How to Take Better Photos; the Art of “Seeing”

 

One of the thing you want to to tell a story with your photos. To do that I put myself into this photo (another hiker took it) and I placed myself looking into the scene holding my hiking sticks. So it is more than a pretty picture, it tells a story and hopefully makes the viewer wish he was there.

One of the thing you want to do is tell a story with your photos. To do that I put myself into this shot (another hiker took it) and I placed myself looking into the scene holding my hiking sticks. So it is more than a pretty picture, it tells a story and hopefully makes the viewer wish he was there.

In my last post I said anyone could master the “art” of photography and learn to take photos that they were proud of. In today’s post I want to give you some specific things you can do to elevate your “snapshots” (which are great for memories but aren’t really art) into the realm of an art form. The only way to do that is to understand the nature of photography and to take greater control over the elements of the photo.

The word photography literally means “painting with light” and that is exactly what you are doing when you push the shutter button—taking the light and objects you see in front of you and saving them forever. If you’re like most people, you put your camera on its “A” for Automatic or “P” for Program setting, and snap away hoping to get a good shot. And while you will get a bunch of shots that way, you have given up the great majority of control of the “light painting” you are creating on your memory card. By not having any control, you get what you get and maybe it’s good and maybe it’s bad.

Compare that to a painter who isn’t painting with light, instead, he is painting with pencils, ink, watercolors, oils or some other medium. Using his pencils or brushes he has almost total control over his art. He can take a daytime scene and paint it as a nighttime scene or vice versa. He controls the color, highlights and shadows of every tiny part of his canvas with the slightest touch of a different color or density of his medium. In other words, he has 100% control over his canvas.

I’m sure almost all of us think of painting as art but too many of us think of photography as snapshots we take for memories. It doesn’t have to be that way! Photography can be an art form for you if you want it to be, but only if you are willing to take control over the elements in the scene you are looking at. Taking control is what makes something an art form whether it is painting, music, sculptor or photography.

I want you to know that no matter what camera you are using, even if you’re using the camera on your phone, you can take a lot of control over your picture very easily right now by developing the art of “seeing.” We talk about having an “eye” for photography like it was something you were either born with or you weren’t, but I don’t believe that is true. Above everything else “seeing” a photo is nothing more than looking all around a scene to find what you want to include and what you want to leave out of it. It’s easy to see a beautiful mountain and pull your camera out and shoot it and the walk away–that is the opposite of “seeing!”It is blinding yourself to the scene!  Once you have a background you like, you need to look all around you for anything that will improve the shot. Is that a little pond over there? Water makes a great foreground! Is that a big bunch of wildflowers? Nothing improves a photo like beautiful wildflowers in the foreground! There’s a tree with big branches; can I take the photo under it with the branches framing the mountain? What will I find if I walk down this trail or drive down this dirt road toward that beautiful mountain? Let’s go see!!

The painter can paint a stream in front of a mountain, you have to go find it!

I took this shot in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. We had driven by this creek and I looked down on it and knew instantly this could be a great shot. It had a mountain river flowing directly into a beautiful mountain. But the sun was behind it and it would have been a bad shot. So I came back later that night and took this photo as the sun set. Notice the rock on the bottom right grabs your eye and then you follow the rocks into the middle of the stream.  There the white line leads up the river directly into the mountain.  So your eye  naturally flows with the picture creating the illusion of depth. The key is training your eye to look around for the elements that make a great shot.

I took this shot in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. We had driven by this creek and I looked down at it from the bridge as we drove over it and knew instantly this could be a great shot. It had a mountain river flowing directly into a beautiful mountain. But the sun was behind it and it would have been a bad shot. So I came back later that night and took this photo as the sun set, giving it a nice warm feeling. Notice the bright rock on the bottom right grabs your eye and then you follow the rocks into the middle of the stream. There, the white line leads up the river directly into the mountain.  As a photographer the key is training your eye to look around for the elements that make a great shot. Once you have that vision for it, you just have to figure out the technical stuff to make it happen.

Turning photography into art is not much more complicated than literally looking all around you and driving and walking around looking for beautiful things that you can include in a photograph. A painter can just brush in a tree, lake or wildflower but we can’t. So you are going to paint with light by walking all around and finding everything you can include (or exclude) from your photo to make it beautiful

This post got too long so it will be in two parts. First we will look at  simple things you can do that are free and take no money or learning.

Decide what your subject is. Every work of art needs a subject and if your photo doesn’t have one, why are you taking the shot? Look around and find a subject! Once you found it, say it out loud to yourself!

Make the subject prominent. You do that by weeding out anything that distracts from the subject but also be sure to include anything that enhances it. Here are some examples:

  • A big issue is bright spots. Our eyes automatically go to the brightest object so you want to move your position so that bright spots aren’t in the frame to pull your viewers eyes away from the subject.
  • A line leading in from the edge of the frame toward your subject will draw the viewer’s eye to the subject.
  • You won’t use this often, but sometimes you’ll use Depth of Field (explained in the next post) to make the background out-of-focus. If the subject is the only thing in focus, it’s very dominating!
  • A person looking at the subject leads the viewers eye to it.

Move around!! Your feet are your best key to better photos! A very small and simple change of perspective will dramatically alter the photo you are taking:

  • Step up on something to shoot down.
  • Lay down on your side to shoot up.
  • Walk around to change what’s in the foreground and background.
  • Move closer to make the subject bigger.
  • Move further away to make the subject smaller.
  • Turn the camera from horizontal to vertical.
  • Go explore for anything that will improve the photo.

Look for a frame for your subject. Overhead tree branches are a great one but it can be anything like a window frame or even clouds. If you are creative, you can shoot your subject along the side of your van or in your vans rear-view mirror

This picture was also taken in Zion NP. I was out driving and saw the mountain in this picture and knew it would be a good subject for a photo. But it wasn't enough by itself, I needed a foreground. So I stopped by this little creek and started walking up it looking for a shot, until I came here. It has all the elements that makes a good photo. A leading line (the creek) leads in from the bottom right drawing your eye directly to the subject of the shot, the mountain. And luckily enough there was a this tree branch across the top creating a frame for the photo.

This picture was also taken in Zion NP. I was out driving and saw the mountain in this picture and knew it would be a good subject for a photo. But it wasn’t enough by itself, I needed a foreground. So I stopped by this little creek and started walking up it looking for a shot, until I came here. It has all the elements that makes a good photo. A leading line (the creek) leads in from the bottom left drawing your eye directly to the subject of the shot, the mountain. And luckily enough there was a tree branch across the top creating a frame for the photo. My feet created this photo!

Don’t put the subject in the middle of the shot. It’s boring! So unless you’re looking for a peaceful, calm mood move it to some other point in the shot. Like all rules, this one is frequently broken!

Use the Rule of Thirds! Mentally divide the picture up into thirds like a tic-tac-toe game and put the main subjects and objects at the intersection of the lines. A horizon line is a good example, you almost never want it in the center of the picture (boring) move it up or down by a third. The exception is if you are going for a tranquil feel, then putting the horizon in the center of the frame is okay. Same with animals, have them at one of the intersections looking into the frame. If they are looking out of the frame your viewer’s eyes will follow the animals gaze right out of the picture! You don’t want that!

Try to convey emotions. The best photos elicit an emotional response in their viewers. Your job is to find some way you can change the scene to create an emotion. If it’s a shot of your friends, can they wave their fists in the air, can they jump all at once and you capture them? Can they do a group hug or point their fingers at each other? Have them turn to their side and shoot them looking at the beautiful scenery in awe.

Tell a story. If at all possible you want to tell stories with your photos. Sometimes the story is the subject. For example, you want to convey the loneliness of the road so you have a big open desert scene with a road going through it. Maybe the road is big in the foreground but then disappears into the distance. Or if you are hiking and come across a beautiful scene, hand your friend a stick and have him lean on it like a walking stick. That tells the story that you were out hiking and came across a beautiful scene.

The bottom line is 1) see the whole picture 2) use your imagination to find a way to improve it 3) use your feet to create a work of art.

I was at Cottonwood, Az when a storm blew in and I always look at storms as a great opportunity for exceptional photos.  I loved the dark moody sky but I knew it wasn't strong enough by itself for a great shot; it needed a good foreground.  The desert doesn't offer much except I had this Yucca in bloom, so it was drafted. To get this shot I had to lay down on my side and get very close to the Yucca to make it large enough to contribute.

I was at Cottonwood, Az when a storm blew in and I always look at storms as a great opportunity for exceptional photos. I loved the dark moody sky but I knew it wasn’t strong enough by itself for a great shot; it needed a good foreground. The desert doesn’t offer much except I had this Yucca in bloom, so it was drafted. To get this shot I had to lay down on my side and get very close to the Yucca to make it large enough to contribute.

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

27 comments on “How to Take Better Photos; the Art of “Seeing”
  1. Ariel says:

    Love the last piece from Cottonwood. Being outside in the sun and breeze is the ideal, but I’ve felt the beauty and power of nature most acutely right before a storm. Was recently on the Washington coast in dark swirling fog with visibility less than two feet… I felt as if I were in a fantasy novel. Maybe not the best place for a photo, but with your suggestions I’d have to rethink that attitude.

  2. Tom says:

    Bob, excellent post and very good points!

    I was a professional photographer, studied in California and graduated with dean’s honors. My career spand three decades and I took many national awards. I hope no one takes this as bragging. I just want to put in perspective how good this advice really is.

    Thanks Bob.

  3. Sameer says:

    This is a great tutorial. I would like to be able to learn to take beautiful pictures like you have taken in this post. Every day I see such beautiful sites. I want to have someone see what I see and then feel the beauty like I do. This will be a great hobby for me. Please post more like this…Thank you, Bob.
    Sameer recently posted…How to Take Better Photos; the Art of “Seeing”My Profile

  4. Calvin R says:

    Learning, thanks!

  5. Linda Sand says:

    I have so much to learn. I had heard of the rule of thirds but did not understand it until you said tic-tac-toe board and put things at the intersections. Thanks.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Linda, that’s an ancient rule of beauty that for some reason our eyes find that most attractive. It’s the little things that make a big difference!
      Bob

  6. Canine says:

    While I’m not into photography as a hobby, I still found it interesting. Learned a lot and look forward to applying it to my photos. With a bit of practice I could see being able to remember all the suggestions efficiently and easily. Thanks for the info. 🙂

    • Bob Bob says:

      Glad to help Canine. The good thing is that a little success will lead to more excitement and pleasure with your photos and who knows where that can lead!
      Bob

  7. Karen says:

    I’m learning so much; thanks, Bob. I love dramatic skies and used to try to photograph them but the results were never successful. Now I realize what was needed was the equivalent to the yucca in the foreground! I was always disappointed in my photos and stopped taking a camera with me, telling myself that it was a distraction from the pure enjoyment of what I was seeing and that being in the moment was best. But your photos are so wonderful it almost seems I’ve actually been to all those places, so maybe I’ll charge up my camera and give it another try…

    • Bob Bob says:

      Karen, I’ve put the emphasis on the importance of the eye to see with, but the truth is that sometimes there is no substitute for the control a DSLR gives you. Your pictures will simply be better with the control.

      But, it is a long and steep learning curve!!
      Bob

  8. When I took photo classes, the best shots were by the folks with the best “eye,” not necessarily the ones with the coolest equipment. A chemistry major consistently whooped our butts with an old manual Pentax and one 50mm lens, because he had a great sense of composition and light.
    Al Christensen recently posted…Water and treesMy Profile

  9. Openspaceman says:

    Bob_

    I’ve never owned a camera but do like taking photos with my phone. You make me want to get a camera and join the club. Great job…I see an ebook
    opportunity for you. Great tutorial. I never would have thought of some of the things you mentioned. Thanks.

  10. Ming says:

    nice tutorial with examples, Bob. You have a knack for picking out the salient points and explaining things in plain language. It makes complex subjects accessible for beginners, I found that with your solar and electrical posts.

    It’s true that you can get nice photos with any camera. You just have to practice and learn. I found the library’s photo magazines to be a treasure trove for teaching myself to take nice pictures. The magazines have special feature articles like nature photography, flash photography, studio, portraits… having this sort of breakdown of a complex subject and learning about it bit by bit really suits the way my brain works.

    Come to think of it, you’ve done the same with van living on your site!

  11. Myddy says:

    I absolutely love that last picture, the bright lighting on the plant contrasted by the stormy skies is lovely. I always have been a fan of storms and love the way they sound and make the air smell. I enjoy seeing pictures of storms before, during, and right after it starts to let up. Always beautiful to be reminded of what momma nature can do.
    Myddy recently posted…Visiting the NortheastMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Myddy, I’m with you, I love storms!! I always look for good shots after a storm! The shot on the homepage of the site is one of my favorites!
      Bob

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