Photos by MJ Klein
Originally published on My Several Worlds as a guest article.
Readers of our blog sometimes complain to us privately that when they travel, they are disappointed with their photographs. Then, they usually ask me for some advice on which camera they should buy so they can take better photographs. I tell them that they can take better photographs right now, with what they are currently using.
People mistakenly blame the camera for bad photographs. That’s like going to a piano bar, and blaming the piano for a poor rendition of your favorite song. It’s all about how you use it. I’m going to give you my tips and tricks in 3 areas that will help you take better photographs, now without buying anything else! Let’s get into it right now!
This is a very important aspect of photography and yet it would appear to be the least understood. How you frame the shot determines how it will look to your eye when you view it.
We’ve all seen travel photos from our friends. Typically there will be some beautiful setting, such as a beach. The person will be standing in the middle of the setting, and their face will be dead-center in the photo. Most likely the top half of the photo will be empty sky. Why does this happen?
The photographer is looking at the person with their eyes and then pointing the camera in the same matter. When you look at a person, it’s normal for you to look at their face. In our eyes, their face is dead center. Human eyesight is amazing. It’s the widest wide-screen image there is. Everything else is smaller. When you look through a camera lens, it’s like you are looking through a tiny hole at something. What looks great in that widescreen human vision, often looks horrible thorough the small hole. So, how can you solve that problem?
This is a representation of the Nikon D80 viewfinder. The D80 has framing assist lines that can be turned on and off. I suggest that you turn them on and use them as guides to frame shots.
Notice that there are 3 horizontal lines. This divides the frame into 1/4 sections top to bottom. There are vertical lines that do the same thing, side to side. So by lining up objects in the viewfinder with these lines you can position them in the center, left-right, or up-down and know where they are in relation to the outer limits of the photograph. Now, your camera may or may not have these framing assist (sometimes called compose assist) but more than likely your camera has something very similar to help you line shots up properly. Like the D80, your camera may be able to turn these lines on and off, so check your camera’s menu to see if you can find them. Turn them on.
The Rule of Thirds
So, why does the shot with the person’s face in the center of the photograph look so bad? It’s because it violates one of the prime laws of the universe. Well not really, but the face in the center does violate one of the laws of relationships that look appealing to the eye. Photographs look better when things are in the proper relationship to one another. This relationship is what we call “the rule of thirds” and it basically means that the photograph is divided into 1/3 sections. For landscapes this basically means 1/3 sky. Let me demonstrate:
This shot has 1/3 sky and it looks balanced. A less experienced photographer might have placed one of the people in the exact center of the frame, ruining the balance. Yeah, if you measure the photo, it’s a little off. You get the point.
Now let’s examine another photo:
The reason that this photo works is because it’s divided into 1/3 sections. I tried framing this shot many different ways that day, and nothing worked except this one. I invite you to click on this photo and visit my Flickr photostream where you will see more examples, both those that worked, and those that didn’t. See if you can figure out why those that failed, did so.
This photo of us was was taken by a professional wedding photographer. Notice that our faces are not in the center of the photo. Because the background is white, it’s hard to tell but our faces are almost exactly 1/3 from the top edge of the frame.
I see far too many photos of people that are just too far away. Use your zoom lens, or get closer to the person you are photographing. Sure, in some cases you want to show the background but make sure you are close enough to the subject so that you can clearly see them. You want the person to be the feature, not just part of the scene. But, some people think that close up shots of people just don’t look good. I want you to understand that if you frame the shot correctly it doesn’t even matter if you cut off the top of their head – the photo will look great just the same.
The eyes are not dead-center and are roughly at the 1/3 position and the shot looks fantastic!
Experiment and you will see a big difference. To make things easy, next time you shoot a person, take a look at how you have it framed, and then try to move the camera so their head gets closer to the top of the frame.
Another big problem area for photographers is lighting. Naturally when you travel you don’t bring a crew of assistants along and studio lighting gear. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take some great photographs using the available light.
One big mistake that inexperienced photographers make is that they try to photograph their subject in front of a big light source. For example, you may shoot your friend from inside a building while s/he is standing in a doorway. Your camera will be fooled by the large light source behind them and the picture will be dark. Instead, have your friend pose facing the other way, and take the photo from outside.
Harsh overhead sunlight can really make some dark shadows, especially on faces. Your best friend may hate you for taking that one photo that makes her look like she has sunken eye sockets. This is because the direct overhead sunlight made deep shadows on her face but you couldn’t see them with your eyes.
Our eyes have a fantastic dynamic range that effectively cleans up a lot of issues for us automatically. Unfortunately the software in modern cameras is nothing like the human brain. You can take shots with your camera and see things that your eyes don’t see because your brain is correcting for them.
At the very least you should face your subject person towards the sun, if practical/possible, to minimize shadows on the face, and also to reduce the possibility that something behind the subject might be brighter.
Hui-chen is squinting from the light, but I think it makes a cute photo. Notice that there are no harsh shadows. I’m sure that most women will complain about the light areas that make the skin look oily, but this was a life photo, taken spontaneously and not in a studio. If you really wanted to, you could retouch the photo later to remove those areas. I chose not to.
If the light is directly overhead, you should try to recline the subject somehow. Have them sit in a chair and lean back slightly. This will have the effect of making the light shine more directly on their face.
Sometimes, photos look best when the subject is not looking at the camera but instead is looking into the distance. Try posing your friends just a bit and they’ll think you’re a genius. Look for flattering angles and try different framing, now that you’re not just putting their face in the center.
Sunrise and sunset are magical times. Around the world, serious photographers arrange to be on location at those times because the light is fantastic. Next time you are out with your friends taking photos, and it nears sunset, have them turn to face the setting sun and see what happens. Try shooting buildings and landscapes during sunset and your photography will take on a whole new dimension. Cloudy and overcast days are excellent for avoiding harsh shadows. Those days can be great for people photography because then skin looks softer in the softer light.
Crank Up The Colors!
I love cranking up the color saturation levels and getting amazing results! Just take a look:
I love it when the colors scream out at you like these. Look at your camera’s setup menu and see if you can crank up the colors. It will make a big difference!
Remember photography is supposed to be fun, so experiment and see what happens and above all – have fun with it!