Como Conservatory photo safari

I’ve been in a bit of a photographic slump lately. So when my friend Jane asked for help with her new camera, I felt like an utter fraud in suggesting a photo safari.

I didn’t expect to shoot much when we met up at the Como Conservatory in St. Paul last Saturday: My purpose was to help Jane get comfortable with her camera, and maybe offer a pointer or two.

But to my surprise, helping Jane figure out her camera rekindled my enthusiasm for my own. Before I knew it I’d shot more than 100 frames. Here are a few, along with some of the tips I gave Jane last weekend.

Tip 1: Use your fill flash. Using your flash on a sunny day may seem silly, but it can greatly improve your portraits—or bring out more detail in a dark subject, like this statue.

Tip 2: Remember the Rule of Thirds. Yes, even when you’re shooting abstracts and patterns.

Tip 3: Blur the background. Blurring the background is a great way to put your subject “front and center.” Unfortunately, you usually need a “fast” lens with a really big maximum aperture to get this effect. But you can also fake it with a telephoto lens of at least 250 mm. Simply step far away from your subject and zoom in. The more you zoom in, the narrower the focal range.

Tip 4: Include people in your shots. I used to wait patiently for everyone to leave a scene. These days, I’m more likely to wait patiently for someone to enter my shot. Including a person in a scene can add context about the time/place and a sense of scale.

Tip 5: Get close. Although you probably need a macro lens (or a macro setting on your camera) to get microscope-worthy close-ups, try photographing a subject’s detail every now and then.

Tip 6: Go wide. Because nothing gives a sense of place like a nice wide-angle shot. (Or even an in-between shot!)

Tip 7: Shoot through something. Look for opportunities to “frame” your subject. Wish I’d noticed that this railing wasn’t quite perfectly centered, but I still like the overall effect.

Bonus tip: Have fun! If you have the time and inclination, play around with your photos. Here’s a poster I made using Mike Warren’s “Polaroid poster” Photoshop action.

Can’t get enough photography? If you liked this post, you may also be interested in how to buy a digital camera.


  1. It’s GREAT to see you getting your photography mojo back! Beautiful, beautiful shots. And thank you so much for the tips, which I badly need – I’d never figured out that one about using flash, for example. Cheers m’dear!

    • Thanks so much, DB! I feel like I’m waking up again, after a long slumber. Just in time for my next trip, too! And you’re a fine photog in your own right, but i’m glad you found some of the tips helpful. Cheers from Minnesota!

  2. Thanks for the tips, and the inspiring images to illustrate them. I’ve been in a photographic slump for the last two years and despite my efforts to climb out of it I find myself incapable of taking photographs that impress me. But I live in hope. 🙂

    • You must have very high standards for your images, Xpat, because they certainly do impress ME! And although I feel a bit hypocritical saying this, don’t give up hope. Your muse *will* come back! Perhaps coaching a beginner might have the same effect on you that it did on me. My friend’s enthusiasm at learning some of the techniques I taught her was contagious. Hope this note finds you well. I’ve missed seeing you online. 🙂

      • That’s very kind of you, but the fact is that I have been living mainly on my “savings” (old photos) for the last couple of years. Today’s upload, for example, was taken in August 09. The last time I felt inspired was when I was in Barcelona, two years ago. I can only hope that my mojo returns when we go to Europe later this year. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can Shanghai a beginner. 🙂

        • No worries about living off your “savings” for a while, Xpat … at least you have some, and they’re superb! And I’d say the same (no worries) about you photo mojo. It WILL come back. I can assert this with some authority, having just been through a two-year dry spell myself that I was convinced would never end. In fact, I suspect you’ll come back better than ever. I’m already looking forward to your Europe travelogues! in the meantime, good luck with your Shanghaid beginner! 🙂

  3. H!!! Great photos!!! So glad you found a bit of inspiration… (I am also finding myself in a slump!!! 😦 )… Stunning photos – great tips!!!! Lovely post!!! 🙂 **

    • Hello, Xandré! This photography slump thing seems to be a global contagion. Even my friends in Paris report being a bit uninspired at the moment! But don’t worry … your muse will come back. (And I can say this with all honesty, after more than a YEAR of feeling creatively washed-up!) For what it’s worth, I — and many others — think your images are just lovely. So keep shooting!

  4. Hiya, thanks for the tips, particularly the blured background one, I’ve managed to take a couple of shots with my point and shoot with blurred backgrounds but hadn’t worked out how I did it. 🙂
    I’m guessing it was the zoom with the auto focus on the subject, will try it again. Thanks. 🙂

    • Yay! I’m so glad I could provide a useful bit of information. (Because nothing is so annoying as doing something with your camera, liking the effect, but not being able to duplicate it! 🙂 Cheers, Sallyann!

  5. Another reminder of why I need to one day get a real camera! Glad you managed to rekindle the shutterbug spark…here’s to more inspiration in the future!

    • I’ll toast to that! No need to invest in a “real” camera, tho. I know of at least one journalist who has chronicled an entire cross-country journey on his iPhone. And as I always say, “the best camera in the world is the one you have with you.” See you soon! 🙂

  6. As usual, very nice. Hate all the rules. It’s in your gut. I always tell shooters to look at the frame, not through the frame. In this age of digital that is easier for individuals to grasp.
    I find the people in the frame aspect disturbing unless they are part of the story.

    • You hate all the rules? Well, you’ve always been a bit of a rebel, haven’t ya? Maybe I should have introduced them as “guidelines” instead.

  7. Ahhh I need a macro lens like a fat kid needs a lap-band (ok maybe a diet is better because I DO actually need one). Thoughts for a Nikon?

    My fav is the pink flowers. First example of blurred background. I have a few pics coming up in two weeks or so, would love some input.

    • “I need a macro lens like a fat kid needs a lap-band”? HAA! Well … don’t mean to tempt ya, but if I had a Nikon set-up, this is the one I’d pick: It has a 1:1 ration, with a minimum focusing distance of about six inches. Six inches!! in my day, we used to call that a “microscope.” 🙂

      And I’ll keep an eye out for your pics. I’m always happy to share my thoughts, for what little they’re worth. (Grin.)

      Oh, and in case you haven’t seen it already, I thought of you when I ran across the stuffed raccoon •again• in Paris last November. It’s about halfway down this post:

      Anyway, great to hear from you!

      • “Six inches!! in my day, we used to call that a microscope.”

        Soooo many things to reply with. I can’t choose.

        I wants that lens but it’s almost as much as I paid for the camera! Grrrrr where’s my raise and bonus?

        • GAAAAHHH!! I don’t know how the “six inches” bit got past me. LOL over here. But please send me an email with your replies. Please?!

          And yeah, I feel your pain about the cost of lenses, but good glass is worth twice its weight in gold. I’ll keep my toes crossed that you’ll get a raise *and* a big bonus. (I’d cross my fingers, but I need ’em for typing unintentionally suggestive comment replies.)

  8. In my day six inches seemed respectable & more than adequate, but then the internet came along showing all the other guys’ equipment…and now I’m not so sure. 😦

    (My apologies – apparently I don’t have the self restraint of, say, a kluckmeister :))

    • Oh, man … umm … [blushing to roughly the color of a ripe beet] … I think six inches is *very* respectable. Though I’ll admit I haven’t checked out much of the equipment on the Internet. Grin.

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