We had a very successful photography workshop at the woods this weekend, and everybody seemed to enjoy it very much. I split the day into two sections: the first called “taking the right picture”, which was about composition, the second called “taking the picture right” which was about technical elements of photography. We did lots of practical exercises, working round the frequent heavy showers of rain, and we looked at lots of examples.
At the end of the day, as we were doing the final exercise, I got to thinking that there is a lot to take in on some of these days. What would be the five points that I would sum up with to help beginners move away from snapshots and towards taking photos that reliably look the way you want them to look.
So here they are:
1. Remember the rule of thirds
Dividing the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically, and placing subjects, horizons, or natural breaks in the image on those thirds produces nice, well-balanced images (at least it does most of the time). Lots of cameras provide you with a nice grid to make this easy. Practice until this becomes automatic and then, if you do decide to break this rule of thirds, at least you know that you are doing it, and why you are doing it, and for what reason.
2. Use leading lines
Leading lines, or visual cues, or visual pathways – whatever you like to call them – are things that lead the eye of the viewer through the photograph. They help you, as the photographer, to lead the viewer on the same visual journey as you took when you composed the image. In short, you are helping the viewer to see through the photographer’s eye. The picture tells a story, becomes more dynamic, and excites the imagination much more when you are guided through it, than when you are left confused as to what, exactly, you are supposed to be seeing (unless creating that confusion is part of the purpose of the image!).
3. Check the relationship between subject and background
It is SO easy to be so intently focused on the subject that you lose sight of what is around it. Very small adustments in your position, the subject’s position, and the use of lighting, shadow and colour can make the difference between an OK picture and a very special one. Look at how the subject is framed, the balance between the subject and the space around the subject, and the balance of light and shade, dark and light, and colours, across the frame. Getting rid of distracting shadows, highlights, colour patches, or objects can really help the photographer to direct attention to the subject, and make it stand out.
4. Find and use the exposure compensation button on your camera
Cameras on auto give bland, average exposures. Even ones with clever “intelligent” metering, spot metering, centre-weighted metering and other fancy backlight compensation buttons. Auto exposure works pretty well on simple subjects with uniform lighting across the frame. It doesn’t work well if, say, you have a light subject on a dark background, or vice versa, or in situations where the subject is backlit, or situations of high contrast. You decide whether it is the highlights or shadows that are important in your image, and then set the exposure accordingly. You might need to compensate a lot, a little or not at all. Check your exposure (by the mark one eyeball, or histogram, or both), then compensate. Learn how to do this without looking. It really does make a difference.
5. Get off auto and use the aperture and shutter speeds creatively
Get off the button marked Auto, iA, P or whatever it is on your camera, and start using the Aperture-priority (A or Av) and Shutter-priority (S or Tv) modes. This will give you instant control of depth of field (how much of the frame is in focus – using Av), and of how motion is portrayed (freeze or blur – using Tv). Honestly, it really makes a huge difference. Virtually all cameras come with these features. They are there for a reason. If you don’t have Av and Tv (or A and S) on your camera, then try using the “creative scene” modes – like Sport, Macro, Landscape, Portrait. Again, they are there for a reason. Just don’t be frightened to get that button off Auto. You can always put it back again if things go wrong.
6. Visualise the final result and then set about getting that result
This is probably the hardest bit to get, but once you do get the hang of it, you change from a snapper into a photographer. You are then in charge of what you are recording, rather than the situation around you. It sounds like it takes a bit of time to do this, and often it does. Quite often it takes ages to visualise and then create the image you want. But it doesn’t have to, and with practice, you can visualise, even when you have to make a rapid judgement and take a genuine “snap shot”.
The first thing you need to do is learn to figure out what it is in a scene that catches your eye, catches your interest, makes it something you think worthy of photographing. The human eye doesn’t record things like a camera does – that is, with equal weighting to every pixel on the sensor. The eye darts around, picking up lots of different small details, and the brain stitches that together into a whole. That is why when 20 people look at the same scene they will see 20 different scenes, or interpretations of that scene. That is also why, when you get home, you are often disappointed in the photo you have taken.
Perhaps you are in a woodland and you take a few photos of the view around you – the trees, the paths, the undergrowth. But that doesn’t actually capture the feeling of being there. That is because your eye wasn’t looking at all that stuff all at once. The experience you had wasn’t a result of the sum of the whole, but what your brain made out of lots of little details. You need to work out what is drawing your eye. In a woodland it could be the shapes of the trees, the colours of the leaves, the wonderful colours of the highlights where the sun comes through the shade. Work out what it is and then take a picture of that. It might not show the viewer a general woodland scene, but it will show the viewer what held your attention. It will probably mean much more to you as well. It also helps to work out what you are feeling: is it fear? magic? happiness? sadness? You can tailor your images to fit your emotions, and tell a story much more effectively if you can work this out.
Once you have worked out what it is you want to show, you have to work out how to show it. That is sometimes hard, but you are well on the way if you can visualise the result you want. Think about whether it will look better if the picture is fundamentally dark, or fundamentally light. If it is colourful or monochrome. If it is sharp or soft. You can control most of these things when you take the picture, or with simple processing.
Visualising the final result, and then going about getting that result using the first five points should help you become happier with your pictures.