camera on end, and take a portrait style shot so that you can eliminate unwanted clutter from the photo.  If all else fails, do your best to make sure your subjects are focused and as clear as possible in the image and plan on having it printed with your main subjects cropped to get rid of clutter. 

The next point that is a perfect follow-up to simplicity is mergers.  Watch out!  There you are, minding your own business when you decide to get that shot of grandma walking across the yard.  You point the camera and focus it, and then you call out to grandma to get her to look up at you, and snap, you’ve got it, the perfect photo of grandma the reindeer.  Sure we many times will want to catch our subject unaware, but watch out for branches, poles, buildings, etc. that can look like they’re growing out of your subject’s head.  Sometimes these candid shots take a little forethought, so take a look around before raising the camera to your eye and you’ll still be able to get that shot, but hopefully with pretty clouds behind grandma instead of antlers.  You might also be surprised to hear that sometimes mergers can be good for your photo.  There are times when you will find that merging subjects in the background and the foreground will create a more artistic effect.  In any event; you should make an effort to try both methods to see what you can do with them.

The next case/rule in composition is the rule of thirds.  If you imagine your image is split into thirds, both horizontally and vertically you can learn to make better photos.  If you are shooting the landscape at your favorite vacation spot, try not to let the horizon run right across the middle of your photo.  This makes for boring photos in most cases and keeps you from properly expressing in the photo what it is you love about this place.  So instead, keep the horizon in the top or bottom third of your photo.  If the sky is beautiful and blue, you may want to keep the horizon low and let the sky dominate the photo.  On the other hand, if the landscape is full of colorful flowers in flowing fields of tall grass then put the horizon in the top third and allow that landscape to dominate the photo.  I think you can see where that makes sense, but how about people or buildings?  Well, if you look around at photos that you like of people (or buildings) you may discover that many of them do not have the subject in the middle of the shot.  By having your subject offset into the left or right third of the frame you can create more interesting photos that cause the viewer to look more carefully at the photo and enjoy more of what you were trying to capture.  A straight-on dead-center shot of a mountain doesn’t say nearly as much as a shot that shows how tall this mountain is compared to the surrounding landscape.  If your main subject is a person and they are standing sideways to the camera, make sure they are facing into the photo composition and not outwards to where the edge of your image will be.  This will lead the viewer into the scene, so they see what the person in the photo was seeing. 

There are a lot of discussions we could have on lines and depth-of-field, but I’ll save some of these discussion for future columns.  It is pretty easy to follow the simple rules I’ve presented here and you will see a significant improvement in your vacation pictures if you will follow them.

Copyright issues…

•February 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This morning I received an email from an associate with a disturbing link to a PDF version of a book.  Problem is, that book was somebody else’s copyright-protected material. 

My response was probably not what you would call “politically correct”, in fact, it was terse and matter-of-fact, and maybe a little too assertive for the recipient.  The bottom line on any of these issues is simple: if there is any question of legal distribution, it is best to err on the side of safety.  It really is best that anyone who is distributing anything on the Internet, be aware of copyright laws and be very careful not to violate them.  The mistaken idea that it’s free if it is on the Internet couldn’t be further from the truth.  The best bet is for you to read up on copyright laws for yourself, so you will completely understand what you are dealing with.  You can find abundant information at:, so give it a visit and get up to speed before you share anything.

Picture this: The American Dream

•August 13, 2011 • 3 Comments

Picture this: The American Dream


Have you taken any time to consider the American Dream?  In my experience, the American Dream is not a static concept so much as dynamically driven by geography and culture. Having lived in several parts of the United States, I can safely say that my sense of the American Dream has shifted from place to place, but always included the ability to enjoy wide-open spaces.  To that end, you might say that I envision the American Dream as those unalienable rights as outlined in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Therefore, if I were to comment on “my” American Dream, I might sum it up briefly by saying that it is the Liberty to enjoy my Life without encumbrance by governmental agencies, while I Pursue Happiness. 


But what is “is”?  Do I “live” and therefore have “life” just because I breathe?  Not quite: Life for me is a journey and liberty is the freedom to take the turns on that journey that are pleasing and desirable to me.  Happiness: Well that is simply being satisfied that I made my own choices along the way.  There are no guaranteed results in this “American Dream”, just an equal opportunity to turn our life into whatever we want it to be.  There is no joy that matches a wide-open space with my camera.  At the end of the day I might be tired, hot, dirty and 100 miles from home, but satisfied that I have pursued my American Dream.  But wait: That is my American Dream in Kansas, and does not necessarily have anything to do with my time in Connecticut, Kentucky, New York, or Pennsylvania etc.  I might seek out a mountain trail or beach in Connecticut and in Pennsylvania, it might be a waterfall, covered bridge, or a country farm scene.  There are many themes that I might be engaged in with different geographical areas, but the pursuit is close to the same in all places.  As a young backpacker, just seeing the sights along the way was good enough for me, but that was when I lived in a city and worked in a bigger city and spent my rush hours sitting in some serious traffic.  Today the camera is a very important part of that scenery because I want to share those sights with others. 


You might have guessed by now that my American Dream today involves having a camera handy and getting away from it all.  Kansas for instance, has many Scenic Drives that you could take over the course of a weekend and experience some of the more interesting sights and culture of our great state, and in my opinion; it is a good idea to have a camera with you.  Sure, these kinds of little excursions are very enjoyable without stopping to shoot, but the pleasure of viewing those photos repeatedly has a healing effect on the soul.  Trips like these are easy to afford in rough economic times like those we live in today, but the photographic fruits can last a long time.  Not only that, getting out of the car to really experience these locations is an important part of these trips.  Walking around at Monument Rocks or Castle Rock can be a once-in-lifetime experience, besides being the stuff that builds a rich childhood for your kids.  I do not know about you, but in my family, we spent a lot of time driving for vacations and getting out to explore everywhere we went.  That was some good stuff to remember as a kid, and it has had a permanent effect on my life.  It is also very cool to be able to share these places with your friends and family and introduce them to more of the world they live in.


After everything is said and done, it is all about getting out with your camera and enjoying the many liberties that we are blessed with as Americans. Sitting on the couch and watching your favorite shows on television may seem like a great idea for you, but once those shows are gone, they are gone. The photos that you accumulate from simple little scenic drives can provide a lifetime of fun and invigorating memories. If you enjoy activities at the lake, you will probably also enjoy the photos of those activities during the harsh winters of Kansas. I once read a book about developing memory; the author suggested that one of the best ways to preserve memories was to keep photos of those memorable moments handy, where they will be viewed often. Some of my favorite photos are hanging in my studio, and provide wallpaper for my various computer screens.


If you need some inspiration to get started on excursions (such as I have discussed here) catch up with me on Facebook or Flickr and have a look at the various galleries available. You may discover places that you never dreamed existed in and around Kansas. By the way, we do not have to show a passport at the borders between states here in the United States, so it is okay if you cross the border into one of our neighboring states and find some cool stuff to shoot there too.



You know it’s hot when…

•July 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I finally decided today that it has been too hot for too long here in Kansas.  My buddy Patrick is out of town for the weekend so I go over to water his herb garden when he’s gone.  Today I got into my truck, looked up at the temperature and said to myself “Wow, it’s only 102°”!!!  Something about that thought felt really wrong. 

Since I brought up the subject of heat; I might as well mention that your camera batteries are in peril when you are out in high temperature shooting situations, just like when you are in the extreme cold.  Make sure you have backups and do your best to keep them cool (not cold) so you can swap out the batteries when they get too hot to function properly.  If you happen to have a cooler with you and it has one of those sandwich trays in the lid, that could be a good place to hold your backup batteries.

© 2011 Jeff Cowell,

My son’s wedding in Pennsylvania

•July 11, 2011 • 1 Comment

It was an early morning trip to the airport on Friday to travel to Pennsylvania for my son’s wedding (thanks for the ride Lisa).  My travels would take me from Wichita, KS to White Plains, NY by way of a connection in Chicago.  Checking in and going through security in Wichita as very easy and quick, so I headed for my departure gate.  Upon arrival at the gate I came across my friend Darrin Hackney and we struck up a conversation.  As it turns out, he is flying on the same two flights as mine, heading to Connecticut to shoot a wedding.  While we were waiting for the plane, in walks another photographer friend Toshio Kawawa, on his way to a meeting in Cedar Rapids.  This was the first time I’ve ever traveled out of Wichita and ran into friends who were traveling on the same flight.  Timing was all great on the trip to White Plains and as I exited the Westchester County Airport my sister Sue and her husband Joe were arriving to pick me up.  Darrin was picked up by his ride just moments ahead of Sue & Joe’s arrival.

From White Plains we traveled to Creekside, PA with a little stop for lunch along the way.  All was good on the drive across Pennsylvania except for some heavy rains we hit, but they passed without incident. We struggled a little to find Luckenbach Penna where the wedding was being held, but resolved that in just a few minutes.  We found Jon and Angie after a little bit of walking around the facilities and after some greetings got down to the business of talking about the wedding.  That was followed by a dinner up the hill at High Point where we had a lot more opportunity to visit with everybody and get a lot of introductions.

Friday night was spent with Jon, Ryan, Shawn, Jimmy and Bob, building a killer fire and drinking beer into the wee hours of the morning, and in general having a good time.  But I must say that getting to bed at 3:30 made 9:00 roll around awfully early.  That’s when we got up and got to the business of getting ready for the wedding.  Jon and the boys took off to pick up some supplies for the reception while I got my gear and myself ready for the day’s work.  Somewhere around 11 I got a lift up to High Point so I could do some shooting with the girls before the services and then we went back down to Luckenbach somewhere around 1:00.  At that point the guys took over setting up the tables for the reception and I also got some shots that we needed, including some of the formals.  I must say that the folks at Luckenbach did a great job of providing a good facility for these kids.

The wedding got started pretty much on time around 3:00 and it was a nice short service (just the kind that everyone likes).  After that we took off to do some more formals at the American Legion in Indiana (that’s where Jon and Angie met).  We all had a lot of fun taking those shots and toasting (or ‘cheersing’ as some call it) to the newly married couple.  After that little trip we headed back to Luckenbach for the Reception.  There were many more photos to take when we got back and we had a very nice dinner too.  It was all-in-all an outstanding event and we all had a great time there.

Saturday night Sue, Joe and I stayed at one of the hotels in Indiana, PA before departing for White Plains on Sunday morning.  We had breakfast at the hotel and hit the road around 8:30 (giving us plenty of time for our trip).  Instead of going through Punxsutawney as we did on our arrival we opted to go through Altoona, so I could see the wind farms going in down there.  Our trip to White Plains went off without a hitch and the weather was fantastic.  We arrived early in White Plains so we went over to Harrison, NY for dinner at a restaurant we found a year ago.  Sadly Trevi was not open until 5:00, so we walked down the square until we found a nice little pizza joint.  We all had a slice of pizza and a little ice cream and enjoyed a little more time together before they dropped me off at the airport.

Let me tell you a little something about the Westchester County Airport: It is so much easier to get in and out of than any of the other New York City area airports, but the air conditioning sucks!  Ok, to be completely honest; the boarding area and the security area kinda suck too, but I’m just sayin’.  I was there plenty early and after some time found my buddy Darrin again (we were booked for the same flights again).  He and I had a lot of chat time in the boarding area since our departure was delayed for over 45 minutes. 

We got on the plane and the flight crew wasn’t real happy about the delay either since they had been waiting all that time for an arrival gate.  Although they did what they could to hasten our arrival in Chicago, we missed our connecting flight to Wichita.  And of course; it was also the last connection to Wichita.  American Airlines booked us on the first available flight in the morning and got us a good rate at the Hyatt Regency hotel.  Darrin and I shared a room so we could save a few dollars and hopefully I didn’t snore too loud all night.  We got up bright and early to get to O’Hare for our flight and spent a long time in line for security (it’s just not a good place to be on Monday morning).  Arriving at our ‘assigned’ gate early I opted to change my seat to a window seat (which was available and no hassle) and found out that we had been moved to another gate.  Darrin met me there after he stopped for a coffee and then he got his seat changed too.  The new seats were pretty handy since we were the 2nd and 3rd seats in the aircraft and were able to get out of the plane quickly in Wichita.

But the saga never ends!  We pulled back from the gate very close to being on time and just then a huge thunderstorm descended on O’Hare.  That gave us another 45 minutes on the ramp before we could get off the ground, making our trip back to Wichita all that much longer.  It was a good flight after that and we arrived without further issue at Wichita’s Mid Continent Airport at around 10:40.  Then we went to the baggage claim to retrieve Darrin’s camera bag and we had to go to the American Airlines desk to claim our luggage that arrived last night with the flight we were supposed to be on.  Finally we left the terminal and many thanks to Darrin for giving me a ride home after that amazing travel ordeal.

Wet memory cards are NOT the end of the road…

•June 14, 2011 • 2 Comments

This is old advice and many who read this will remember it once they read it here.   So whether this is a reminder or a first time learning experience for you, I hope you find it helpful.

It’s summer (at least it is here in the Northern Hemisphere) and that means many people are out taking lots of photos and carrying memory cards around with them on a regular basis.  It also means that many people will be taking part in various water-related activities, and I probably don’t need to tell you that memory cards and water don’t mix very well.  Recently I left a compact flash card in my pants pocket when those pants went through the laundry.  I found that card in the bottom of the washer as I was taking those clothes over to the dryer.  Rather than panic about the images that might be lost on that card, I simply got a small plastic bag from the kitchen and added a couple of tablespoons of rice to that bag.  I then sealed the compact flash card into the bag of rice and left it sitting on a table for the next 4 or 5 days.  The rice will draw the moisture out of the electronic device and in many cases restore it to normal operating condition.  In my case I simply plugged that compact flash into my card reader and all my images were still there.

This little trick works well with cell phones and cameras too.  In fact; it’s a great idea if you carry your camera in and out of air-conditioned places (like hotel rooms) to keep your camera in a bag of rice or shredded newspaper while it goes through that temperature change.  When you head back out of the air-conditioning into the hot and humid weather keep the camera bagged until it warms up to the outdoor temperature.  If you don’t do that the humidity outside will condense on the components inside your camera and could cause damage.  If your camera or phone gets wet from falling in the water or by getting stuck in a storm; take the battery/batteries out immediately then bag the device up and give it plenty of time to dry before you try to power it back up.  It’s also a good idea to remove the memory card and allow it to dry outside of the camera or phone.  This is really helpful for taking motorcycle trips where your camera is going to be exposed to the elements all day long with you and then chilled overnight in an air-conditioned hotel room.  Besides that; it’s not uncommon to get caught in a little rain here and there while you’re on a motorcycle trip.

©2011 Jeff Cowell,