I recently interviewed an extraordinary photographer and when asked what his favorite part of being in his line of work was, he replied, “I get to show people how I perceive the world.” That sort of struck me because the only way people are going to see how you perceive the world is if you show them something effective. Effective, meaning you captured what you meant to capture in such a way as to demonstrate the emotion you had when you were taking the photo. It’s not easy being a good photographer. Capturing essence is an art very few have been successful at achieving. Luckily, the photographer I interviewed is quite talented and one of those successes.
In this post, and the next few posts, I’m going to discuss some of the tried and true methods of capturing essence. If you learn and follow what great photographers have attempted to pass on through the years, every time you hold a camera, you’ll know you aren’t alone. Learn, practice, learn and then practice some more. Hold on to what others teach. That’s what the greats do.
Rule of Thirds
If you’ve ever taken any courses in photography or art, you may have heard of The Rule of Thirds. It’s not a difficult concept to understand. I’ll explain what it is below.
The rule of thirds, most simply put, is a guide that helps a photographer position important elements in his or her photographs. This rule can either be followed while taking the photograph itself or during the photo editing process afterwards. It’s basically a tic-tac-toe layout that’s superimposed over a photo.
The rule of thirds helps create balance in a photo. Much like reading text, the human eye has a tendency to “read” photographs from specific start points. A start point might be one of the intersections of the superimposed grid or it may be along one of the lines itself. It’s important to remember, the start point is rarely the absolute center of the photo, so when lining up a shot, be sure to consider this principle.
The experts tell us that any rule in photography is meant as a guideline and ultimately meant to be broken, if there’s a good reason for it. If you take a look at this picture of an Iris below, you’ll see that while I somewhat followed the rule of thirds, I didn’t follow it precisely. I used my better judgement to position the flower so it looks best in its frame.
I think the most important takeaway is that I didn’t center the flower. While I could have centered a tall narrow flower for dramatic effect, leaving vacant area on both sides, the flower in the above photo didn’t suit that purpose.
So, to recap, the rule of thirds in photography is a tic-tac-toe styled guide to help photographers “offset” their shots. You may use either the intersecting areas of the lines or the lines themselves as those guides. The important thing to remember is that, except for very purposeful photographs, centering an item can look less than ideal.
If you’re interested in some resources to read further about this rule, please follow these links below:
Guiding the Viewer’s Eye
Another rule of photographic composition is called Leading Lines. You may have seen photos like this where the photographer has taken a photo of a long, winding river or road that begins at the bottom or the top of the photo and winds to the opposite side. When viewing these types of photos, your eye has little choice but to follow the lines in the picture. Other examples of leading lines may be “S” curves of cattle being herded, trees in a forest or cars in traffic. By creating lines that guide the eye, the photographer is effectively recreating the drama of the situation.
Photographers also use Repetitive Shapes to guide viewer’s eyes. Patterns are exceptional at leading a viewer’s eye to multiple points in the photo, seemingly all at once. If you’ve ever seen a photo with repeating patterns, you may recall your eyes jumping all over the place, but ultimately ending up where the photographer has intended.
If you’d like to learn more about the previous two photographic principles, please take a look at the sites below:
Foreground & Background
A photo’s foreground and background play an integral and integrated role in any photograph. How the foreground relates to the background is just as important as what each element portrays. In order to capture an effective relationship, there are a few areas you need to keep in mind when taking photos:
Depth: In many photos, depth can accentuate the essence you’re attempting to capture. For instance, if you’re taking a photo of a biker in the foreground, perhaps positioning them or taking advantage of them riding on a long, straight or curvy road would enhance the understanding of the biker’s plight – distance. Picture a highway cutting through a desert. In the case of this example, you’d want to use a large depth of field to capture the clarity of what’s behind the biker, because that’s as, if not more, important than the biker him or herself. To reduce the importance of the background and to focus primarily on the foreground, you’d want to use a narrower depth of field.
Connection: Similarly to the previous section, you can connect the foreground to the background of an image by utilizing leading lines in a setting. This would be done best in photos of roads, rivers or streams, etc…with a large depth of field. Again, by using a narrow depth of field, you can keep the focus on what’s important to you at the time. On many occasions, when using leading line or leading objects in a photograph, the objects in a photo’s background can bring focus to the foreground. A good example of this would be the source of light shining on the object in the foreground.
Distraction: Many a photo has been ruined by carelessly “not” focusing on the camera’s depth of field. Let’s say that you wanted to take a picture of someone standing in front of a very complex shrub or small tree on a piece of land. If the branches of the tree are of similar size to the subject’s face, the face may actually get lost in the picture. By adjusting the depth of field to a narrower one, you can filters out those branches. The same is true if you’re focusing on something in the background and what’s in the foreground is in focus. Chances are, the viewer of the photo will never notice what the intent of the photo is. Using a more narrow depth of field can assist in this situation as well. For an example of this, please see the next photo:
Distance: Proximity to the primary object in a photo is important. If the photographer is too far away from the object or not zoomed in enough, that object may get lost in the background. By bringing the object in closer to the foreground, the photographer will keep it as the primary focus of the photograph. The same is true of the opposite. You wouldn’t want to have the primary object too close to the foreground, thereby drowning out the entire background. In this case, no relationship would exist.
Movement: A photographer can add movement to a photo by tracking what’s in the foreground and using the proper settings on the camera (slower shutter speed) as to create a blur in the background, while keeping the object in the foreground in focus. Think about photos of race motorcycles. The background is almost always blurred as to create movement. The more blur, the faster the object. Take a look at the photo below to get a clearer picture of what I’m referring to.
If you’d like to learn more about foregrounds and backgrounds as they relate to photography, please take a look at these resources:
Contrast, Framing, Foreground, Background
Depth of Field
In the photography world, depth of field can be defined as the range of a photograph that is acceptably sharp, or clear, as opposed to the areas that are out of focus, or blurry. The cause of the difference between the varying depths of field between photographs depends on a few factors. The factor folks out there identify with most is the size of the lens’s aperture. If you refer back to one of my previous posts on DSLR camera settings, you’ll find a paragraph or two under the “Aperture Priority” section where I discussed aperture’s effect on depth of field. Basically, the smaller the aperture (higher the number), the greater the depth of field. The larger the aperture (smaller the number), the narrower the depth of field.
Other factors also influence depth of field, such as the type of camera you’re shooting with, as well as distance between the camera and the object it’s focusing on. A wide aperture that’s a good distance away from the subject will have less impact on depth of field than a wide aperture that’s closer to the subject.
So, how does all this effect the composition of a photograph? Well, by varying the depth of field, you can create nice, clear landscape shots and zoomed in, narrowly focused portraits. Different depths of field control drama in a photo.
I’m going to give two photos as examples of what I’m referring to. I took these pictures years ago and happen to still have them saved.
This first photo was taken on the Connecticut coastline. My intention was to capture clarity as far back as I could, while still keeping the foreground clear. I think I accomplished that by keeping the zoom lens short, hence having a small aperture. In this photo, there is a large depth of field.
In this next photograph, my intention was to focus only on the leading edge of a young fern. Since there was distraction in the background, I made sure to set the camera to use a large aperture, which gave the photo a very narrow depth of field.
When trying to gauge the results of photos that uses varying depths of fields in their composition, remember that the zone of acceptable focus, or sharp area, extends one time in front of the point of focus and two times behind. This principle will help when it comes time to push the shutter release.
If you’d like to look into depth of field, as it pertains to photography,further, please check out these links:
In the next few posts, I’m going to cover other elements that can help photographers capture photographs that truly inspire. If you’re interested in reading those posts, please take a look through the photography category at the top of this page. Also, if you have any comments or questions regarding this post, please leave them below.