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!
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
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.