One Photo, Lots of Photo Tips

Here's one of my favorite photographs from my 2017 rural China photo workshop. I thought it would be kind of fun to see how many tips I could give for this portrait. For those going on my 2019 China workshop with my friend Scott Kelby, you will be able to put these tips to good use. You may even meet this woman!

First, my 11 tips. After that, my friend Fernando Santos, who will be on the 2019 China workshop, offers three more tips.

Let's go!

1) Photograph at the subject's eye level. When you see eye-to-eye and shoot eye-to-eye, the person looking at your photograph can relate more to the subject than if you are photographing above or below eye level.

2) See the light. Notice the almost Rembrandt-style lighting (side light with a triangle of light under the eye on the shadow side of the subject's face). That did not happen by accident. I moved around the subject, and moved the woman and her loom into position to achieve that effect. So, the idea here is this: Make a picture, just don't take a picture.

3) Separate the subject from the background. See how the woman's face, the most important part of this photograph, is separated from the wooden wall background. Yes, the background was darker, but I darkened it a bit more in Photoshop using the Burn tool. My friend Fernando Santos would have created the same effect in Lightroom. Right, Fernando?

From Fernando: Absolutely Rick! You could use Lightroom adjustment brush and paint over the background to adjust the exposure. I would start by pushing the exposure all the way to the left, then set the feather to the maximum, adjust the flow to 10% or so, and slowly build the effect. You can press the letter O to turn the overlay on and off, so that you can see where you have painted. Finally you can pull the exposure a bit to the right in case you went too dark. Because Lightroom is non-destructive, if you’re not happy, you can always go back to where you were. 😊

4) Shoot at an angle. We see the world in three dimensions. Our cameras sees only in two. To add a sense of depth to this picture, I photographed at an angle.

5) Look for gesture. It's the position of this woman's hands that adds a sense of movement to the photograph. I took other shots, but in those shots her hands looked static. Gesture is important in all people photography. 

6) Get it all in focus - if you want. For environmental portraits like this one, I used a wide-angle lens set at a small aperture - which offers good depth-of-field. For head-and-shoulder portraits, I usually do the opposite and use a longer lens at a wider aperture.

7) Watch the background. To add just a touch of light, and a bit of depth to the scene, we opened the door behind the subject to let in a little bit of light. Cover the light with your hand and see how it changes the photograph. Hey! You may like that version better. Photography, like all art, is subjective.

8) Don't be afraid to boost your ISO. I took this hand-held photograph in low light, where noise usually appears at high ISO settings. My ISO was 4000. Yes, I had a bit of noise in my photograph, but I reduced it in Adobe Camera RAW. I could have shot at a lower ISO if I had used a tripod, but I wanted mobility during the shoot. Plus, a tripod can be intimidating when photographing strangers. Of course, the faster the lens (the wider the maximum aperture) the lower the ISO at which you can shoot.

9) Envision the end result. The last thing you want to do when photographing a stranger is to overstay your welcome. If you plan your photograph in advance, you can move in and shoot fast. That is especially important when you are on a workshop with other photographers.

10) Be a show off. After you take a picture, show it to the person, and ask them if they would like a copy. In rural China, our guides Andy and Mia Beales know the villagers, and helped us share some of our photographs via email.

11) Get Close. The closer you are to a subject, the more intimate the photograph becomes. For environmental portraits like this one, try using a wide-angle lens for up-close-and-personal photographs.

• • • • •

And now it's Fernando's turn for some tips!

Make three or four different shots of the same scene. Shooting a scene with such an interesting subject is awesome, but you may want to shot it in 3 or 4 different ways, and I’m not talking different gestures. Make a great photograph of your subject using all the tips Rick gave you. Now make one other photograph with a wide lens, and get the subject into his environment. Show your viewers all the ambience around him/her to get the context. Make a third shot: details. Maybe you can do a close up of the hands at work, or a close up of the work itself. One last shot, depending on the action itself: maybe you want to use a slow shutter speed to give the sense of motion, speed, etc. You should practice different shutter speeds in advance so that you know if you will need 1/60s, 1/10s, 1 second, etc.

Warm up the scene. If your light source is not too warm, you may want to adjust your White Balance warming it. Most people look nicer with a warmer tone, and many interior scenes look better too. Some scenes call for a cooler white balance. Remember you can easily adjust most of the scene to your preference and then use the adjustment brush in Lightroom (or in Photoshop using ACR) and paint a warmer or cooler tone in just certain parts.

Master your gear easily. This is a long tip but can be very important in many situations. You need to know your gear. However, sometimes a scene requires very quick adjustments. Let’s say you wanted to photograph this same woman just like Rick did, but you also wanted a shot to show all the interior and you needed to go the HDR way and bracketing the scene. For example on my Canon 5D Mk IV, I would need to change the drive mode from “Single Shooting” to “High Speed Continuous.” Then I would need to go into Exposure bracketing and adjust to shoot for example 3 exposures: 1 underexposed, one correctly exposed, and one over exposed.

If you know your camera you can do this relatively fast, but there is a much better way. Plan in advance! Your camera probably has “Custom shooting mode.” My Canon has C1, C2, and C3. What I do it this: I setup my camera as I usually shoot. Most of the time I shoot in Av mode (aperture priority). Then I configure it for example for my HDR settings. I go into the menu, setup my HDR settings as “Custom Mode 1”. When I need to change fast, I just move the dial from Av to C1, I do my HDR shoot, then I revert back to Av. It is that easy. You don’t forget a setting and you change from one mode to the other really fast. Think how to use these Custom modes for other quick changes you may need. Again, plan in advance.

• • • • •

Thank you Fernando!

Learn more in my KelbyOne classes. Good fun. Good info!

Explore the light,

P.S. Here's a behind-the-scenes shot of me making the photograph. From this angle, the lighting sucks. The end-result image shows the importance of making a picture.

One Photo – 14 Photo Tips

Rick Sammon 13.jpg

Here's a favorite photo from one of my China photo workshops. I thought it would be fun to see how many tips I could give for this one photo. My original post had 12 tips, but my friend Fernando Santos added two more good tips after reading the post. Here goes:

1) Get a Good Guide. My guides, Andy and Mia Beales, chose the location and time of day (predawn) for a picture-perfect scene.

2) Seek Separation. Notice how the two cormorant fishermen are perfectly separated. That's not by accident. We directed the fishermen into that position. Learn more about composition in my KelbyOne class, 20 Time-Proven Rules of Composition.

2) Frame It! Framing a subject in a scene helps that subject to stand out. On shore, I chose a position that showed the fisherman in the foreground framed by brighter background light.

3) Include the Background. The mountains in the background add a "sense of place" to the scene. Cover the mountains with your hand and see how it changes the "sense of place" of the picture.

4) Go for Gesture. Gesture is important in people photography, as well as in animal photography. Notice the gesture of the foreground fisherman's hand, and see how the background fisherman is holding his arms. Again, we directed the fishermen, as a movie director would direct his actors.

5) Crop Creatively - The areas above, below, and to the left and right of this scene did not add anything to the impact of this image. Cropping creatively was the answer to making a more interesting photograph.

6) Mood Matters Most - Taken in the predawn light, my original file (Canon 5D Mark IV) had a blue-grey cast. To enhance the mood of the scene, I boosted the blues.

7) Include Reflections - When you have a good reflection, include it in the scene. Had I cut off the top of the foreground fisherman's head reflected in the water, the picture would look as though it was missing something.

8) Expose for the Highlights - Activate your camera's highlight alert and make sure you have no "blinkies," which indicate overexposed areas in a scene. If you get "blinkies," reduce your exposure, bit by bit, until they are gone. Here I was shooting on the Av mode and set my exposure compensation to -1 EV.

9) Get it all in focus - This photograph looks like the scene looked to my eyes - everything in focus. Choose an aperture that will get everything in focus, if you want that effect. Here: Canon 24-70mm f/4 lens set at f/7.1 Focal length was set at 45mm.

10) Don't Be Afraid of Noise – Photographing in low light at high ISO settings usually means that you'll get a bit of noise in your photographs. Fear not, you can reduce noise in Photoshop, Lightroom and with plug-ins.

11) Envision the End Result - Before you shoot, envision the end result - in-camera and in the digital darkroom. I talk about that in my book, Creative Visualization.

12) Compose Using the Rule of Thirds - Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over a frame and place the main subject where the lines intersect, as they would for the foreground fisherman.

And from Fernando:

13) Add a small vignette: it helps to focus on your subject and frames the whole picture in a better way. As with most things, it should be a small one, so that it look natural.
14) Another tip that works beautifully in this situation: use contrasting colors. Those beautiful blues go very well with the orange on the sky.

See more of my rural China images, and get more tips, in my KelbyOne class on travel photography.

And you'll find even more tips in this article on How to Get the Best In-Camera Image.

Explore the light,

10 copy.jpg

P.S. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at our predawn photo shoot. Good fun and great pictures was had by all. Click here to see all my 2019 workshops.

Photo Tips for the Trip of a Lifetime – Antarctica with A&K

Photo Tips for the Trip of a Lifetime – Antarctica with A&K

The ultimate adventure for travel photographers (and world travelers) is only a few months away: the December 19, 2016 to January 4, 2017 Abercrombie & Kent voyage to Antarctica, South Georgia and Falkland Islands – aboard the beautiful and spacious M/V Le Boreal.

Read More

12 Tips for Writing a How-to Book

Have you ever wanted to write a how-to book? Need some advice? Well, you've come to the right place my friend!

Here are the tips that I have followed while writing my 38 books, one of my favorites being my latest book which I co-authored with my wife Susan, The Route 66 Photo Road Trip - How to eat, stay, play and shoot like a pro.

I also following these tips when writing e-books.

These tips apply to writing all types of how-to books, not only photography and photography/travel books.

1 – Study and know your subject - inside and out. Old saying: If you want to become an expert on something, write a book about it. Hey! you can even write your own e-book on the subject, which is relatively easy these days.

As well as you may know a subject, hire (or have the publisher hire) a technical editor. He or she will probably catch stuff you miss and mistakes you make.

2 – Know where you are going. Before you start, have a detailed outline (which may change). If you don’t know where you are going, how are you going to get there?

3 – Respect the reader. This might be the most important tip. When writing each sentence, respect the reader. Remember, you are not writing the book for yourself, you are writing it for the reader. When writing your book, keep reviews in mind. You want as many 5-star ratings as possible, and you have a better chance of getting those rating if you respect the reader and do you very, very best.

Speaking of reviews, totally disregard 1-star rating. They are posted by people who have a chip on their shoulder - and who hide behind fake names.

4 – Leave no question unanswered. Don’t leave the reader asking asking the question: Why did the author not complete that line of thought? Go the extra mile when talking about a topic.

5 – Know your competition. Go on-line and see what other authors are doing on the same subject. Ask yourself: How can I make my book, better/different . . . the best?

6 – Have more material than you think you need. You need a lot of material to write a how-to book: photos, illustrations and text. In planning your book, plan on having more material than you think you need.

7 – Make it easy and fun for the publisher/editor to work with you. Be flexible. I am not the best photographer or author on the planet, but I do pride myself on being perhaps one of the easiest when it comes to working together.


8 – Give your editor specific instructions. For example, when I submit photographs, I tell my editor: "Crop my pictures and you're a dead man!" After which I add this symbol:  :-)

9 - Plan ahead. Never miss a deadline. Give yourself plenty of time to write . . .  and edit and rewrite and rewrite and edit, etc. Remember: Dates in your rear view mirror are closer than you think.


10 - Let your personality show/shine though. In reality, many other authors know what you know. What makes your book different? Your personality, your style. Write like you talk and don’t try to write too fancy. Tell a few (just a few) jokes and personal stories. Let people get to know you.

11 - Have fun! If you are not having fun writing your book, that will probably come though to your audience. Even if you are not having fun, write as though you are having fun. As I tell folks at book signings: "It's sometimes not fun writing a book, but it's always fun autographing one!"

12 – PR your book. After your book is completed, it’s really up to you to promote the book, though social media and on your web site. You are the best PR agent your book can have. Get your friends to help you promote your book, too.

When I talk about writing a book to potential authors, I share these three quotes:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. – Ernest Hemingway

Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. – Mark Twain

I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done. - Steven Wright

Good luck  writing your how-to book!

Here is a link to my other how-to books on

Finally, these same basic tips apply for producing on-line classes. Click here to read about the classes that I have produced. Again, the main element: respect the audience.