Learning how to take a good picture – and the difference between a good one and an excellent one – is a critical part of photography. And it is really simple:
That’s it. No complicated mathematical equation here. Get it out of the center. It’s that simple. Most cameras have centered focusing brackets or “targets” in the viewfinder. When the focusing area is in the center of the frame, we tend to aim the “sights” at our target, a.k.a. subject. This is called the Bull’s Eye Syndrome.
Getting the subject out of the center of the frame makes for a more interesting picture. Okay, why? Greek artists discovered that the human eye tends to rest on certain points in an image, and they considered this natural movement “the concert of the eye.” Imagine a grid in the viewfinder, such as a tic-tac-toe pattern: two lines evenly spaced across and two lines evenly spaced down. Where the lines intersect is where the eye tends to focus. As the grid breaks up the frame into sections of three, this is called The Rule of Thirds. By placing your subject on one of these intersecting points, the eye can look at the center of interest, then feel free to move around the image to look at the rest of the photograph. A sense of movement is created.
The ancient Greeks were passionate lovers of the arts and sciences. They analyzed how we look at art and what makes art interesting or boring. Static, centered subjects keep the eye focused, even trapped, right in the middle. By providing an opportunity for the eye to move around the image, people found the art more interesting.
This movement of the eye is critical to making a boring, tourist shot into something that makes people say “Wow!” Take a moment and look at a picture you have on your wall. Or grab a magazine and just look at some graphic image. Watch the path your eye takes. First it zooms in on something of interest. Then it wanders over here and wanders over there. Does your eye feel locked in one place? Or does it just keep wandering all over the place? Does it zoom to one thing, then bounce to another, and bounce back to the first and back to the second? You feel like you’re watching a tennis match. Or does your eye race all over the image, looking at everything and never standing still. After a while, you feel a little seasick, right?
Our eye likes to roam, but it enjoys a good rest once in a while. By putting your subject in one of those four intersections of the rule of thirds, you now offer the eye something to look at and places to roam.
Line it Up on the Horizon
Humans prefer things in their proper places and looking like they should. We have expectations that water runs down, trees grow up and the earth may be a ball but it looks flat from where we stand. Be careful in threatening those expectations.
One of the common expectations often threatened is the rule of a straight horizon. Excited about a beautiful sunset or landscape,we tend to forget to make sure the camera is level along the horizon. A tipped horizon can give a sense of sea sickness. Take time to lined up your horizon with trees growing straight up and the water running down hill, if that is your goal.
Horizontal vs Vertical
The camera has two formats to choose from: horizontal or vertical. The most popular is horizontal. Is it popular because it looks best? No. It’s popular because that is how cameras are made to be held, flat across our faces. Manufacturers make the tripod screw mount to accommodate that format by putting it on the bottom of the camera body. Is it the best composition? Not always. Tall trees are best photographed vertically. There is a feeling of height and power. Landscapes may look best as a horizontal, but not always. Try both ways to see which you like when you get your film back, then decide. It’s an artistic choice, so use it.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Keep your images simple and they will have a greater strength and artistic concept. Learn to see the distractions and eliminate or minimize them. It is easy to stand there and try to get the whole scene into your picture, but what is the point? Tell us what the story is about by giving us a summary, not the whole book. Go for the simple.
Getting Too Excited
Too often the cougar comes out of the bushes when we aren’t ready to take a picture. Still we grab the camera for a few shots. Then we tell ourselves that even if they don’t turn out, at least we will have recorded what we saw. We get them back to find that we actually saw a blur. It happens. No matter how exciting it is to have a bull moose stride past you, a seasoned photographer learns to prevent getting too excited by understanding how their equipment works, how it sees, and by honing their skills through practice, learning to trust their instincts.
Understanding your equipment
Film, cameras and lenses have standard limitations. They can only record what you tell them to record and see what they see. A camera can’t see what you see. It’s a simple tool. The brain and eye are much more sophisticated, allowing us to “see” more than the camera is capable of. To make quality photographs, you must learn how to see as the camera sees. Learn how images are recorded on film so you can properly expose the film to capture the end result you want.
Understanding your equipment, its limits and strengths, is a critical part of photography. We can’t walk around with our pictures telling everyone what is in the photograph or what we were really trying to accomplish. We need to learn to see photographically. We must learn how to tell a story with our photographs so we don’t have to tell the story for them. We need to understand how to control our resources (our equipment) to create beautiful images.
Dot Animal Syndrome
Everyone was excited about the bear in the field, but at 35mm, the bear is a dot in the landscape. The eye magnified the size of the bear. When the person is excited, the adrendaline rush magnifies what the eye sees. Take care to breath, relax, and control your actions and honestly view a scene through the viewfinder before you press the shutter to eliminate Dot Animal Syndrome.
One of the first lessons in learning photography is understanding how your camera works and how it sees. The human eye has an almost magical ability to zero in on
what is the “center of interest” and enlarge it. Ever been at a party and been able to pick out individual conversations? Or in a crowd and zero in on your friend? What capacity we humans have to eliminate distractions and focus on what’s important. The camera doesn’t have that ability.
In the excitement of seeing something like a black bear, our eye sees the bear and adrenaline enlarges it, magnifies it in our minds. The lens can’t. Be careful to really see how large the subject is in the viewfinder. Take your eye away from the center and look all around the edges. How large is the subject in proportion to the other elements in the image? Is what you are seeing magnified by your mind or your camera? Take time with your subject and slow down. See what the camera is seeing and ignore what your amazing brain wants to enlarge.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
It bears repeating: Simplify, simplify, simplify. To improve the quality of your images, you must learn to notice all the details, choosing which you want and which to eliminate. Too many details get distracting and confusing. The process of elimination is simple. Take the time to look around your viewfinder and ask yourself if what you are seeing is important to the final image. If not, get rid of it. If you can’t get rid of it, reposition yourself or make it work for you. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it important to the final image?
- Do I want this in my picture?
- Does it add to the story?
- Is it distracting?
- What is the point of my picture?
- Is it clearly evident?
These simple questions will help to eliminate and simplify your images and improve their quality. Take time, have patience and work with the subject from different angles and positions. The more you know about a subject, the better you can render its image. We will tackle more about getting to know your subject in the section about photographing wildlife.
- The Notebook
- Visit a local office supply store and purchase a notebook to use to record your photographic efforts as you proceed through this program. Make sure that it has a strong enough cover or backing so that you can easily hold it in your hand and write on it. Choose a size easy for you to carry either in your pocket or camera bag. It may have lines or not, that is up to you. Just make sure it is easy to use, then use it. Use it to record composition elements, exposure, which lens you used, and any discoveries you make along the way. When your film is processed, compare your notes with the end results to not only see how you did but to learn from your experiments.
- Rule of Thirds
- Choose a simple subject and photograph it placed right in the center. Then take a series of four pictures with the subject placed towards each of the four corners. Which ones do you like better?
- Horizon Lines
- Photograph a landscape scenic and pay attention to the horizon line, keeping it level. Then slightly tilt your camera to one side, slanting the horizon line and take another picture. Compare the results.
- Horizontal vs Vertical
- Photograph a series of subjects in both directions without recomposing. Compare the results. Do some subjects just look better in one direction or the other?
- Write down the questions in this section onto a small card to carry with you in the field. As you prepare your composition, run through the questions and answer them. Write down your answers in your notebook. Many times we hear people say, “Why did I ever take this picture?” Write down your reasons so you will know the answer when you get it back. See if your composition changes as you go through the questions before pressing the shutter.
Developing the Photographic Approach
When we approach a potential photograph, we come to the scene with years of experience that has been flavored by numerous photography classes and training programs. Developing your photographic approach is a step-by-step process, initiated at each location, and reinitiated upon each repositioning within the location. Here are some examples of how we approach our photographic subjects.
Rule of Thirds
Using the Rule of Thirds as a starting point, we mentally divide our viewfinder into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, like a tic-tac-toe pattern. By placing our subject at one of these power points, we increase the tension, and therefore the interest, in our pictures. The eye moves around the picture, resting upon the main subject, and then continues on, returning back to rest. With our subject in an interesting placement, we can then search the viewfinder to see what else catches our eye, and decide what else should or should not be included.
The deer seems to stare at the out of focus and distracting branch in the foreground. Anything that attracts the eye of the subject will attract the eye of the viewer, calling attention to something you might not want to be the main focus of the photograph. Take care to pay attention to all distracting elements as they can hold the attention of the viewer away from your main intended subject.
The simpler your picture is, the more powerful it tends to be. Carefully study what is within the boundaries of your viewfinder. With your eye, sweep across the frame from one upper corner and back and forth to the bottom. Then trace your eye along the entire outer edge of the viewfinder to find any distractions or unwanted items that might sneak into your frame like a bit of a tree branch or a piece of litter. Make sure that everything within the viewfinder is supposed to be there. Think of your viewfinder as a box in which you have many toys, but where you can only play with one or two of them at a time. Count all the things that hold your attention. Does that number exceed 3? What about the litter in the foreground? How about the garbage can or the edge of the parking lot in your nature scenic? Can that be eliminated by repositioning yourself? Check the foreground and background. What holds your attention? Is it what you want people to look at?
By changing positions, lenses, or your composition, you can change the perspective and eliminate the distractions that can’t physically be removed. Get low, lie on the ground, stand tall, stand on a ladder or vehicle for a higher perspective. Don’t be limited by where you plant your body and/or camera and tripod. Take the camera off the tripod and walk around to find the best angle. When you have found the spot, then position your tripod accordingly. Take your time to consider the many ways and choices you have to photograph a subject.
Why? Think About Why
Why are you pressing the shutter? You might be surprised at the answer. These impulses to come from different sources. Some are creatively driven (“It called to me.”), while others are politically driven (“I have to show the people back home how much fun I had.”), and others are story-telling impulses (“I have to show them everything I did.”). All are worthwhile to consider, but really examine your motive. Take a moment and look deeper to find the reason why.
Approaching Tips and Tricks
- Patterns and Textures
- Look for basic patterns in lines and curves. The S-curve is easily found in streams, hills, paths, roads, and plowed fields. Horizontal lines are peaceful while vertical lines are more daring, since we know that what goes up must come down. Diagonal lines are dramatic since they are already falling and give a sense of motion. Look for other patterns in shapes and outlines of subjects. And look for textures, subjects that add depth and dimension to your images.
- Leading Lines
- Watch how the eyes move around and through the subject matter in your viewfinder. You are already starting to see what the viewer will see in the end result. Look for lines and flows of subjects that lead your eye into the picture. Is the subject matter strong enough to keep the eye inside the picture frame, or do the leading lines take your eye right out of the picture? Watch how your own eye moves through the image and take another look for distracting elements.
- Fill the Frame
- Come in closer. Whether you physically get closer or you change to a longer lens, fill the frame with the subject. This not only eliminates distractions but it gives the viewer a closer perspective of the subject.
- Catch the action
- If there is something special, some action, motion, or drama in the image, make sure you capture the peak action. If the bird is landing on the water, capture the dramatic action of the water splashing out as it touches down. If photographing a waterfall, choose a slower shutter speed to catch the silky blur of the water’s movement. A marmot pops up out of his den and screams a danger warning that a predator is near. The creative drama in your images is enhanced when some form of motion is captured.
- What is really special about the place?
- Every subject has some special quality to it. Maybe that’s what motivated you to stop, but it could also be whatever is unique and distinct to that subject. A ponderosa pine is an interesting tree, but what is really distinctive about it is its deeply-textured bark. Lichen-covered rock is fascinating, but is it the rock or the lichen that is really attracting your attention? The more time you spend in a place, the more special qualities you uncover. Photograph them all.
- Experiment with Perspectives
- Choose a subject or scene and spend at least a half hour with it. Look at it from all different angles and perspectives. See what you can find.
- Tell a Story
- Choose a subject or scene and spend some time with it, from a day to a year. Photograph it from different angles, in different light, and under different weather and seasonal conditions. Find ways to tell the “story” of the subject through your images and composition. Take notes and really investigate the subject so that you can learn all about it and to help you improve your photographic story-telling abilities. For more information on story-telling with your images, check out Enhance Your Story with Photographs.
Thirty-six satisfactory exposures on a roll means a photographer is not trying anything new.
Composing for People
While most of our images are of nature, people can be an enhancement to nature photographs. They provide a sense of scale and perspective. They draw USA, the audience, into the photograph. We tend to see the image from their point of view and not necessarily from our perspective outside the photograph.
Putting people in your picture can be done in two ways. Either make them the subject of your photograph or make them a detail. To make them the subject, follow the basic compositional rules of putting them in the rule of thirds, or filling the frame with them.
- Keep ‘em straight
- Make sure the ground they are standing on is straight. It’s easy to get excited and in a hurry when taking the picture, and when you get home you get a good laugh explaining that this is a picture of Aunt Martha sliding off the planet. Watch out for horizon lines and keep things straight.
- Different angles
- Just because everyone else takes pictures of the family standing in front of the famous statue doesn’t mean you have to. Look around for ways to capture your subjects from different perspectives. Get low and aim up, or get high and aim down. Get them looking at the statue and not looking at the camera. Maybe the statue isn’t as important as the looks on their faces as they are seeing it for the first time. Find new ways and angles to include them in the photograph.
- Making Eyes
- Make sure you can see their eyes. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul – make sure it looks like someone is home. Watch shadows under the eyes or on the face – they can become a distraction and can make people look tired. Who is that, Alice? A distracting person in your image can pull the eye totally away from the subject of the photograph. Make sure the image is enhanced by the presence of the person.
Part of the magic of photography is the storytelling capability of your images. What story are you telling with your photograph? In the two following images, while they are basicallly the same, featuring a photograph of Brent in a snowy forest, they each tell a different story. What story are they telling?
Brent appears to be standing and admiring the view.
By changing his stance, he now appears to be hiking through the snow.
- Do something
- Get them doing something interesting. A picture of Fred standing in front of a museum is just Fred standing in front of a museum. What if Fred were eating an ice cream cone. Then you’d have a picture of Fred eating an ice cream cone in front of a museum and the story would change. You’d start to think about how ice cream cones are probably forbidden inside and he’s probably gulping it down, or that maybe he just got out of the hot sun for a moment to stand in the shade of the building to eat his ice cream cone. There are more important elements to the story now. Body language and position plays an important part in how you tell the story. If you want to tell the story of a man hiking through the snow, you want to see a body position indicative of movement. If you want to tell the story of someone admiring the view, you show them standing still facing the view. Body placement, body language, and the impression of movement or stillness all adds to the story conveyed by the positioning of the person in the image.
- What story are you telling?
- By making them a detail you add dimension and scale to your image. A small person in a large canyon provides the audience with a sense of the height of the walls. A dot person in a wide reaching landscape makes us feel small in this vast world around us. If the person is a detail in the image, choose to make them an obvious detail. By having the person wear a red coat or something bright, or be positioned in a way that our eye notices them, the viewer looks at the person and then moves to examine the rest of the image. If their eye stumbles upon the person as their eye wanders through the image, the rest of the time may be spent wondering what that person is doing out there, ignoring the rest of the image. Keep a balance and let the person be a part of the image and the audience can share in their discovery.
Photographs with people present offer a great opportunity for sales. Today, the industry requires model releases from anyone appearing in a photograph, or personal property in a photograph, such as a barn or house, or even someone’s dog. It allows you to use their image in any way you would like without compensating them. It used to be that as long as the person was unrecognizable, you could publish the image. The human form has now been recognized as unique and distinctive for each human alive, requiring permission of the person in the image before publishing. Images for editorial use in magazines and newspapers are still permitted without a release but if you intend to sell to the commercial market, get a model release to protect yourself.
- Approaching Techniques
- With your “keep it simple” card, approach a scene asking yourself the questions about the story behind the picture, examining your reasons before you press the shutter. Take notes as you go to help you “uncover” the reasons you decided to pause here with your camera.
- Photographing People
- With family or friends, photograph them during some social activity. Make sure you get permission first. Work to get them doing something interesting, not just standing or sitting there, and work from different angles like from below or up high looking down. Watch for the catchlight in the eye and the dark shadows hiding the eyes if the light is overhead. Rearrange them if you need better lighting or positioning. If possible, take notes and compare them with your results.