How Do I Make My Photos Look Awesome (part III)

Understanding ISO

In it's simplest form, ISO refers to a number which represents how sensitive your camera's sensor is to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive it is and consequently the darker the image will be. The greater the number, the more sensitive the camera is and the brighter the image will be. This comes at the cost of noise, however. 

Noise is that annoying static looking stuff that appears on your photos. It can be removed with software light Lightroom or Photoshop, but ideally you should be trying to control your ISO settings so that you don't have to. 


An example of differing ISO settings, and how they effect an image

An example of differing ISO settings, and how they effect an image


Shouldn't I just leave my ISO as low as possible all the time?

No, of course not. There will be circumstances when you will need to bump up your ISO, knowing full well it will cost noise in your image. The goal is to try and put together an aperture and shutter speed appropriate enough so that you don't need to raise your ISO too high. 

When Should I use a low ISO vs a high ISO?

There are some general guidelines to changing your ISO settings, depending on your lighting conditions.

  1. If it's sunny, try to keep you ISO as low as your camera allows. Usually this is 100

  2. If it's cloudy or partly cloudy, try using an ISO setting of around 200

  3. If it's completely cloudy or stormy, try using an ISO setting of around 400

  4. If you are shooting in low light, like indoors of a house, try using an ISO setting of around 800

  5. You get the idea....

Hopefully that should give you an idea of how you step up the ISO settings progressively as it gets darker. Keep in mind that the higher the ISO, the greater the noise. A good way to think of what ISO controls is to think of ISO controlling the fill light in the image. 

FIll light would be the light that falls into the shadows, but doesn't go completely dark. If your image is coming out with really dark shadows and really bright highlights, try raising your ISO.

Understanding Shutter Speed

Understanding Shutter Speed

There is a mechanical component in cameras called the shutter. It's like a little window that opens and closes when you press the shutter button on your camera. It's function, is to allow a certain amount of light into the camera based on time. 

Shutter settings are represented in time. For example, you could have a 15" (15 second) shutter speed or a 1/160 (160th of 1 second) shutter speed. 

What effect does shutter speed have on my photos?

Shutter speed will have two main functions to your photographs.

  1. Change the amount of light coming into the camera, based in time.
  2.  Add motion blur, or freeze moving objects in place

A slow shutter speed and a fast shutter speed depends on your subject.  If your subject is a really fast moving bird, you're going to want to shoot at a high shutter speed. The reason being is that you will likely want to capture the bird in flight, which is a very fast motion. A fast shutter speed will freeze the birds motions in place, and not create and blurriness. 

Ask yourself what your desired final result is

Ask yourself what your desired final result is


Ever get those shaky looking photos? That's from a slow shutter speed. Sometimes a slow shutter speed is desired, and other times it is a necessity. 

For example, you may wish to use a slow shutter speed to intentionally show motion in your subject. If you're like me, then maybe you want to show motion in water by shooting at a slower shutter speed.

No Photshop required! This effect is achieved in camera by slowing the shutter speed down

No Photshop required! This effect is achieved in camera by slowing the shutter speed down


In other cases, you may be required to use a slow shutter speed by seconds. This is called a long exposure and is used when you are photographing of the stars. If you are going to be shooting at a slow shutter speed, you absolutely must have your camera on a tripod, and preferably shooting with a wireless trigger. This is because any slight movement in the camera, even your finger gently pushing on the shutter button, can cause a slight movement which will be evident in the final photograph. 


  • Shutter speed controls the amount of light coming into the camera, based in time
  • A slow shutter speed will allow more light to come into the camera
  • A fast shutter speed will allow less light to come into the camera
  • Shutter speed is represented in fractions of a second - 1/160 = 160th of 1 second
  • Want to freeze a splash of water so that you can clearly see every single droplet? Use a fast shutter speed.
  • Want to shoot the stars, or write your name with a sparkler? Use a slow shutter speed

How Do I Make My Photos Look Awesome?

Understanding Aperture

A lot of people ask me to explain how to take better photos. I'll attempt to cover core aspects to taking great photos in a few separate posts.  

Whether you're using a GoPro, iPhone, or a DSLR - you need to know what the difference is between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These three core components all control the amount of light coming into the camera, and are essential to understanding how to manually control your camera.  The key is to understand what you want your photograph to look like in the end, and then balance out these 3 items to achieve your goal. 

What is Aperture?

Aperture is a mechanical component of the lens, which either opens or closes to let more or less light in, respectively. It works just like the pupil of your eye. There are two primary functions of the aperture. 

1. Let more or less light in, depending on how open or closed the mechanism is.

2. Change the depth of field


Regardless of your camera, aperture is represented by a number. These numbers are called f/stops. The f/stop number tells you how open or closed the aperture is. Some lenses, like the ones on cell phones and most consumer drones, have fixed apertures. This means that they do not have the capability of opening or closing. The picture below illustrates how different f/stop numbers correlate to the size of the aperture on the lens. The larger the number, the smaller the aperture will be. The smaller the number, the larger the aperture will be. It's a bit counterintuitive, but you'll get used to it. 

Aperture, showing largest to smallest (left to right)

Aperture, showing largest to smallest (left to right)

I mentioned before that the aperture works the same way as our pupils do. When someone shines a very bright light into your eyes, or you're out in direct sunlight, your pupils constrict. Your pupils would be somewhere on the right hand side of the above image. Your pupils constrict in order to prevent too much light from entering into your eye. If you are in a dimly lit restaurant, your pupils will dilate in order to allow more light into your eye. The aperture has the same function. A f/stop of 1.4 for example, will allow a lot of light in. A f/stop of 22 will allow a very small amount of light through. 

But wait! There's more!

Aperture's other function, aside from changing the amount of light that comes into the camera, is to change the depth of field.  The smaller the f/stop (f/22), the larger the depth of field will be. The larger the f/stop (f1.4), the shallower the depth of field will be.



What is depth of field?

Depth of field refers to the nearest and farthest points of a subject that remain in focus. The image below best illustrates what effect aperture has on your photograph. 

A narrow, or shallow depth of field, means that there will be a large portion of your photograph that will appear blurry or out of focus. A shallow depth of field is generally used in portraits. A large depth of field is usually used in landscapes. This is important to take into consideration, because you may want or need a wide depth of field. 


  • Aperture controls the amount of light that comes into the camera
  • Aperture is mechanical component of the lens, not the camera
  • Aperture also changes the depth of field
  • f/1.4 allows a lot of light in, and creates a shallow depth of field
  • f/22 allows very little light in, and creates a large depth of field


A few years ago, two of my friends announced that they were moving to Thailand to teach English. Although neither of them had any teaching or language qualifications, they were well received for the job. Having native English speakers is a hot commodity in the local schools of Thailand. 

We kept in touch and they would always make a point to tell me how beautiful the country was. They also insisted that I come visit them as soon as possible. Eventually I made my way out there, and my only regret was that I stayed for only one week. It was everything I could have expected and more.

The flight out there was a bit challenging, but worth it. 16 hour flight from NYC to Guangzhou, China. 6 hour layover, then a 3 hour flight into Phuket, Thailand. It ended up being 26 hours when everything was done and said. It was an amazing feeling to see my friends standing there at the passenger pickup, all the way on the other side of the world. We had no way of communicating and I was entirely relying on them tracking my flight. 

It was very late when I arrived in Phuket, so I couldn't really tell what anything looked like. I was so excited to have made it, and with all my camera gear and quad-copter intact. (pic of us in the car).

The next day I got up early and watched the sun rise. The place we were situated on was right on the water. When I say right on the water, I mean the water came up to some stone steps which lead into our courtyard. The very first thing I noticed is how blindly bright it was at 7am. Everything appeared grey - no blue sky, no blue ocean. There was a thick haze in the sky that never quite seemed to lift. I sat by the outdoor bar and had an espresso while I soaked in the tropical sun. 

What I found out from my time there:

  • one week is not sufficient time to explore the area

  • there are literally hundreds of islands to visit. some inhabited with resorts and activities, some completely untouched

  • don't drive a car

  • do drive a motorbike

  • there are monkeys in those jungles

  • there are waterfalls to explore, but only in the wet season

  • there are jungles to explore, but probably not in the wet season

  • there are lots of elephants

  • there are lots of stray dogs. there are seriously a lot of stray dogs. they target people and sometimes "hunt" in packs.

  • Not a lot of Americans in Phuket, but a decent amount of Europeans and Australians. Lots of Chinese too.


Puerto Rico {part II}

Lesson learned.

Go to Puerto Rico to surf. 

When I came to the realization that I was missing out on amazing surf, I caught a cab back to the airport to rent a car. Through a series of "unfortunate mistakes" on their part, I ended up with  2014 Jeep Wrangler - at the economy price. They insisted on cleaning the Jeep from top to bottom, not matter how many times I explained that I would be getting it absolutely filthy.  I drove off in my shiny white Wrangler and picked up a longboard at the local surf shop down the road.

It fits

It fits

There was an incoming swell over the next 3 days, and I was stoked to have the transportation and board to enjoy it. Straight from the surf shop, I drove down to a spot called Wilderness. The road to get there is pretty rugged, but I saw plenty of small sedans and compact cars make the round trip. When I say road, I really mean a dirt and sand road with massive holes littered throughout. Although I would have made the trip regardless, having the Jeep made it much more enjoyable and stress free. I spent the rest of the day at Wilderness, occasionally breaking to grab some more water and apply more sunscreen. 

Dawn patrol en route to Wilderness

Dawn patrol en route to Wilderness

The surf report for the next day was mixed. Depending on where you were on the island, the swell direction and wind direction was either going to make it small and fun, or slightly less small and more fun. I wanted to get in the water by sunrise, and Sarah (the hostel owner agreed to come with me). The morning of she changed her mind and I ended up going alone. I couldn't blame her - it was about 5:30am and the report said 2-3ft. Not worth getting up that early.

When I pulled up, it was glassy and 5ft, consistently. There were a few other older guys in the parking long, but not a soul in the water yet. It was about 6:10 am. The guys in the parking lot were busy putting their leashes on, waxing their boards, and putting on wetsuit tops. Yes, you read that correctly, wetsuit tops. 

Later that afternoon

Later that afternoon

What I learned very quickly was that Puerto Ricans (locals and transplants) were very, very spoiled. They don't know what cold water is. It was 6:10am, the sun wasn't up yet, and the air temperature was already 82*F. The water temperature was about the same. 

So of course, as my pasty white self walked towards the water with no wetsuit top, the guys began to all give me sideways looks. One of the guys was nice enough to ask me where I was from, and if I knew where to paddle out. These guys were old, and proud of it. They made a point of telling me that they were the first guys to surf in Vietnam, and frankly I think they were shocked to see a young-gun like me with a longboard. 

We all paddled out together, and it turns out most of them were from New York. A few of the guys were born in Puerto Rico, moved to Long Island NY, and then moved back to Puerto Rico. They all ended up being incredibly friendly and hospitable, and they loved sharing their spot with me. 

10 hours later, when I returned to the hostel, all I could tell Sarah was, "boy, you really missed it."

Puerto Rico {Part I}

I decided to go to Puerto Rico for a few days for my birthday. I wanted to go by myself so that I could enjoy exploring the island, seeing wildlife, and stopping every 2 minutes to take pictures.

Boy, was that was a dumb idea.

Puerto Rico isn't as rich in wildlife as I had romanticized in my head. Although there are plenty of stray cats and dogs, I hardly saw any other animals during my stay on the island. Except for horses. There are a lot of horses standing on the side of the road.

To be fair, I didn't look very hard. As soon as I arrived, I started asking locals where I could go to find some wild animals. They would just laugh and recommend the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica. So after one very long day of being stuck at my hostel with no vehicle, I decided to change my objective to surfing. There was still plenty to see and do, but I gave up on trying to find lions, tigers and bears. Oh my. 

I stayed at the Grateful Souls Hostel - which is more of a bed and breakfast than a hostel.  Sarah runs the joint, and was extraordinarily welcoming to myself and everyone else staying there. The hostel is situated directly on the beachfront, and has various different types of rooms you can book. Being the poor plebeian that I am, I opted for the shared dorm room which was $35/night. You can also get entire rooms or even sides of the estate to yourself.  

Morning view, coffee in hand.

Morning view, coffee in hand.

I arrived at 3 am and ended up falling asleep on the beach. I was woken up at dawn by soft sunlight peaking through the palm tree leaves, and the gentle purring of a kitten that had curled up next to me. 

Kitty protecting me from things that go bump in the night

Kitty protecting me from things that go bump in the night

My first observations were that there was drift wood everywhere. The entire beach was covered in it. I walked up and down the beach a bit to get my bearings, while this little kitten chased my heels.  After a few hours of walking around, I was able to drop my gear off and change out of my suit into my bathing suit. I eventually was able to rent a Jeep and a proper surfboard, and then proceeded to spend hours upon hours in the ocean. 

Driftwood littered the beach

Driftwood littered the beach