I’m on a journey to learn how to take better photographs. I find myself asking:
- What makes some photographs so much better than mine?
- Why are they different?
- What do I see in those photographs that makes me think they are better? What’s the secret?
There are many factors that are involved, including:
- Does it matter?
- When to take the picture
- How long to expose the photograph
Last weekend I went on a trip to Roan Moutain, TN, with a group from the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, led by Julian Charles, who is the director of the photography department there. It was a great trip. In 48 hours, I met six photographers (great people) and explored a bit of the beautiful smokey mountains. While there I created some of my favorite photographs so far. During the day we were out photographing mountain scenery, and at night we had discussions about theories of composition. It was reassuring to hear a professional photographer relating that this is not something you learn and then you are finished. This is a journey, that doesn’t end. So this article is the start of many that discuss how to take better photographs.
Rules of composition:
Some of the rules of composition are:
- Leading lines
- Rule of thirds
- Golden ratio
- Rule of odds
The image above is using several of these. I like this picture. Is it because it is using those rules? Maybe… Maybe it’s because these buildings look like Dr. Seuss created them.
Have you ever taken a picture of something that you initially thought looks good, however, later you check out your picture and it looks like a snapshot full of so much crap that you don’t really know what you were taking the picture of? I have. Lots, and lots of pictures like that. Your picture should have a clear subject. Sometimes it is difficult to define a subject. What is the subject in the picture above? This is almost a trick question because in this case, the single subject is the ‘group’ of buildings.
Golden hour, blue hour, flash photography, shadows, blinkies, histograms, and on, and on, and on… This topic is huge. The image of the three outbuildings above was taken in the late afternoon during the winter. The shadows are harsh. This isn’t considered to be a great time of day to be taking pictures outside, but it actually works out in this case. In this case, it provides great contrast for a black and white image and luckily the subject is perfect for a black and white also.
Does it matter? Yes, it matters. Especially if you like toys, and I love toys. It matters, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a better photographer. A great photographer can take great pictures with a minimalist camera. A bad photographer will only be hampered by having equipment he doesn’t know how to use. I’m one of those people that loves technology and gadgets. I know that I don’t become a better photographer when I get a new piece of gear. Even though I like new gear, I’m well aware that I am better served to learn more about composition and light, and to practice making better images, than I am to go buy new toys. But gear is fun.
There at least two ways that timing is important in photography. First, when you take a picture is important. If you are capturing an event, then you have to capture it when it occurs. If you are capturing a location, then maybe you want to capture it when the light is magical (sunrise or sunset). There is also the time you expose your film (or camera sensor). How long is your shutter open and why does that matter? If your shutter is open for a long time, then you can see motion in your image as items move through your image (think of light trails or waterfalls that show motion). If your shutter is open for a very short period, like a 500th of a second, then it freezes time. You can freeze the drops of water in the waterfall, or freeze the car that is driving by. You need to think about what your goal is with the image in order to decide how long you want your shutter open.
If you look at the image of the three buildings, you can see that because the building on the left is closest to me, it looks largest. The building to the right is furthest so it is smaller in the image. You can almost see lines of perspective starting with the building on the left and heading towards a vanishing point beyond the building on the right. Just imagine the line going across the tops of all three buildings, and another line going across the foundation of the left building and the middle building and continuing into the bottom right of the smallest building on the right.
Another important way to use perspective in photography is put your camera in a place that seems unusual. In the image below from the same trip, I have the camera almost in the water in order to get a picture that is more dramatic. The black and white photo is the picture I was after. The color image below it demonstrates how I was able to get a very low perspective by using a tripod that is able to do some nice tricks.
And so the journey begins.