Planning October 2013

Making the Camera Your Friend

A brief guide to photo techniques, ethics, and laws

Text and photography by Michael Heater

People say a picture is worth a thousand words, but honestly, is that true of your pictures?

Although many planners consider themselves visual thinkers who can easily interpret maps and site plans, a refresher course on photo techniques could be useful.

The role of photography in urban planning should not be underestimated. Visual communication is incredibly important and powerful — and it's also somewhat expected these days. In today's highly mobile world, we are inundated with photographs from social media sites. Everyone can now take and upload images with their smartphones, sharing instantly with the online world. Photography provides an opportunity to remember, wonder, inspire, and create.

In the planning field, the subjects of the photograph are not always inherently exciting — existing parking lots or generic-looking buildings. But by using a few simple compositional techniques and understanding some basic elements of photography, a simple snapshot can be turned into a stunning image that tells a story — even if it's taken with a cell phone or tablet.


Rather than centering the photo on Morro Rock, the photographer used the rule of thirds to create a more interesting shot of Morro Bay, California


The exposure triangle

A photograph's exposure is determined by three camera settings: shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. By changing any of these three settings, you will alter the other two and your overall exposure. These three settings, known as the "exposure triangle," determine how the photograph will look. (Phones and point-and-shoot cameras don't have these settings, of course, but read on for tips for those devices.)

Shutter speed is easily grasped. The speed of the shutter determines the amount of time that light has to hit the sensor. The longer the shutter is open, the more light enters the camera. To "freeze" the action, adjust your camera to a higher shutter speed. But to emphasize motion in your image, dial down the shutter.

ISO is the camera's sensitivity to light. In the days before digital technology, cameras required rolls of film, each with a specific ISO that determined the film speed. Changing ISOs on an analog camera meant loading the camera with a new roll of film. Nowadays, digital ISO can be changed by the touch of a button.

Generally speaking, lower ISO numbers are preferable. Higher ISO speeds, while allowing the camera to capture images in low light, dramatically increase image "noise," the equivalent of film grain in traditional film photography. Common ISO speeds are 100, 200, 400, and 800.

When encountering a low-light scene, it is usually best to increase the aperture (using a smaller number like f/2.8) and decrease the shutter speed to a reasonable level (usually at least 1/60 second) before you decide to increase the ISO. Today, camera technology allows cameras to shoot at a higher ISO with minimal noise levels.

The aperture of a camera is the hole in the lens through which light passes to reach the film or digital sensor. If you are shooting with a 35mm DSLR or other advanced digital camera, when you set the camera on shutter priority, the camera will automatically set the aperture value to correctly expose for the picture. Remember, the smaller the number, the larger the hole, and the more light that passes through to the sensor. The larger the number, the smaller the hole, and the less light it allows in.

On a bright, sunny day at the beach, set your aperture to a larger number like f/16 (smaller hole) to prevent an overexposed image. Shooting a scene at night, on the other hand, requires more light to pass through the camera, so a smaller number like f/2.8 (larger hole) would properly expose the scene.

Aperture also influences the image's depth of field. This measurement refers to the areas where an object is sharp or blurry. Small apertures are great when you are trying to avoid background distractions and focus the eye on the main subject. A small aperture creates a shallow depth of field. Inversely, to capture all details of a city skyline, for example, set the camera to a high f/number, say f/16 or f/22. This will allow for a large depth of field and the sharpness desired.


Basic Composition Guidelines

Ansel Adams, landscape photographer of the American West, once said, "There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs." However, there are compositional guidelines that will enhance the impact of your photos.

Rule of thirds Before you press the shutter, imagine the picture divided by two lines both horizontally and vertically. Placing the subject of interest along these lines or at the intersections allows for a more interesting and dynamic composition. Subjects in the center of the frame feel static.


Framing Avoid distractions in your pictures by changing the angle of the photo, moving to a different location, or zooming in. Frame the center of interest with objects in the foreground, giving the picture a feeling of depth.

Viewpoint Most people shoot from eye level, creating a picture that is often flat and dull. Try shooting at ground level or climbing up a set of stairs to get a higher vantage point.

Balancing elements When looking through the camera, focus on what you are trying to convey. If your photos lack impact, it might be that the subject is lost in surrounding clutter.

Additional Techniques


Angle Try to shoot from nonconventional angles. People usually shoot standing up. Use your feet and explore a variety of angles and approaches.



Depth You can add depth to your images by including foreground, mid-ground, and background elements.



Background Keep distracting or unappealing elements out of your frame. Also avoid mergers in the background. A common type of merger is a tree that seems to be growing out of someone's head. Check the viewfinder before you snap.



Symmetry and patterns When taking photographs, you begin to notice symmetry and patterns all around you. These tend to lend themselves to very striking compositions.



Lines Look for repeating patterns and lines, including s-curves. Also, it's okay to turn the camera and shoot vertical images.



Rule of odds Have an odd number of objects in your image to create a more appealing composition.



Cropping can have great impact. You can first crop in-camera, then again during processing on a computer. Crop tight, leaving distractions out of the frame.


Shooting in automatic mode

In automatic mode, the camera sets everything for you (shutter speed, ISO, aperture, white balance). This setting also controls the camera's pop-up flash, if your camera has one.

Shooting in automatic is not ideal. Human eyes are much "smarter" than a camera's. A person can see both the bright sky and the details of a building in shadow, but a camera set on automatic mode wants to expose for just one. Still, auto mode allows beginning photographers to focus on the subject and composition of the photograph.


Easy Auto Mode Techniques

  • Composition comes first. The automatic setting will properly expose the scene, but composing the photograph is the photographer's job. Be aware of the subject's position and the background before pressing the shutter.
  • Understand how the autofocus works and use focus lock. Autofocus tends to struggle in difficult lighting conditions and when you place your subject off-center in the frame, causing the camera to focus on the background.
  • Lock the focus by centering your subject in the viewfinder. Press and hold the shutter halfway down until the green focus-okay light is on (often a beep will be heard). Keeping the shutter depressed halfway, reorient the camera to the desired composition, and then press the shutter button all the way down to take the picture.
  • Learn "exposure lock" techniques. Normally, the camera assumes that the entire scene needs equal exposure. If you want to expose only part of the scene, use the same method described in "focus lock," but instead of pressing the shutter halfway down, press the auto exposure lock button (labeled "AE-L" on most cameras) on the part of the scene you want exposed. While holding the AE-L button, reframe the picture and take the picture.
  • Adjust for the light. Consider the position of the sun and readjust your position if necessary. Avoid using the on-camera flash. Use natural light before resorting to the camera's one-directional flash.


Smartphone photography

Mobile device or digital camera — which is best for professional purposes?

Digital cameras have disadvantages. Although relatively inexpensive, they may be a burden to financially strapped public agencies. And if not updated, they can become old clunkers collecting dusk in the staff closet.

Smartphone cameras can be a better choice. The ease, convenience, and weight of mobile phones — coupled with the fact that they are nearly always at hand — let users leave behind the bulky camera bag, stop messing with the settings, and focus on taking pictures.

But there are disadvantages, too. Smartphone camera technology is weak in megapixels, leading to low-resolution images. These cameras perform poorly in low light conditions, and shutter lag is noticeable, which means you can miss taking the picture you want. A phone's flash and digital zoom are pretty much useless. Finally, the lack of manual override means the photographer cannot capture photos in difficult light conditions.

Smartphones instantly connect you with the world, but the rules of photography still apply.


Smartphone Camera Tips

  • Don't use the digital zoom. It isn't really a zoom at all, simply the camera cropping and then enlarging the photo. This produces a low-quality image that lacks detail. Instead, just move closer to the subject.
  • Don't use the flash. Phone flash quality is poor and the flash range very low. The flash on the phone is just a bright, direct light that washes out the image (if subject is too close) or darkens the image (if subject is too far) and leaves people with scary red eyes.
  • Ditch filters like Instagram. They are just not professional.
  • Consider the position of the sun or other major sources of light. Position yourself or the subject to use the light to improve the shot.
  • Take your time. Think of a smartphone camera as an actual camera. Put the elements of the shot together — consider composition, angles, and lighting.
  • Prepare for shutter delay. Even a short delay can make you miss important moments.
  • Use the phone's installed camera features. The iPhone's camera, for instance, offers the option of overlaying a grid on the phone's screen. Use this feature to help compose your shots using the rule-of-thirds technique.

The iPhone also allows shooting in HDR, or high-dynamic range. This method captures a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image. Typically, at least three photos are taken and layers together a darker one that captures the highlights, a lighter one that captures the shadows, and one in the middle that captures the mid-tones.

Some phones allow the GPS location to be embedded in the images' metadata. This is a great way to document exactly where a photo was taken.

  • Install camera apps on your phone. These apps are self-contained, meaning you can shoot, edit, and e-mail images right on your phone. Here's a brief list of some popular editing apps:
    • Camera+ ($1.99)
    • Adobe Photoshop Touch ($4.99)
    • Adobe Photoshop Express (Free)
    • Handy Photo ($1.99)
  • Shoot panoramic photos. A single photo sometimes cannot convey an entire scene. Panoramic images leave nothing out. Shooting panoramic images has become easier with advances in technology. Simply by moving your phone 360 degrees left and right and 180 degrees up and down, the camera overlaps multiple images, adjusts for exposure, and stiches it into one viewable image.

Many phones now have a Panorama Mode or Stitch Mode already installed. If not, there's an app for that:

  • AutoStitch Panorama ($1.99)
  • Photosynth by Microsoft (Free)
  • Use cell phone lens attachments. Easy to use and inexpensive, cell phone lenses are becoming increasingly popular. Most lenses attach magnetically so you can snap and swap lenses easily. Common lenses include fisheye (ultra-wide angle), macro (detailed close-ups), and telephoto (zoom). Below are just a few manufacturers of phone lenses.
    • Photojojo
    • Owle Bubo
    • Olloclip
  • Resist the urge to post pictures to social media sites right away. Make sure the photo is properly edited, captioned, and legally okay before uploading.
  • Remember to clean the camera lens.


Ethics and laws

Digital photography gives us unprecedented power to alter our images, but we need to remain honest as photographers to preserve our integrity as planners. What follows is not legal advice, but it may be useful.

When taking photos, journalists aim to be objective and accurate. Planners with cameras in hand should do the same. The public relies on us to present the truth.

The National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics includes the following guidelines:

  1. Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
  2. Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
  3. Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one's own biases in the work.
  4. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity.
  5. While photographing subjects, do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
  6. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
  7. Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
  8. Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.

Is there an ethical line that can be drawn when it comes to using image-editing software? Although the line isn't always clear, there is a set of general dos and don'ts that editorial photographers agree on. These guidelines do not apply in the case of visual renderings. However, visual renderings should be clearly labeled as a "photo illustrations," not photographs, to make clear that they aren't renderings of reality.



  • Adjust brightness and contrast (levels and curves)
  • Crop
  • Burn and dodge to a reasonable level: Techniques commonly used in the darkroom can easily be reproduced in image-editing software. Burn gives a specific area of the photograph "extra" exposure, darkening that area of the image. Dodge decreases the given exposure to a specific area of the photograph, resulting in a lighter portion of an image.
  • Perform general color correction
  • Clean the image of dust and scratches


  • Add, move, or remove objects (cloning and eraser tools)
  • Excessively crop to change the meaning of the subject
  • Use excessive color corrections (the Instagram-like effect, for example)
  • Reverse a photograph
  • Generally alter the meaning of a photograph


Photographers' rights

Bert P. Krages, an attorney in Portland, Oregon, is the author of the Legal Handbook for Photographers. The general rule in the U.S., Krages says, is that "anyone may take photographs of whatever they want when they are in a public place or place where they have permission to take photographs." If you can see it, you can shoot it. Public places include streets, sidewalks, and parks. You can shoot a picture of someone's private property from a public location, but not while on his or her property without permission.

There are exceptions. Some military bases and nuclear facilities prohibit photography.

What about photographing people in public places? Unless there is a reasonable expectation of privacy (inside homes, in a restroom), people can be photographed without consent in public places.

"As a rule, I'd say it would be common courtesy to ask people whether you can take their picture," says attorney Mickey Osterreicher of the NPPA, as quoted in the New York Times. "But then again, if you're doing street photography and you see something going on, you don't want to alter that dynamic."

Despite common misconceptions, the following subjects can almost always be photographed lawfully from public places: accident and fire scenes, children, celebrities, bridges and other infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings, industrial facilities and public utilities, transportation facilities like airports, Superfund sites, criminal activities, and law enforcement officers.

Also, remember this: No law enforcement officer can demand your camera or film without a court order.


Using copyrighted images

It is sometimes necessary to search for images online when something specific is needed for an agency's planning document. If the work is not copyrightable (most U.S. government works, for example) or in the public domain (works published before 1923, for example), you can freely use the work without permission. In most other cases, U.S. copyright law protects images, articles, or other works.

The process to get written permission is relatively simple. Say you want to use an image taken by a photographer from the Los Angeles Times. Doing a simple search on the newspaper's website, you'll find its process for republishing, reproducing, and using any information or image.

To be safe, get legal advice from a staff attorney when facing questions about copyright. In general, the easiest way to protect you and your agency is to receive permission.



A caption should accurately reflect the content of the photograph. It is not okay to caption a photograph of, say, a person sitting on a bench by writing something like "HIV/AIDS is rapidly spreading in this community" when there is no evidence to support the connection between the individual and the caption.

It is also considered unethical to use a photograph of someone sitting on a bench next to a chart of HIV transmission rates, even if there is no specific reference to that individual.

When writing a caption for a photograph, consider whether the subject would experience any negative consequences if this photo were published.


Public workshops and meetings

More often than not, the photographs taken at workshops and public meetings show people's backs, a room full of empty chairs, and an overexposed projector screen. What could be more boring?

  • Always aim for candid photographs — when subjects aren't being posed. People who don't know a photo is being taken will be more relaxed and natural.
  • Use a zoom lens. Fill the frame with the subject, and leave empty chairs out of the shot.
  • Shoot from the hip. Shoot with a wide-angle lens and set to autofocus.
  • Say goodbye to the flash.
  • Frame with foreground elements, which add context and depth to the image.
  • Shoot action. Photograph people doing things instead of doing nothing.
  • Shoot in nonconventional angles. Most people shoot standing up. Try shooting from a higher or lower angle.
  • If you can, shoot with a SLR or other advanced camera with no shutter delay.
  • If it's digital, shoot a lot of pictures.
  • Be a fly on a wall; blend in and keep quiet.
  • Anticipate moments — think ahead and be ready at all times. Locate yourself in strategic positions.



Use a zoom lens



Frame with foreground elements


Planner's dilemma

Which way to shoot? That was the question I asked myself when my graduate class at California Polytechnic State University was assigned to help the city of Bell, a built-out community 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, update its general plan.

We made several site visits to Bell and I began to think about the ways planners photograph a community. Does a planner shoot like a commercial photographer, trying to capture images that sell and promote a city? Or does a planner act like a photojournalist, capturing the sometimes undesirable truth?

This was a dilemma. What are the stories that planners tell? What photographic school of thought should planners abide by?

As practicing planners, we try to produce documents that tell the truth while also highlighting wonderful parts of our communities. The same issues apply when we produce images.

Violence, crime, homelessness, and crumbling infrastructure are facts of everyday life. Communities may try to avoid coping with these problems, but as planners and photographers, we shouldn't deny or dismiss so-called uncomfortable knowledge. We must capture all the elements that make up a community — both good and bad — without focusing exclusively on one aspect.

That is the bottom line when planners take photos.

Before becoming a planner, Michael Heater worked as a professional photographer, primarily in the newspaper industry.


Image: Rather than centering the photo on Morro Rock, the photographer used the rule of thirds to create a more interesting shot of Morro Bay, California. Photography by Michael Heater.

Check out Bert P. Krages's "The Photographer's Right" pdf:

According to a study done by Steve Rayner in 2012 entitled "Uncomfortable Knowledge: The Social Construction of Ignorance in Science and Environmental Policy Discourses," communities use four strategies to avoid dealing with awkward issues: denial, dismissal, diversion, and displacement. Find the article in Economy and Society, 2012, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 107–125.


The Age of Drones

By Ric Stephens

By the end of this decade there may be as many as 30,000 drones flying above the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The vast majority will be used for law enforcement, but many will also be deployed for agriculture, environmental management, industrial/inspection, meteorology, public safety/first responder, real estate, surveying, television and movies, and urban planning and design uses.

What exactly is a drone? A drone (also called an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV) is a powered, aerial vehicle without a human operator that uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift. It can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload.

The military has used drones for decades, but current advances in technology — including 3-D printing — have made them smaller, easier to operate, and more economical. Very small, autonomous, agile aerial robots, or nanocopters, may be only a few inches in diameter but can carry out extremely complex maneuvers without being piloted.


Numerous cities throughout the U.S. are using or considering drones for law enforcement. One of the first was Arlington, Texas, which used a small UAV to monitor the Super Bowl in 2011. The media focus on drones has centered on military and police uses, but there are many other applications. Drones equipped with cameras and GPS are ideal tools for planning, too. They are currently used to:

  • analyze sites
  • analyze views and viewsheds
  • assess agriculture and open space (including infrared)
  • evaluate postdisaster sites
  • monitor construction and buildings
  • record live events
  • study inaccessible, sensitive, or dangerous environments
  • study operating transportation systems
  • video large-scale development

Drones have several advantages over light aircraft and satellite reconnaissance. The low-level, oblique orientation allows more detailed and understandable evaluation; the relatively low cost allows more immediate and frequent use; and drones may be mounted with high-definition video cameras to record activities and interactions.



Privacy is the most controversial issue surrounding drone use. Safety concerns include the potential for armed drones, collisions, and other hazards associated with full-scale aircraft. Drone technology has outstripped many current laws regulating these issues, and public agencies are trying to catch up. In February, Charlottesville, Virginia, became the first city to adopt anti-drone legislation, and many states and cities are considering laws to regulate or ban drones.

Large-scale drones are regulated by the FAA, which has authorized unmanned aircraft systems for about 100 organizations, including universities and an Indian tribe. Drones flying below 400 feet and used for noncommercial purposes do not require FAA permits. Refinements to FAA guidelines will be released in 2015.


High-quality reconnaissance drones such as the DJI Phantom are now available for less than $1,200. This remote-controlled quadcopter (four rotors) includes GPS technology and the popular GoPro camera. The drone can be programmed to fly in an autopilot mode and will automatically return and safely land where it was launched. Even more affordable drones include the AR.Drone 2.0 quadcopter, which retails for about $300. Miniature remote-controlled helicopters with cameras are available for less than $75, but the size and quality of these microhelicopters make them unsuitable for outdoor reconnaissance. Because almost all new drones have gyroscopes, they are stable and easy to fly.

Planners typically see a static, orthographic map or plan, whereas drone photo and videography offers a multidimensional perspective that can illuminate a sense of place and guide placemaking.

Ric Stephens is a planning consultant, university instructor, and planning commissioner in Beaverton, Oregon. He has more than 30 years' experience in aerial photography and is now using small drones for site reconnaissance in the U.S. and China.

Images: Top — Graphic by Ric Stephen. Bottom — The Aeryon Scout, a quadcopter with camera. Photo courtesy Aeryon Labs Inc.