Monday, March 5, 2012

My 12-Step Program to Better Pictures

Anyone who knows me knows that I am passionate (passionate!) about photography. I've spent a lot of time in the past two years learning how to take better pictures. I hope I don't sound vain here, but I feel  like the studying has finally been paying off and things are now clicking.

After sharing some photography stuff with my boss at work, he jokingly told me that he was going to put me on a 12-step program. That got me thinking that I should put together a 12-step program of my own. I'll share what I learned and hopefully in two-weeks, just in time for Easter break, at least one person who reads this blog will be taking better photos.

And so I begin...

Step One: It's NOT about the Camera
Yes, a good camera helps, but if you're waiting for a bigger, better camera to take better pictures, I'll guarantee you two things:

  1. You're missing opportunities to take better pictures NOW; and
  2. You'll be really disappointed if/when you finally get a big girl/boy camera 
The key ingredient to a good photo is good composition. The good thing is this means you don't need a DSLR (expensive) camera to take good pictures. That's right, you DON'T. Even if you're saving up for a DSLR (and, yes, if you are really serious about good pictures, a DSLR is ultimately what you want) as long as you have access to any kind of camera at all, then pick it up and dust it off and get ready to start snapping pictures. I mean it, even if all you have is your cellphone camera, that'll work, too. I love, love, love taking pictures with my cellphone camera all the time. (Yes, I'm sick, but at least I know it).

One of the hardest things for me when I first starting taking pictures was to really look at what was within the frame of the viewfinder or LCD. 

It takes a lot of practice to look at the world as the camera sees it instead of as we see it. If you are deliberate about what you exclude/include in the frame and the angle in which you take the shoot, you can take an awesome photo with any kind of camera at all. And if you still not convince, many professional photographers love the challenge of doing a complete photo shoot with a compact camera or cellphone.

Here's a few visuals of what I'm talking about. Yesterday while we were at the beach, my friend Liz took my camera and asked if she could take some pictures of me (I think she wanted to show me how annoying it can be to be with me for any length of time). Forget the issues with the light because that'll be a topic in a later step. We're just focusing on composition for now.

At first glance this picture may look okay, but look at my legs and you'll see that she cut me off at the ankles. There's something about cutting off limbs at the joints that is unconsciously disturbing to the human mind. You may not have noticed it, but now that I told you about it, you know what I'm talking about. It would have been better for her to come in a bit with the camera and capture me at mid-thigh or pull back the camera and capture my feet, too so I had her try again.

In this shot above, Liz pulled the camera back a bit so now I'm not cut off at the joints, but in doing so, she centered me. When taking a picture of a single subject you don't want them in the center of frame. This should only be done with groups of people. Ideally a single subject should to the right or left of the frame, depending on the direction in which the subject is facing and the background involved. Notice, too, that my foot is a little cut off, but because it's not at the joint it's not a bad thing. I had Liz try again, this time positioning the camera so I'm 1/3 off to the side.

And there you have it, a much better composite. My limbs aren't chopped off and I'm framed a bit off to the side. True, you may not have realized there was an issue at first with the other shots, but when you are looking at the pictures that other people take, subconsciously your brain sees these and knows something isn't quite right.

Lesson Two will be building on composite by focusing on the elements within the frame.

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