In the November/December 2012 issue of BackHome Magazine, one of my photography articles along with a few photo's were published. I'd like to share it with you.
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Digital camera technology has transformed the world of photography. This advancement in technology has provided low cost, high quality photography equipment to the masses and more and more people are beginning to explore that world.
We’re going to look at ways you can improve your photographic technique that applies to all types of digital cameras by exploring concepts of what makes a great photograph and how to take advantage of your high tech digital cameras.
I start all of my photography workshops with this statement: “Photography is all about Light”. Most people tend to focus on the wrong things when it comes to taking photographs…they place the emphasis on the object or subject believing that the object itself is what makes a great image. Obviously, we do photograph things, and locations like The Grand Canyon offer some wonderful photo opportunities, but great photographs are less about the things we photograph, and more about how we photograph them. When we approach our photography from the concept of light rather than the subject, even ordinary everyday objects can become great subjects.
It’s not the quantity of light that is important it is the quality of light that matters most. Jack Dykinga a world class nature photographer once said,
“Cameras and lenses are simply tools we use to capture our unique vision on film. Concentrate on equipment and you will take technically good photographs, but concentrate on seeing the lights magic colors and your images will stir the soul.”
Too often novice photographers get caught up in the equipment game believing that a certain camera or a special lens is required to produce that great photograph. The equipment simply imparts various technical qualities to an image. It is you, the photographer, who captures the image. How you use light and how you compose the image based on the quality of light is what generates that great photograph. The camera and lens are only the tools you use to accomplish this. Virtually all consumer level cameras available today are quite capable of taking very high quality images. It’s just a matter of following some basic principles. So, let’s look at a few concepts that can help us understand what makes a great photograph.
Effective Use of Light: Generally speaking, for outdoor photography, there is a time called ‘The Golden Hour’. This usually refers to the first thirty minutes before and after sunrise, and the last thirty minutes before and after sunset. It is during this golden hour that the best outdoor photographic light exists where shadows are long, and the light is rendered in warmer tones. I’m not necessarily speaking about sunrises and sunsets, but it is this soft warm light that is cast across the landscape that will often transform what would commonly be considered ordinary into something extraordinary.
This transitional light will often create a tremendous amount of mood and energy. Use the warm cast or reflected light to soften and add a dynamic to your images that harsh midday light will not.
Overcast days can often provide the very best light for certain kinds of photographs because of its soft diffused nature. This is critical when attempting to photograph places like inside of a wooded area. When the light is bright, it will create harsh high contrast conditions in wooded areas where the range between the lights and shadows are so far apart, that most cameras will struggle to capture the scene effectively. Either the shadows will be too dark or the light areas will be blown out. The soft diffused light of an overcast day will provide great, even lighting allowing for a more complete exposure.
Waterfalls are also better photographed on overcast days than bright sunny days. The lower intensity of the diffused light allows for longer shutter speeds which generates those great flowing water photos. With the lower light intensity, shooting from a tripod is a good idea as it will allow for a steady shot.
Foggy mornings are some of my favorite times to photograph because the fog will diffuse and disperse the light and impart a sense of mystery and suspense to the scene. As the sun begins to rise and burn off the fog, new opportunities present themselves that allow for those great beams of light casting through the trees.
One mistake I see from novice photographers is always having their subject fully lit from the front. A great technique to try instead is backlighting, or having your subject illuminated from behind, or from the side. With a little practice, using this kind of lighting can transform your images especially with people as it will generate highlights and emphasize shape and form as well as create character and drama.
As important as effective use of light is in photography, almost equally as important is composition. I define composition as an effective positioning of the elements within a scene in such a way that all the elements work together to create a single story. The concepts of composition ordinarily would require an article all unto itself, but we’re going to look at some basic fundamentals of what makes an effective composition.
Composition - Rule of Thirds: Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid on your image with crossing lines that create three distinct blocks at three different levels both vertically and horizontally. Near the center there are four offset points where these lines converge. The rule of thirds and how it applies to effective composition is based on this visual configuration.
In most cases, effective composition is created when the image can be spaced into these three areas with the main point of interest falling on or near one of the converging points that are slightly offset from center.
Inexperienced photographers tend to place their center of interest in the center of the image. Sometimes this actually does work, but in most situations you should offset your main center of interest to where it falls on or near one of those converging points on the grid, and space out the scene to where it is broken into thirds. Offsetting your main subject will allow you to impart a higher interest level in your photograph.
Composition - Keep it Simple: There are three words that resonate in my mind every time I take a picture….simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Your purpose as a photographer is to find order amongst the chaos. Simplicity does not mean that an image lacks for complex details. What it does mean is that everything in the image is there for a reason and there is nothing there that detracts from the story.
Too many elements in the image confuse the viewer. By keeping your compositions simple helps to generate images that carry tremendous story telling strength.
Composition – Symphonic Melody: The first time I used this term in a workshop I received a lot of puzzled looks, but it actually makes a lot of sense once you understand what it means. Symphonic Melody (SM) is the engine that drives the impact of the photograph. It determines the character, flavor, and even drama of the image. Use of color and contrast are two elements that help define SM and are often associated with mood and energy. Ask yourself…what mood do I want to convey? Then, search for ways to isolate that mood. Look for contrasts of color, look for angles and expression of atmosphere. Symphonic Melody is a way of blending physical elements into an emotionally expressive image.
Composition – Get Lower: Photographing kids can be challenging. Many times I see photos of kids that were taken from a standing position looking down on the subject often distorting the perspective, or the subject(s) are lined up with their hands to their sides with a forced grin plastered on their faces.
It’s important when photographing kids to kneel down to their eye level. Use a telephoto lens to allow you to back off far enough to avoid encroaching into their space. Also, by using a telephoto lens, something in the neighborhood extending out to 200mm, and a relatively large aperture setting (f/4.0…f/5.6…etc) you tighten up the depth of field and create that professional looking isolation effect against a blurred background. Fill the frame and catch their expressions up close. To avoid harsh shadows and squinty eyes photograph in a shaded area or on an overcast day.
Children are best photographed when they are actively doing something as opposed to posing. Give them something to do, or to hold, keep talking and encouraging and shower them with praises. Your images will be more powerful and personal and they will capture more closely the personalities of the kids. One more thing…be mindful of the background, you don’t want a distant light pole sticking out of someone’s head.
Composition – Look Beyond the Ordinary: One of the best ways to generate effective compositions is to think in terms of looking beyond the ordinary. By this I mean to avoid the cliché photos and think about what is most important about what you’re observing. Focus your efforts into looking beyond what you might ordinarily photograph.
Instead of photographing the barn, the tractor, the flower patch, the sky, and the fields behind all of that in one single image…focus in on one thing…simplify your composition…look at the textures on the barn door. Look at the lines and angles in the design of the tractor…focus on one single flower and position your camera so the light you capture shines thru the flower instead of on it. In short, look beyond the obvious and seek out those things that define the greater scene from a smaller perspective.
Taking effective photographs in the digital age requires understanding simple basic principles of how to use light and composition. By applying some basic concepts of composition with an understanding of how light affects the mood of an image, your photography will take on a newer, more polished look. Always remember photography is about having fun and enjoying the process, and most importantly…it’s all about light.