with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Photographic Sherlock Holmes – Playing Photo Detective

The moment is sublime. It is filled with all the thrills, spills, and chills of an action-packed adventure movie. You rush to the moment, your breath coming in gasps of anticipation as you tear open the package. As your eyes dilate with the adrenaline, you slide the contents out onto the table, ever so careful not to leave fingerprints or damage the goods. You hold your breath and close your eyes, pausing to treasure the moment, then open them and…

Well, one of several things can happen here. Perhaps you scream or groan, or maybe you ooh and ah, then rush from the room to share the results with friends and family. Yes, you’ve figured it out. You are opening your processed film.

Photo of different film types, photo by Brent VanFossenUnfortunately, oftentimes you spend more time screaming and groaning then rushing to show off. A horrendous experience was had by a famous world-traveling nature photographer, who, after 4 months on the road non-stop covering both poles, Africa, China, and other exotic locales, opened his first package of film to find that he could see through the stack of 18 slides all the way to his light table with nary a darkened bit of emulsion to block the view. The same was true for the next roll of film, and the next and next and next. All of his 400 rolls of film were completely blank. Desperate to solve the mystery (did all those airport x-ray machines really do this kind of damage?), he recalled having both his cameras serviced before his long adventure. He had made the fatal error of not running a roll of test film through each of them. The rest of us can learn greatly from his costly mistake.

But what about you? How do you solve the mystery of what happened when something goes wrong with your film? How can you learn from the mistakes the rest of us make so you can reveal your film to the world with joy and a light heart?

Playing the photographic Sherlock Holmes, the knowledgeable photographer understands that there are three categories of classic boo-boos. The guilty parties are the photographer, the processor, and the famous villain: the camera!

The Criminal Photographer

Yes, the photographer indeed may be responsible for most of the crimes committed with a camera. Usually caused by carelessness or forgetfulness, these acts of self-mischief are often easily preventable. Most criminal photographic acts happen when the photographer, in the rush to grab the shot, gets in too much of a hurry to remember to turn on the flash, or check the exposure. Here are some of the criminal highlights:

Camera Shake
This is the most commonly committed crime. The weapon of choice is the hands. Unless you are photographing a very well-lit scene with a fast shutter speed, camera shake will be noticeable. Look at the evidence. Hold your hand out straight from your body. Notice how the tops of your knuckles vibrate and shake, even the smallest amount.

The older you are, the more shake there will be. It is a natural function of our bodies. A strong pulse creates a visible beat in your hand. A normal pulse rate is about 80 per minute when resting. During physical activity, it can go much higher. To avoid Camera shake ruins this long night exposure of Alberquerue, New Mexico. Photo by Lorelle VanFossencamera-shake, use a tripod with a remote shutter release or cable, or brace yourself and your camera against a solid object like a fence or wall. Hold both hands in a tripod formation under and around your camera, your elbows tight together against your chest. Take a breath, then exhale and at the end of the exhale, press the shutter release. Keep shutter speeds higher than 1/125 of a second. Even though some people claim they can get sharp images at slower shutter speeds, odds are those images won’t hold up under a magnifying glass.

Focusing Crimes
As photographers become more reliant upon autofocus technologies, they often forget there is another choice: manual focus. Autofocus is amazing but it Thinking the autofocus was on, it wasn't for this batch of wildflowers. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenisn’t perfect. It can miss. Careful attention must be paid to the focusing “cells”, the placement targets within the viewfinder where the camera senses the focus of the subject. A slight move off the target or subject and the camera may refocus on the foreground or background. Working with closeup subjects or subjects that challenge the autofocus mechanism, photographers may turn off the autofocus feature, but they should remember to turn it back on for the next photograph requiring autofocus. Otherwise, another focusing crime may be committed. [NOTE: See the closeup of this photograph in the sidebar on the right to learn more about detecting the kind of focus crime you are commiting.]

Out-of-focus vs. Camera Shake

Was the crime focus or shake? Let’s examine the evidence? The photographic Sherlock Holmes pulls out his high magnification loupe and inspects the transparency or negative for the characteristic clues of an out-of-focus image or of camera-shake.

Magnification of flowers out of focus.Magnification of Out-of-Focus
Enlarged from out-of-focus photo in the text at left

An image that is out of focus will generally have a point of sharp focus somewhere away from the main point of interest. For example, the body or ears of an animal will be sharp while the eyes are not. If the autofocus wasn’t on or working, everything will be out of focus. In the example photograph, the blue circle highlights the soft circles of the colors, a sure sign of an out-of-focus photograph.


Magnification of camera shake on city at night.Magnification of camera shake
Notice up and down motion of shake.

Camera shake reveals a blurring of the subject in an up and down or right to left pattern rather than a foggy effect. If there are bright spots or lights in the frame, they will be seen as lines rather than blurs. With camera shake, nothing at all will be in focus because the entire camera moved during the exposure.

Flash Backs
The flash against the glass of a zoo beaver den hides the beaver. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenReflectivity is one of the physical properties of glass and mirrors. The nature photographer working in a zoo or aquarium is constantly challenged by this reflectivity when photographing an animal in a glass enclosure. The evidence of a flash back crime is the overwhelming explosion of a white light spot in your Taking the flash off the camera and holding it at an angle revealed the beaver behind the glass. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenimage in front of or behind your subject, or occasionally in the form of a ghostly smear. To prevent such crimes, use an off camera flash and point it at a 45 degree angle to the glass. This allows the flash to pass through at an angle, reducing the chance of the reflection reaching your film.
Flash Fall Off and other Flash Crimes
Flash fall off is the result of a photographer ignoring the manual guidelines for the distance the flash can cover. By placing the subject outside of this coverage zone, the light fails to The flash couldn't reach the subject, leaving behind a strange blob of light.reach the subject and a crime is committed. A deviation of the flash fall off crime is lens interference. When the subject is close and the photographer uses a long lens with the flash atop the camera, the flash may illuminate the top of the lens and cast a half moon shadow at the bottom of the scene. Again, by removing the flash from the camera, or by using a shorter lens, this can be prevented. By understanding how the flash weapon works, practicing with it under appropriate circumstances, and using it with care, the photographer can overcome most flash crimes.
Across the Horizons
Hand holding and lack of attention to detail causes a common crime of off-kilter horizon lines. Not normally an offense in general images, it is highly offensive in landscapes and scenics. Unstable horizon lines seem to defy the laws of physics and gravity as they tilt to one side or the other, making buildings and Tilted horizon on an agricultural field, 
photo by Lorelle VanFossenmountains slide down the hill and out of the picture. Take care to line up horizon lines within the frame of the viewfinder or, for extreme safety, use an architectural grid viewfinder screen, available for many advanced cameras. Extreme wide angle lenses, such as a 20mm, 17mm, or 14mm, create their own perspective challenges, emphasizing horizon and other lines, so careful inspection and consideration before pressing the shutter is required.
Ghosts and Streaks
Even in the scientific world of today, proof exists on film of the many ghosts and phantoms of light that exist in our world. While once these may have been used to promote fear and evil, today’s photographic Sherlock Holmes knows them to be evidence of more photographic Lens flare aims its phaser weapon at Fred, the deer. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenmisdeeds. Lens flares are phantoms that haunt photographers, but their appearance is preventable. In order to create more complex lenses and to reduce distortion and aberrations (not apparitions), manufacturers use many layers of glass (called elements) inside the lens. Zoom lenses will often have 12 or 14 elements. The more layers of glass there are, the greater the opportunity for lens flare as the light scatters through the length of lens. Exacerbated by the use of lens filters, colorful flares, often hexagonal in shape, haunt the image. Careful attention to detail allows the photographic detective to spot these crimes before they are imprinted on the film. By shading the lens with a lens shade, a hand, hat, or other shading device, and by keeping the sun off the front of the lens (but not necessarily shading the subject), most lens flare can be prevented. Purchasing shorter zoom lenses, and checking them thoroughly for the number of glass elements (less is best) and flare before purchase is a sound idea.
Trespassing
A tourist moves into view as the shutter is pressed. Photo by Brent VanFossenTrespassing is a crime of unauthorized intrusion. Living life through the viewfinder, the photographer often fails to notice that something unwanted has From a train, a tree passes when the shutter is pressed. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenentered the scene. A person wanders into the frame, not paying attention to the photographer behind him. Photographing from a moving vehicle is equally problematic; trees and lamp posts can jump into view as the shutter is pressed. The photographic detective must pay attention to all the details, inside and outside the camera by lifting his or her head and anticipating the movements around him.
Missing the Point
Within the viewfinder, “missing the point” is a common crime. When there are too many subjects in the frame, the viewer misses the point and story of the picture. Since the photographer can’t be present to testify about the picture everywhere it goes, the photograph must tell its own story. Take care to eliminate distracting elements within the viewfinder, capturing only the most powerful and clear photographs as your works of art.
Watch the Shadows
The shadow of the camera ends up in the picture. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenWhile inspecting the image through the viewfinder, even the most dutiful of the photographic detectives often fail to notice evidence of themselves in the picture. With strong light sources behind them, their shadows can creep into the corner of the most breathtaking images. Tripods, reflectors, and other photographic equipment can suddenly appear as shadows or sneak into the edges of the frame. Closeups of subjects’ eyes can reveal the photographer within their glassy depths. The smallest of details reveal themselves in the final product, so inspect the evidence thoroughly before pressing the shutter.

Other Photographer Crimes

The multiple exposure mode left on can result in some interesting mistakes. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenOther crimes committed by the photographer are camera shake from wind during long exposures, mode crimes (when the photographer forgets and leaves the camera on a special mode like multiple exposure or bracketing), duplication errors (when an exposed roll is reloaded into the camera by mistake), Film loaded into the camera twice puts ducks and grass on the ocean. Photo by Lorelle VanFossentechnological overwhelmance (when the camera is smarter than the photographer), and failure to predict the future results (not understanding the difference between what the eye sees and what the film will record).


Ignorance of the laws is no excuse. Learn how the camera sees, what the film will record, and anticipate the end result before pulling the trigger. Take classes, study photographs and photographers, read books, and learn how the process works in order to become the best photographic detective you can be.

Redeye: A Victimless Crime

When photographing people, the most common photographic crime is redeye. This occurs when the flash is close to the lens axis and the person is looking directly into the flash. The light reflects off the person’s retina, illuminating the red “blood” of the retina wall as the eye’s pupil expands in the low light level. This is most commonly found in light eye-colored, especially blue-eyed, people. A green-eye effect is found in many animals. Modern technology tries to prevent this by offering “redeye reduction”, a strobing effect of the flash just before the camera’s shutter opens, causing the pupil to shrink, reducing the likelihood of redeye. Moving the flash off the camera reduces the effect. When the crime is found after the act, digital manipulation helps to color in the red, and photographic stores also sell “redeye pens” to permit photographers to “color in” the evidence. To avoid this crime entirely, consider photographing people and animals outside in natural light without flash or investing in a flash synch cord and moving the flash off the axis of the camera body.

Processing Crimes

While most photographic crimes are committed by the photographer, the photographer does not stand alone before the court system. Standing with them with guilt on their conscience are the processors, those who handle the film through its final stage. With the growth in film processing technology, with computers handling most of the material, the crime level has dropped in recent years. Still, the true photographic detective must recognize when the crime has been committed due to self-incriminating factors or when the suspect is really the photographic processing handler.

Black Bars
These bars don’t serve alcoholic beverages, but once you discover this crime, you might want to ask for a drink. Between each image on a roll of film is a black “bar” dividing one image from the next. When the film The black bar across your photo is a clue of bad cutting in the lab, 
 photo by Brent VanFossenis exposed, only the area hit by the light coming through the shutter captures the image. The hidden edges become black when the film is processed. The processor loads the film into a machine using these black lines as a guide for cutting. Most of the time the hatchet job works, but occasionally it doesn’t, resulting in missed cuts. When you get your film back, black lines are found in the middle of your image. You have the end of one image, a black line, and the start of the next image in the final result. If the image is at all salvageable, a plea bargain could be struck and the two “ends” could be re-spliced and digitally reproduced, aligning all the edges together to restore the picture within a computer. Most of the time, this is a very costly process, but the photographer should insist if the image is worth the time and effort.
Colorful Crimes
Anyone order a green sunset? A purple gorilla? As technology handles more of the film processing, especially during the printing process, computers become more skilled at “predicting” normal colors and adjusting the printing process to produce a better quality result. With all the screw-ups photographers make, isn’t it The computer couldn't handle the soft blue colors of this sunset over Portage Lake, Alaska, and turned it surreal purple colors. Click to see the original. Photo by Brent VanFossen lovely that a computer is around to fix them? But computers are only as good as their programming, and they are at their best work when working with averages and not extremes. When the photographer steps out of the “norms” as determined by computer programmers, the results can be surprising. Colors out of the computer’s spectrum can result in shocking greens, pale purples and other deviations from the reality and the intention. Solution to these crimes? Ask the processors to take better care when they reprint the picture.

Other crimes committed by the processors include lost or misplaced film, poor printing, overcharging, undercharging, and poor service. As the end result is so critical to the happiness of the photographer, choose a film processor with great care, as you might a doctor or dentist. Those who handle film with care and devotion need to get our full support, so when you find someone who gives good serve, thank them and return with your next order.

Camera Crimes

While rare, the camera itself plays a role in many photographic crimes. But even camera equipment can challenge the most careful photographic inspector.

White Bars and Lines
White bars mean light leaks in your camera, 
photo of flower by Lorelle VanFossenWhite bars are the result of indiscriminate light coming in through the camera, exposing the film even when the shutter is closed. Indiscriminate light may leak through as a result of damage or a flaw in the back of the camera body. If the shutter is damaged in any way, light may leak through from the viewfinder or lens front. Only a professional camera detective should check this out, so take the camera immediately to a good photographic repair shop.

Long blurs of light go everywhere as the camera was moved during a long exposure by accident. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenStrange ghostly blurs are the result of the camera being picked up during a long exposure. Opening the camera back will completely expose a section of film, often resulting in strange smears. Make sure the film is fully rewound before opening. If the film is jammed or requires inspection while in use, have the camera handled by an expert in a “darkroom” before opening. Or consider the film a loss and toss it.

Toss It
Part of being a good photographic detective is also knowing when a crime has been solved. After you have learned all you can from the scene of the crime, toss them. First, it eliminates the negative and, second, it enhances the positive. Learn from your mistakes, and maybe even keep a file of your best mistakes to remind you of the bad, but remove them from your general files so when you peruse them, you will only find the very best of your work.
Trash can of slides. Photo by Brent VanFossen
Exposure Lapses
Another clue to a damaged camera can be lapses in quality exposures. Check the entire roll with the images in chronological order. Are all the exposures similar? If they fluctuate all over the place, or are consistently off, either over or under exposed, check the camera’s settings. Has the camera’s program mode changed to one you are not used to working with? Change it back and shoot a test roll. If not, you can test your camera’s meter After two rolls of strange overexposed pictures, my camera went into the shop. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenyourself. Compose for different lighting conditions and check to see if the resulting meter readings match your expectations. If not, you may have a problem with the meter. Also, compare meter readings between two cameras with similar lenses at identical apertures. If there is a difference, you have a problem. The lens aperture also controls the amount of light and the aperture “blades” may be damaged. If the exposure problems correct themselves when you change lenses, get that lens checked. Still puzzled? Take the photographic evidence, and the camera, and visit your local camera repair shop.

Today’s cameras are very dependent upon batteries and micro computer technology. They will break and wear down over time. Keep your equipment in good condition with cleanings and professional inspections at least every year or every other year, depending upon usage, wear and tear. If you spend extensive time in sand dunes, dust storms, salt water, rain, snow, or in extreme weather conditions with your camera, get it cleaned more frequently to prevent damage and trouble.

Crime Solved

Often our photographic problem-solving is focused on creating the perfect scene within the viewfinder. A good photographic detective includes the skills of a crime solver in his arsenal to discover the criminal behind the photographic crime. We sincerely hope you rarely require such skills, and we hope you learn from our costly mistakes. And if you commit some new costly crimes, post a note to us below so we can learn from your criminal behavior!

Criminal Creativity

Not all photographic crimes are criminal. Some of them can actually produce creative results. Understanding the cause of photographic problems, you can choose to use these to create your own interesting perspectives on film. Sun flares generated on purpose over a cross. Tucson, Arizona, photo by Lorelle VanFossenLens flare can look like god-light or rays when used in combination with a symbolic cross atop a church. Blurred, shaken, and stirred images can create interesting patterns and textures, even modern impressionistic art work. Light moving across the film during a long exposure can create interesting streaks when captured intentionally. One photographer made a popular series of photographs using this technique. Dressed in black during long night time exposures, he moved a colored light flashlight around, outlining subjects such as STOP sign letters on the road and the outline of a classic old car.

The lights dance on the stream with rocks. Photo by Brent VanFossenOn a bright sunny day, light dances on top of moving water at the beach or in a stream. By underexposing, only the brightest “lines” and “spots” of light are captured on film, creating interesting abstract images. Brent worked with a stream near Mt. Rainier in Washington State, focusing on the bright Underexposing the lights on the stream created an abstract effect. Photo by Brent VanFossenlights moving across the water. Playing with the aperture, he took some pictures with enough exposure to show the rocks and still capture the lines of light, and then underexposed to show only the abstract lines of light.

The correct result I wanted. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenWhile trying to photograph the patterns in the tall trees over my head, I turned my camera lens on the tripod to point straight up. After pressing the shutter, I realized that I was still The great mistake I ended up with. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenholding the zoom lens. I let go and watched the lens slide down during the exposure. Furious, I used rubber bands to keep the lens from sliding and took more “correct” pictures. When I got the film back, the best shot in the bunch was the “mistake”. This image has sold many times and has also been used as background images to text and other pictures. Not bad for a boo boo.

Once you understand the criminal and non-criminal activities you and your camera are capable of, use your imagination to turn a “mistake” into a work of art.

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