|January 5, 2013||Posted by Photo GearHead under Photography Articles|
Taking really good looking photos actually isn’t all that difficult. Sure, if you want your photos to look like they are absolutely not out of place right alongside the top professional photographers in the world, it’s going to take you a comparable amount of effort, practice, and innate talent as such professionals have invested. That’s just a fact of life — those people really do put an incredible amount of work, over many years, honing their photographic skills. And, there’s no “quick-tips” available anywhere that will let you in on some little, golden nugget of information, or pearl of wisdom that will allow you to circumvent all of that time and dedication in order to propel you to the ranks of the world’s top-tier photographers.
But, the purpose of this article isn’t to impart knowledge that you can use to guarantee you a job as a staff-photographer with National Geographic by next week. The purpose of this article is to let you in on a few tips that each of those top-tier photographers learned early in their photography-life — simple guidelines that beginners are usually unaware of, and which the incorporation of in their work will often serve to spring-board the quality of their images ahead a fair number of steps.
If you’re just starting out in photography, chances are you’ve already experienced the “My photos suck! / My photos are AWESOME!” roller-coaster. Pretty much all photographers go through it — all artists, for that matter. Sometimes you take a photo, and you impress the heck out of yourself with it. It looks like an image created by someone who far surpasses your knowledge and skill level. With a lot of your photos, though, they just don’t look all that great. They look snap-shottish, or amaturish. And, you can’t really figure out why.
Here’s the tough news that you may not be aware of: Even if you get to be THEE most successful and renowned photographer in the world, you’ll never get off that roller-coaster. It won’t happen. And, that’s not such a bad thing, if you think about it. If you ever got to a point where you were entirely overjoyed with how every photo you ever took turned out, that would be the exact point where you stopped learning, stopped improving, and lost your drive to continue developing your craft. So, don’t think about getting off that roller coaster. Your goal is to raise the peaks of that roller coaster, and raise the valleys at the same time.
With all of that in mind, here are some simple tips that, as a beginner, you may not be aware of — but, if incorporated, are sure to raise the overall altitude of those peaks and valleys on your own personal photography roller-coaster:
1) Shoot, shoot, and shoot some more!
There’s no substitute for this — it’s passive training. The more you shoot, the better your photos will get, and you likely won’t even notice it happening. One day, you’ll just look back on some photos that you took a while ago (and, likely, at the time, impressed the heck out of yourself with) and find yourself embarrassed at how your photos used to turn out. Do you want to know what one of the biggest factors I’ve ever experienced in drastically improving my photography was? Buying a comfortable camera strap! A long time ago, I was one of those photographers that lugged around 50lbs of gear with me everywhere I went to take photos. If I was going out to shoot, I absolutely wouldn’t leave the house without a giant camera bag, busting at the seems, strapped to my back. I was terrified of seeing a shot that I thought called for a certain piece of equipment and not having that piece of gear with me. The problem is, lugging around that much equipment is a chore. So, it impeded the frequency with which I shot. I became, really, a weekend photographer. I rarely had a camera on my person unless I was on a rather meticulously planned photo-outing with the intent of capturing some certain image.
So, I went out and bought one those sling-shot type straps — the most comfortable one I could find. A strap that held the camera out of the way at my waist. I loaded up my camera with a general 24-70mm lens, and I made it a point to almost never leave my house without my camera. If I was just walking the four or so blocks down to my local grocery store, my camera came with me. And, I shot and shot and shot. If I saw a picture on my walk, I took it. I went everywhere with my camera, and I shot practically everything that I had even the slightest inkling to shoot. It didn’t matter if I didn’t even think it would make a particularly great picture — if, for whatever reason, any thought ever came into my head that said “take a picture of that!” No matter how fleeting that thought was, I snapped the picture.
The math is simple: Take two people who are brand-new to photography. Give them both cameras. Have one shoot fifty pictures over the next year, and the other shoot five-thousand pictures. After one year, who do you think will be consistently producing the better photos? Get out there and shoot! If you want your photos to look awesome — every chance you get, shoot, shoot, shoot.
2) Get in close!
This is a big one that beginners often over look. Nine times out of ten, if you’re a beginner, you should be closer to your subject in frame! Move in closer! Fill the frame with more of your subject. Here’s the hard-and-fast rule: Unless your specific intent is to show some sort of a relation between your subject and its background, the background most likely doesn’t need to be in the photo. And, the less of it that shows up in the shot the better. Your photo is about your subject. Remember that! Anything that isn’t your subject, or supports the appearance of your subject in your photo, will most often detract from your photo. Your subject is your photo — so, as much as you can, make your photo about your subject.
So, get in close! Fill the frame. This is something that beginners often suffer from. They just don’t get close enough. If you’re a beginner, the chances are, when framing a shot, if you think you’re too close, you’re probably still not close enough. Try it — try taking some shots at what you think is the right distance. Then, take the shots again at what, in your mind, you think would be “too close.” Compare the final photos. I guarantee that you’ll surprise yourself. It won’t always work — sometimes you will be “too close.” But, if you haven’t yet fully developed an eye for “how close is too close?” I can guarantee that the majority of the time — about seven times out of ten at least — you’ll like the photo better that you thought was too close while taking it.
3) Develop your eye!
Chase Jarvis is one of the most successful young professional photographers working today. I once heard him say that, no matter where you happen to be, there are at least ten great photos within ten feet of you. And, he’s absolutely right! Take a look around you right now. Do you see them? Do you see the ten great photos waiting to be taken? Probably not. If you’ve got a good, natural eye, then you may have gotten an idea for one or two photos from looking around you just now. But, most beginners, most of the time, wouldn’t see a single one. But, the photos are there! Trust me. Chase Jarvis isn’t wrong — he knows his stuff. You just have to look up his work on Google to immediately understand that he possesses an exceptional ability in determining what, exactly, makes a great photo.
So, what’s going on? Has Chase Jarvis just never been to where you are right now? If he had, would he revise his opinion and add to it with a final “…except this one place that I was once at…”? Do you just happen to have the incredibly terrible misfortune to find yourself in one of the few places on Earth where Jarvis’ rule doesn’t apply? No! The photos ARE there, you just can’t see them. If Chase Jarvis was sitting exactly where you are right now, in seconds, he would be able to identify probably much more than just ten great photos. If he took those photos and showed them to you, you would be astounded!
What is going on is that Chase Jarvis has a superbly developed eye for photography. And, the eye is THEE — BY FAR – THEE most important tool that a photographer wields! (Well… with the one possible exception being his or her brain.) Developing your eye for actually seeing a great photo before it’s taken will improve your photography by leaps and bounds — much more than anything else you could ever do.
So, how can you develop your eye? First of all, go back and follow tip number one in this article. That will go a long way. Also, there’s a cool exercise you can do. If you do it fairly regularly, after a surprisingly short time, you’ll be surprised at how you start “seeing” photos everywhere. All you do is this: Go out and enjoy a pleasant walk — but, bring two things with you: Your camera, and a friend. Have your friend, at entirely random intervals throughout the walk, say to you “Stop!” Whenever they do this, you must find a photo to take within ten steps of where you find yourself standing. You can’t move further than ten steps in any direction from the point you were standing on when your friend said stop, and you MUST take at least one photo before you can continue on your walk. Do this exercise as much as you can. At first you’ll likely struggle to find anything that would make an interesting photo. But, it will quickly become easier and easier. When it begins to become easy, increase the difficulty by requiring three photos before you can begin walking again.
And, don’t be afraid to fail. Very probably, when you start out with this exercise, you’ll wind up with quite a few photos that you’ll look at and say “What a stupid thing to take a photo of! That’s a boring and pointless picture!” That’s ok! You’ll learn from it. As you keep taking such shots, you’ll begin to understand WHY the photos aren’t any good. You’ll start saying to yourself things like “If I had only done this, or changed the angle like this…” On your next walks, you’ll be aware of the mistakes you made on your previous walks and adjust your future photos with that information in mind.
4) Learn the rule of thirds.
There are many rules of thumb for composition that all pro photographers know — and, more importantly, know when, and how, to properly apply them. You should be able to find tonnes of information on line that will explain these rules in depth. But, I’ll touch on a few a couple of the most important ones here so that you know what to search for.
Probably the most important one is learning the “rule of thirds.” The rule of thirds has been employed by humans in the creation of all visual media going back thousands of years — at least back to the architecture and sculpture of the Ancient Greeks. How it is used in photography is quite simple: You divide your photo frame by three across both axis. So, see your photo frame as three equally sized horizontal boxes, and three equally sized verticle boxes. Think of it kind of like a tic-tac-toe board, with nine equally sized squares. In your mind, superimpose that tic-tac-toe grid over the frame in your viewfinder. You should see a grid in your mind’s eye with two vertical lines, each of them one-third of the way in from the right and left edges of the photo-frame, and two horizontal lines, each of them also one-third of the way in from the top and bottom of the frame. At the four points where a vertical and horizontal line cross, these are your “power points” Decide what the core subject of your photo is and try to line up the center of your subject so that one of those lines equally divides it, or arrange the photo so that some key aspect of your subject falls directly on one of the power points.
Study some photographs from pro photographers and try and see how they incorporate the rule of thirds. If you look at images of people, you’ll often see that the photographer has placed one of their subject’s eyes directly on one of those power points.
Once you master the rule of thirds, you can then graduate to the much more powerful “golden ratio”, or “golden mean.” But, I wont get into that here — you can look it up for yourself. I’ll let you in on a little artistic secret, though: Practically every intermediate photographer has discovered the rule of thirds, and they use it. And, their photos are better for it. But, the real pros know that the rule-of-thirds is a much weaker cousin to the golden ratio. Don’t go skipping over the rule of thirds, looking for a short-cut to the real pro techniques, though — learn the rule of thirds first. Familiarize yourself with the golden ratio, but don’t ignore the rule of thirds. Both should be mastered, and both should incorporated when the specific image you happen to be shooting calls for either one.
5) Get the flash off of your camera!
Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred, front flash looks terrible. Unless it is tastefully applied in just exactly the right amount to provide fill in certain situations, the use of front-flash will make your photos scream “AMATEUR SNAPSHOT!” It causes unflattering shadows under people’s chins — making them look puffy and tired. It creates ugly, harsh shadows behind your subject if they happen to be standing too close to some sort of backdrop. In most situations, front-flash just plain sucks! So, what can you do to alleviate this when you need flash to properly expose a photo? At the very least, if your camera is equipped for it, you can bounce your flash. This involves rotating, or angling, your flash so it’s not pointed at your subject, but instead, pointed at some reasonably reflective surface that will bounce the light off of that surface and on to your subject. The surface acts as a diffuser, thus softening those harsh shadows and bringing in the illumination from a different angle — rather than head on. This creates an appealing sense of depth in your photos.
But, what you should really be looking into — if you really want those pro shots — is getting that flash completely off of your camera completely! Look into flash triggering systems. Do a Google™ search for “strobist” flash techniques. There’s plenty of free information out there to get your started, and such techniques are easy to learn and simple to apply. And, they can really, and quite quickly, push the quality of your photos ahead quite a number of steps and move your images a good deal closer to having that professional look.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dustin Ward has over fifteen years of proffesional photography experience. He has authored a number of books and has published hundreds of articles on a variety of subjects. He is currently a featured contributor at: PhotoGearHeads.Com which is a feature rich, community based photography portal, packed with a host of of valuable resources for anyone who’s interested in the art and practive of photography — PhotoGearHeads.Com
NOTE: This is a royalty-free article. Permission is hereby granted by the author to re-sell, re-print, or re-distribute this article in any way you see fit, as long as no text is altered in any way, and all text, within the entirety of the article, remains intact. If reprinting this article in a digital format, all web-links contained within the article must remain intact and fully functional. As long as such conditions are met, full resale rights, reprint rights, publishing rights and redistribution rights are granted.