Sunday, July 17, 2011

How To Take Better Pictures

I've been asked more than once after showing someone my photographs, "How can I take pictures like yours?"

That very question is what got me started in photography in the first place. I had a friend who was taking amazing pictures. My pictures were terrible, but I wanted them to be good (like his). So I enrolled in a college photography class.

You may not have the time, money or desire to sign up for college classes. If not, that's ok. I will pass along some simple things that I have learned that (hopefully) will help you improve your own images.

First Things First

I need to get a few things out of the way real quick.

First, what camera you own or use makes no difference. If you can create great photographs you can do so with any camera. And if you can't create great photographs, even if you have the very best camera, your pictures will still stink. If someone tells you that you need a certain camera or certain camera brand, they are giving you bad information. I talked about all of this here, if you'd like further reading material.

Second, I am a big believer in "you learn as you do". Or, put another way, practice makes perfect. The more you do something the better at it you will become. So I highly recommend taking lots and lots of pictures. If you can take notes--even if just "mental notes"--that will speed up the learning process. Experiment--play around with the settings and controls--and see what works and what doesn't.

Third, read Bruce Barnbaum's book The Art of Photography. If you are really interested in learning how to improve your images, this is money and time well spent.

Light

Photography is about light. It's painting with light. If you try to photograph a pitch black closet, no matter how long your exposure is, you will not have an image. You need light.

You don't just need light, you need quality light. The best light is found within 90 minutes after sunrise and within 90 minutes before sunset. The first and last 15 minutes of light each day are magical.

Sunrise Over Vishnu Temple
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Photographing during the three hours each day that the light is better and avoiding the harsh mid-day sun will noticeably improve your pictures.

What's wrong with mid-day sun? The first problem is it's too harsh (or contrasty). The dynamic range of the film or digital sensor in your camera will likely be unable to capture the scene without losing detail in the lightest and/or darkest areas of the photograph. Deep shadows and bright-white skies are pretty common. Another problem is that the color temperature is generally unattractive (although there are solutions to this).

That does not mean you can't take pictures other than early morning or late evening. If you look hard enough, quality light can be found any time of the day or night. You just have to keep an active lookout for it (or, in some cases, create it yourself). The images below were both taken mid-day, but in a shaded area (top photograph) and on an overcast day (bottom photograph).

River And Styx
Kernville, California

Wet Pier
Goodyear, Arizona
Some photographers have been able to use the high contrast of mid-day to their advantage. The careful and thoughtful use of a graduated neutral density filter or high dynamic range concepts are other options to effectively capture the harsh light. Also, black and white film has a higher dynamic range than digital sensors.

However, in general, nothing beats the first light of morning or the last light of evening, and that's the time of day when the majority of great photographs are captured.

Stop!

OK, so you've found quality light and you've found something that has grabbed your attention. You want to pull out your camera and take a picture, but first you need to stop. Don't reach for your camera just yet! Most people would snap a picture without thinking, and that is the problem.

Before you do anything you must ask yourself what it is that you see that makes you want to photograph it. Is it the color? Shape or design? Juxtaposition? Light? Texture? Feeling or mood? It could be any number of things or even a combination of things. But before you can capture it you must know what it is.

Investigate what you see and determine what attracted you to it. Look at it from different angles. Back up, step forward, move to the left, then to the right, get down low to the ground. What about the scene is interesting and why? From what vantage point is it the most interesting or strongest?

Once you've determined what it is that grabbed your attention, then you can better understand how to capture it. If it's the color, fill the image with it! If it's the shape, make sure it is the main subject!

This step is importart and should not be overlooked. The difference between a thoughtful image and a snapshot is the amount of effort the photographer put into understanding the scene. You cannot effectively photograph something if you don't even know what you are photographing in the first place.

Keep It Simple

Once you have determined what exactly attracted you to the scene and why, you can pull out the camera. Look through the viewfinder.

What do you see? Does everything in the viewfinder add to the photograph? Is everything you see essential?

If you see something that does not tell the story--that does not add to the photograph--that is not what attracted you to the scene in the first place, then you need move it out of the picture. Move a few inches or feet to the left or right, or closer or further, until everything essential is in the image and everything else is out.

In other words, keep it simple. Exclude as much as you possibly can that does not enhance the image. Don't be afraid to get close--sometimes real close--to the subject.

Headlight
Lake Isabella, California
Too many things or objects in a photograph are often a distraction. They take away from what you really want to share. Take the image above, for example. One day as I was driving I saw an old truck in someone's front yard behind a fence. It was half-buried in weeds and parked next to an oak tree. I immediately felt like there was a photo opportunity.

I had to stop and ask myself what was most interesting. Was it the truck buried in the weeds? Was it the large oak next to the rusted auto? Was it the fence with a historic vehicle behind it? Was it all three? Was it something else completely?

The classic curves, details and designs and the way the blues and reds mixed and blended in a unique fashion on the front of that truck are what I found most interesting. That is what I wanted to capture and share. I excluded all that didn't enhance the image and kept the photograph simple.

Communication

That brings up why we take pictures to begin with: we want to share something that we have seen. Photography is a form of non-verbal communication. We speak through the images we create. What do the images say? Do they say something interesting? Do they evoke thoughts or feelings? What are we communicating to the viewer through our photographs?

Those questions should be at the front of your mind as you are composing your photograph. Think about what the final image might look like and how yourself and other people might react to it. If confusion or boredom are the likely reactions, than it won't be a good picture.

Rule of Thirds

A lot of people talk about the "rule of thirds" and a lot of colleges teach it. It's not really a "rule", but a generality. It often works, but not always. Perhaps it's a good place to start, though.

The "rule of thirds" says placing the main subject or focus on the right or left third of the photograph is visually pleasing. It can also apply to the top and bottom thirds of a photograph, but (for whatever reason) is less effective than the right or left thirds.

This might be a quick way to improve your images. It will work for a lot of your photographs, but not for all of them. Use it when it works, don't when it doesn't.

The bottom photograph below is an example of not using the "rule of thirds".

Fire Flower
Goodyear, Arizona
Color or Black & White?

Very simply, if color is an essential part of the image, it should be color. If not, then it should be black and white. Black and white has a classic and timeless feel, and it draws your eyes into the "design" of the image better then color.

Conclusion

You've read this far, so it's obvious to me that you are indeed interested in improving your pictures. The main points to take with you are 1) actively look for quality light, and the best light is often found just after sunset and just before sunrise; 2) don't be too quick to snap a picture--instead, think about what it is you see that you really find interesting and how you can make that the main point of the photograph; 3) keep the picture simple and exclude everything that does not add to the main point of the image; 4) remember that you are communicating with your photograph, so think about what it is you want to say to the viewer; 5) use the "rule of thirds", which is not an actual rule but a general technique, but only when it makes the image stronger; and 6) if color isn't an essential part of the image, make it black and white.

That's a good starting point for you. Practice, experiment and build on what you learn. Before long you will be surprised at just how much better your photographs are.


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