Rule of Thirds | Hotspots | Backlighting | Control your background | Variety | Framing/Unusual Perspectives | Layering | Focal Length | The Moment | A Final Word
This whole photography thing is scaring you, right? Well don’t worry – whether you are using a DSLR or a smartphone camera, the fundamentals of good photography remain the same. Sure, a DSLR makes it a lot easier, but always have these basics in mind whenever you’re on a shoot and you’ll have a greater chance at photographic success.
The Rule of Thirds
Natural inclination for the beginning photographer is to put the subject smack in the center of the frame – but resist that urge. Instead, imagine a 3×3 grid laid over your image (or if you have certain cameras, you can actually turn on the grid in the viewfinder and turn off your imagination). Place your subject’s head at one of the “thirds points” – the parts of the 3×3 grid where the lines intersect. You’ll have a much more dynamic image than if the subject was sitting in the center of the frame.
When placing that subject’s head – make sure you give them some room to look off the image. Their eyes should have what is called “look room” so they aren’t looking right at the edge of the picture.
Of course, in the heat of the moment, you may not always be able to get that perfect rule-of-thirds composition going. That’s where the “crop” tool in Photoshop comes in handy (it looks like the graphic below). You can crop the image to meet the rule of thirds, and with the high resolution images produced by today’s cameras, you won’t take a huge hit in quality. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
So, to recap: There are two ways to follow the rule of thirds – frame the picture up that way inside the camera, or crop the picture later.
Watch Out for Hotspots
What’s the first thing your eyes are drawn to in the images to the left? Those bright lights?
Shooting around multiple light sources can be maddening. You think you have the perfect image and there’s this bright hotspot in the photo, taking your viewers’ eyes away from the subject of your photo and directly to the light. This isn’t only the case for bright lights, but brightly-colored objects in your photos as well (how many times have you taken what you thought was the perfect photo of you and your friend, only to see the tourist with the hot pink shirt in the background?). It means that when you’re shooting, you have to be keenly aware of your surroundings. In the cases above, it’s very easy to crop the lights out of the picture and still have a usable photo.
But there are times where that’s simply not enough. In many cases, you have to maneuver yourself out of the way of these light sources to make a picture. Here’s an example where your only real option is to move:
So to recap: Don’t just stand there rooted to one spot. Move around until the distracting light source is out of your way and out of your shot.
Another common error that can happen in the field is backlighting. Ideally you want your light source, weather it’s the sun or a lamp, at your back so that it doesn’t A) create a hotspot in your picture or B) trick your camera’s meter into underexposing the picture (making it too dark). See what I mean here, with the photo on the left:
Sometimes, flash can mitigate the problem, but when you only have the built-in pop-up flash on the camera, your results will likely look terrible. There’s a reason lighting equipment can cost into the thousands of dollars.
So what do you do? Move around. Move your subject around. Find a spot where you can work with the light, rather than having the light work against you. The sun can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy. In the photo above, the example on the left, where you can actually see my father, is using the sun as a friend.
Another reason to keep the sun at your back: Shooting directly into the sun can potentially damage your eyes! Don’t look directly at the sun, it’s not a good idea.
The Dreaded Polehead: Control your background
The picture above, with the girl in the fountain, was one of my favorite photos when I started shooting. I took that one in San Antonio just a couple of months after I bought my first DSLR and started really shooting still photos. It was in my portfolio. I put it on my business card.
He said it looked great … except that I had chopped off her feet and a pole was growing out of her head.
I took the photo out of my portfolio, and now when I look at it, those are the only two things I see.
I took home three lessons from Chuck’s words of wisdom: Always make sure you have all the relevant body parts in the frame, watch for polehead, and never trust your friends and family on Facebook when it comes to critiquing your photos.
So what do you do when you’re shooting and you encounter a foreign object growing out of someone’s head? Simple – change the angle you are shooting at. Even a slight step left or right in any of these situations with an appropriate re-framing of the picture would have countered this problem. In short, I’ll reiterate something my photo professors told me over and over again in graduate school: Control your background.
On the note of controlling your background, another great analogy for composing your shots that I learned in graduate school is to think of your photos as if you were a painter. You wouldn’t paint a stray poll in the corner of a shot, or growing out of someone’s head – so why would you make a picture that way?
Shoot way more than you need to – and shoot a variety of shots
Sure is a nice shot of that bagpiper, isn’t it? That didn’t come out of the camera in one shot. Not by a longshot. I took 110 other shots that day that didn’t make the cut (in addition to the thousands that went into the project as a whole). Want proof? Take a look:
When you shoot, don’t just give yourself a few shots and move on. Work every angle. Shoot the same subject in every way possible. Zoom in, zoom out. Shoot a tight shot of their face. Then shoot one where you can see their entire body. And oh yeah, don’t forget you can turn the camera on its side for vertical shots. Those work too.
When I shoot a wedding, I often shoot 2000 photos just to get 200-400 for the bride and groom. It’s the nature of the beast – the more you shoot, the more you have to choose from. The more you have to choose from, the greater your chance for success.
The doesn’t mean you stand in one spot and shoot 20 photos that all look the same. That’s not working the scene. That’s essentially giving yourself 20 of the same shot. Unless you have the perfect spot and are waiting for the right moment – which is something that you should be doing, waiting for the right moment – move on and try something else. Shoot from the other side. Shoot a wide angle, shoot telephoto. Experiment. Play.
While you’re at it – don’t forget the basics – make sure you get a wide shot of the scene, in addition to medium and tight shots. Always make sure you have a few different wide-medium-tight choices, as the viewer needs context for what their looking at. See this example here, for a shoot on the unusually warm weather Syracuse was having one November:
Framing and unusual perspectives
There’s always the obvious and the not-so-obvious shot. You should get both in every situation. Let’s take the two shots above – Recovery after hurricane Sandy and an arrest during Occupy Wall Street.
In the first shot, I could have shot a number of ways but I decided to position myself near a bookshelf and shoot through for a shot. The volunteer for Crisis Response International, Evan Malone, was clearing waterlogged materials out of the house and was consistently walking to this spot to dump items. This gave me the opportunity to frame him through the bookshelf, emphasizing him aside from everyone else in the photo
For the second shot, while walking past this car in the middle of an Occupy Wall Street protest, I saw a protestor pressed against the vehicle being arrested by police. Both windows of the car were open, and so I was able to shoot through and left the frame a bit wider to show the context of what they were pressing him up against.
Look around at the environment. Keep an eye out for interesting architecture or objects that you can use to frame your shot. Look for things you can “shoot through” such as fences, curtains, flowers, etc. All of these will help for more interesting composition.
Speaking of interesting composition, don’t forget – everyone sees the world at eye-level. When you’re shooting, look to give us something that you don’t see every day. Get down low, stand on a chair – anything to help us see the world differently. Try to get access to places that others can’t. More advice from photographer Chuck Haupt: People are used to seeing things at 4-6 feet in front of them – get outside that range.
New York Times Sports Graphics Editor Bedel Saget spoke to my class a while back about some interactive graphics he did. One that stood out in particular was “The Diver’s View” – a shot from the very edge of the diving board at the Water Cube. Bedel talked about how he arrived at a very early hour at the arena, sweet talked his way in, and was just finishing up the panoramic when he got asked to leave by security. Amazing story – and if you click on the link, it’s certainly an amazing view.
While that’s probably the extreme end of giving people something they haven’t seen before, you should still strive for more than eye-level photos. Take a look at this shot on the left. It would be very easy to simply stand at eye level, point my camera down, and take a picture of this boy and his pumpkin the way everybody sees him – looking down. But that’s the easy shot. What was not so easy was to lay down on the ground (yes, you will sometimes get dirty doing this job) and get the view from the ground – something that you don’t see everyday. He’s a short guy – as adults we’re always looking at him from above. The way we’re not looking at him is from below. And now, with this photo, we are. This is an especially good tip to remember when shooting kids, pets, etc. – get down on their level and show us the world from their eyes.
Bonus story: After this shot, he got off the pumpkin, and then ran all over the field kicking other pumpkins – one directly at me. I – along with my camera – got covered in pumpkin guts. Yuck.
This doesn’t just mean change your angles when you’re working in close with your subjects. Look for the not-so-obvious vantage points. Look around you and see what buildings you can get into for some wide shots. I was shooting a demolition of a building in downtown Binghamton (for that area, kind of a big deal), and instead of shooting it from the ground, like every other news organization did, I instead shot it from the 8th floor rooftop of the adjacent building. I went to the company on the top floor the day before and asked if I could shoot there the next day. They had no problem with it and let me up on to their roof. It never hurts to ask.
Layering your photos
When teaching a high school summer camp at Stony Brook University, one of the broadcast professors told students that their pictures should have many layers, like peeling an onion would reveal. It’s good advice – because the more layers you use in the photo, the more places your eyes will have to travel to gather information.
In the photos above, I used a long telephoto lens to compress distance and show the damage from Hurricane Sandy by way of layers of downed trees and power lines. On the right, I used the opposite – a wide angle lens to catch a wide swath of the scene – from the woman buying the band drinks in the foreground, to the guitarists making up the main area of interest in the image, to the lead singer crooning on in the background. The many layers give the eyes many things to see in this photo.
Layering can also take on a more subtle form. In the image on the right, I asked my wife to stand in the beautiful trees outside her apartment, and shooting a moderate telephoto close to wide open (an 85mm lens at f/1.6) caused a soft foreground and background blur with the pink flowers surrounding her. It’s a trick I pull all the time with plants, flowers, leaves – shooting wide open with them in the foreground always adds an interesting element to photos.
Focal length changes the story
Take a look at the photo – taken from a story on how pollution from a nearby chip-manufacturing plant was causing harm to the community around it. I wanted to convey how close the plant was to where children were playing (the plant is the building with a series of smokestacks behind it).
Both photos were taken from about the same place, but my lens choice was very different for the photos. The one on the right is shot at 24 mm, and the one on the left is shot at 90 millimeters. Which one do you think accurately conveys the story?
The first time I showed this example in class, a student argued with me that unless we’re using a “normal” lens (50 mm) then we’re altering the world and thus inserting our opinion into a story. I countered back with this: When a writer chooses the words to put down on paper for their story, aren’t they doing the same thing?
I look at photographer’s focal length selection as the equivalent of a writer choosing which words to use when telling a story. Besides, there are so many other factors involved, from shutter speed, to ISO, to aperture. Should we see the world at f/1.8 all the time, or f/8? What about ISO? You can see where I’m going with this. The writers have words in their toolkit – photographers have lenses. Use what best tells the story. In this particular instance, though I used the 24 mm lens for a shot, I ended up going with the 90 mm shot for the story since I felt it demonstrated more accurately the distance from the factory to where the kids played. But the key here, is that I took both photos and left myself the option.
When shooting, keep this rule of thumb in mind – wide angle lenses (35 mm and below) tend to push the background further away from the subject, giving a different sense of scale from a telephoto lens (70 mm and up), which compresses distance and brings the backgrounds closer to your subject. A view most equivalent to what the human eye sees would be considered a “normal” lens at 50 mm.
This whole focal length thing doesn’t just stop at inanimate objects. Wide vs. telephoto focal lengths do interesting things to humans. Witness the following example, Professor Barbara Selvin, who graciously agreed to let me demonstrate what different focal lengths do to faces:
In addition to warping facial features, notice what using a wide angle focal length does to the background – you can see more of it, and more of it is in focus. The opposite happens when you’re using the longer focal length – the background becomes a nice soft blur. Sometimes you’ll want to see more of the background and other times you won’t, so choose your focal length accordingly.
Me? I love to wipe out the background using a telephoto lens and here’s why – if you want to draw your viewer’s attention to a subject, why clutter things up? A telephoto lens makes it easy to put the attention where you want it to be, as does using a wider aperture to help blur the background.
Take a look at the photo on the left, which was shot at f/4.5 at 170 mm. At this point, nothing but the subject and his fire are important in the shot. The man just created fire! Who cares what the trees in the background looked like? By focusing on him and not the bigger picture, you can immediately direct the viewers’ eyes to what you want them to go to.
This is called shallow depth of field. Depth of field is the range of what’s in focus in a picture – using a wider angle and a higher f/stop will result in greater depth of field – a larger chunk of the picture will be in focus. Shallower depth of field can result from a combination of a telephoto focal length and a lower f/stop – putting your subject in focus but not much else. The distance you are from the subject, as well as the distance to the background will also factor into this look. Choose carefully for each situation you are in and decide how you want your picture to look. Better yet, if the situation allows, shoot it many ways and give yourself options.
Waiting for the decisive moment
Waiting. A lot of what you’ll do as a photographer will be sitting in one spot, waiting for that perfect moment to happen. That’s exactly what afformentioned photographer Chuck Haupt was doing when he stumbled across the couple above while in Iceland. What a perfect spot.
He spent some time waiting for the couple to have their couple-moment. And after a while, when it wasn’t happening, he decided to turn the camera around to get a picture of him and his wife. And then the moment happened – right after he had given up. Take a look at the above photos to see what I mean.
Haupt passes along some good advice about finding the right moment: It’s all about anticipation.
“Anticipate what’s going to happen and get set up in the right location for that moment to hopefully happen,” he says.
Sometimes, you find the perfect frame up for a picture. Don’t waste that frame – sit there and wait for the right moment. Patience will go a long way to this end. It’s probably going to take you longer than five minutes to make that perfect image.
Rules are meant to be broken
At the end of the day, what I’ve given you here is a set of basic guidelines to follow to get generally good photos. But that doesn’t mean you should experiment on your own – and sometimes that experimentation means bending or breaking some of the “rules” I’ve set forth here. Go for it. Sometimes you will want that silhouette that you get from shooting into a light source. Sometimes a centered composition works. Don’t feel limited by what you read here. Feel empowered to know what works most of the time, but that some of the time it doesn’t.
Above all – don’t forget that you’re supposed to be having fun. The day photography ceases to be fun for you is the day you should probably go try something else.
Like what you see here? Then please feel free to link to it, but do not copy anything off of this site.
If you see an error or would like to see something added to this guide, please email me and let me know. I’m always looking for ways to help beginning photographers in their craft.