Photography – Tell a Story
With the prevalence of digital cameras and cell phones with excellent camera function, everyone can become an instant recorder of whatever is in front of them. However, not everyone is happy with the results they get for their efforts.
Whether you are shooting photos of people, products, landscapes, food, pets, buildings or whatever, there are different things you need to consider before you point and shoot. Getting the shot right the first time trumps any post-production fun you have in photo-editing software (if you care to invest in it). Why? Because there are some things that filters and manipulation on a computer cannot fix (or fix well) – and you can save yourself a ton of work and valuable time by learning how to shoot better photographs in the first place.
This mini-article addresses what I consider to be the three most important aspects of making a good photo: lighting, composition, and handling of subject matter.
Lighting – You Need Plenty of Light!
Are you outdoors? Is it sunny? What angle is the sun at? A cloudy day can produce a boring, nearly colorless photo – which is only good if that’s the look you’re going for – say, for a low-contrast background for text, or an illustration for a sad story, or a more restful feel. Noonday sun illuminates the landscape in a direct, bright manner, but it can look a little generic. If the sun is pointing the same direction as your camera, the image will look flat, which is rarely attractive and occasionally hard for a viewer to mentally process. Mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun can create much more interesting shadows, and of course sunrise and sunset will bring more exciting color.
Are you indoors? Is the lighting incandescent, halogen, or fluorescent? Different artificial light casts different colors on things, so be careful. Is the light too dim to see things very clearly? Dim light creates a graininess and annoying artifacts in your digital photos that weren’t so prevalent in old-school film photos. If you need more light, by all means, get some! Just keep in mind that some proper lighting kits, like for portraiture or product photography, can get a little pricey, but you do want spectrum-balanced light, and possibly diffusers, reflectors, or even options for gels or filters, depending on what you’re up to.
If you’re setting up objects to shoot for selling online, be it your original sculptures, or household junk you want to unload, take care to get a solid-color background (butcher paper, even a solid-color bed sheet if wrinkles are steamed out), and light the scene from slightly above from a 45-degree angle from both left and right, and if you can, additionally use what’s called a “fill light” on the background, to make the unsightly cast shadows of your object from those lights disappear. A professional lighting kit can cost several hundred dollars, but if you’re computer-graphics savvy and already have gooseneck lamps or construction lights and tripods or some way to hang them at an appropriate height above and to the side of your subject, then you can use minimal color correction in a photo-editing program to correct the color of light to something more neutral. Since I haven’t yet budgeted for a lighting kit, I resort to this for now myself. Or, in good weather, there is another option: daylight is cheaper than any of this, and quite flattering. I use it for many of my web photos of my artwork, although I have a professional shoot the high-def stuff for prints. Depending on the size of objects you’re shooting to sell online or whatever, if you have a good window, you can get a big sheet of vellum from the art store and tape it to the glass to diffuse the light, reflect it with a spare mirror, set up your objects on a table or the floor by the window, and off you go. Get creative!
Composition – Frame Your Shot in the Viewfinder
What composition do you feel like using with this photo? Formal and pyramidal, like the Mona Lisa? Bilaterally symmetrical, like some of the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera? Spatial and thoughtful, like the interiors of Edward Hopper? What works with your subject? Do you want to invite the viewer into the composition, or bar him or her from it? Are you aiming for calm, action, tension? How do you frame your shot?
Composition is key no matter what creative endeavor you’re working in, be it painting, photography, sculpture, film, animation, culinary arts, furniture design, architecture, or any other aesthetic pursuit. Composition makes or breaks it. Strive to make every part of what your audience sees interesting, appropriate, and engaging.
Shots can be formal or informal, and a lot of what makes it that way is symmetry and angle. Formal portraits tend to be more professional and less friendly and nearly always eye-level; informal ones can have more creative positioning of the subject against the background and a wider variety of backgrounds from which to choose. Landscapes that are presented in a symmetrical manner have a more static feel; but view more natural, increasingly asymmetrical ones, and you will note that they are increasingly dynamic. Note that there is nothing inherently wrong with something being formal or static; just remember to do it for a purpose, not just randomly or out of habit. There can be great beauty in symmetry – mass admiration of supermodels and super cars attest to that. Still, note that in art, having the bulk of your focal point in certain areas of a composition can be too predictable: the center, the corners, or the center of any edge. Try to work between these areas, and you will get more appealing results. Conversely, when selling products, one should generally go for more formal, symmetrical compositions – dead center is recommended, unless you plan to superimpose some copy to one side to pitch your product. Luckily, most digital camera viewfinders have an indicator that maps out the center and corners with an X or a crosshair in the middle; this can help you find the hotspots to avoid and the safe areas to use as described above.
If you plan to leave space in your photo for text, be it above, below, or to one side, consider the size of the end product (radically different for a web site than for vehicle graphics, garage sale signs, or a billboard), and the size of text that will be necessary for easy readability in its respective context and if there is necessarily a limited time alloted for people to read it (such as while driving). Remember that a very large segment of the population needs vision correction, and as we age, an even larger group has difficulty seeing. Never go below 12-point type on any lap-distance reading, and increase size as appropriate to accommodate all members of your target audience and the venue. Don’t use obnoxious, hard-to-read scripts, and ALL CAPS is a no-no. Restrict superimposed type over the photo to a minimum of absolutely essential information, and on an area that doesn’t have a lot of visual distraction and is a high contrast to the text color – too often I see low-contrast type over a busy picture, and can’t read half of it. Also keep in mind that reading light-colored text on a dark background causes more eyestrain than the opposite, more normal orientation. There are times to step out of the box, and times to exercise restraint; don’t confuse the two. Analyze what precisely it is you want to achieve, and then ensure that every element of what you create adheres to that goal. Don’t get so arty that you defeat your own purpose to communicate.
Subject Matter Treatment – What’s Appropriate for Your Topic
Fun shots of kids or pets can be shot at crazy angles, emphasizing wacky personalities or action. Pensive musician portraits may utilize stark lighting with dramatic shadows if that matches the genre of music they produce. Landscapes at a distance should take care to always keep the understood horizon line absolutely level – just a little bit off looks really bad – or if you’re going to tilt it, do it dramatically enough that it’s clear it’s intentional, and have a solid reason for doing it. Still life is nice with multiple levels of interest, and asymmetrical compositions are more lively and interesting to look at. Photos of hot rods should highlight their best lines and the lighting should show off their shine. Pictures of people or animals looking off to one side generally look better if they are looking toward more space than looking toward a nearby edge. Having a tree in dead center of a varied landscape is very static – feature it off to one side and it will look better, especially if it leans toward a space, just like with shooting people, cars or anything with a front-versus-back to it – have the subject face toward the rest of the picture, not the edge. Another approach to landscape can be contrastingly myopic – focus in on some little vignette; perhaps a collection of leaves whipped up by the autumn wind in an inescapable corner next to an interesting rock or a forgotten toy – anything that speaks to you. Let the emotion you feel while looking at it guide your camera and your framing of it. If something looks small and lonely, frame it in a way that conveys that – contrast it against a large surround of background or spotlight it, rather than getting in its face to loudly shout at the viewer, “It’s small and lonely!” – because sometimes the contrast of the empty space around it, or the isolating light source, will say that very effectively for you. Sometimes to show the personality of a subject, you show it en masse, like a whole frame full of pine needles, emphasizing the collective impact of many parts, creating more of a texture than a focal point. Let the subject give you a cue as to how it can be best portrayed. But know that everything has more than one side to it, and decide what specifically it is you want to say about your topic of focus, to decide how you execute the shot. You can do this with objects or with people. Ideally, know or get to know your subject – find out something on his or her mind, what he or she is passionate about, what quirks in his or her personality are most engaging for a viewer to discover – and go about experimenting to bring that out. Things can have personalities too – you have the ability to superimpose a personality onto things as an artist: humans anthropomorphize objects all the time and you can use that to your advantage and turn those objects into symbolic statements. Find and evoke, or subtly display, the essence of your subject.
Putting Theory to Practice
You’re probably getting the idea now that there are many different variables that make good or bad compositions. Train your eye. Leaf through a magazine or an art book; look at a large variety of pictures of paintings or advertisements or editorial photos, and try to dissect what it is about each one that makes you like it (or not like it). Analyze it and discuss it with others who are willing to analyze it. Is it a particular arrangement of elements within the picture plane? Note how those elements are arranged. Is it high contrast creating drama? Is it well balanced color-wise, or is there something that stands out by contrast of color or value? Is that because that’s what they’re trying to get you to notice? You can do that too. Take notes of tricks and their context, and you can employ those same effects to your work.
Digital photography is a blessing to beginners who don’t want to blow their budget on film and processing while they experiment. You can shoot all you want for practice and not lose a dime. Go through your disk of photos, and note what looks successful and what doesn’t. Don’t let your assessment be swayed by how much you do or don’t like the subject matter when you’re judging composition. If it helps, turn it upside-down to be able to focus better on the balance and arrangements of positive and negative space, of colors, of values, and of shapes. If it’s pleasing upside-down; chances are it’s pretty good right-side up.
This is a vast subject and I’ve only touched on three main issues to consider before you point and shoot. Feel free to ask specific questions about details I have overlooked or taken for granted (as I occasionally am guilty of that). I will be glad to exchange ideas.
Things to consider or discuss:
What emotions have you gotten from different kinds of lighting in a photo, and can you describe the lighting used?
What kinds of compositions attract you? Are there patterns of certain ones that draw you in or repel you?
Which subject matter really interests you?
What do you want to impart or experience from your dream shot?
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