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Photographs vs Snapshots: Three Ideas to Improve Your Images

The Art of the Image

Today I would like to share the sec­ond part of a three-part series on trav­el pho­tog­ra­phy. As you may recall, the first part of this series dealt with the ques­tion of the cam­era itself. More specif­i­cal­ly, do you need a cam­era, or can you get the results you want with a smart­phone? I believe I made a com­pelling argu­ment that most peo­ple can get per­fect­ly accept­able results with their phones, espe­cial­ly if you have one of the more recent iPhones or Android Devices.

Regard­less of what you use to take your pho­tos (and its less impor­tant then you think), this sec­ond install­ment of my pho­tog­ra­phy blog series will intro­duce some basic prin­ci­ples to help you get the most out of your images. The final install­ment (which I will pub­lish in Sep­tem­ber) will deal with basic pho­to editing. 

I’m going to share three ideas with you. If you are an expe­ri­enced pho­tog­ra­ph­er, these sim­ple ideas may seem trite, but as some­one who has been prac­tic­ing pho­tog­ra­phy for 20 years, I can tell you that I still need to prac­tice each of them. They are sim­ple to explain but not always easy to imple­ment. Some peo­ple would call them rules, but I think pho­tog­ra­phy is an art form, and art doesn’t real­ly have rules. Maybe we can refer to these ideas as best prac­tices”. Let’s start with a poten­tial­ly snob­bish sug­ges­tion. I believe that there is a dif­fer­ence between a pho­to­graph and a snap­shot. Its pret­ty sim­ple. A snap­shot is just a mechan­i­cal process of doc­u­ment­ing a moment. You pull out your mobile device or cam­era. You set it to auto. You press the shut­ter and now you can prove to your friends that you were at the Plaza May­or in Madrid. A pho­to­graph is dif­fer­ent. In order to take a pho­to­graph, you need to stop and think. A pho­to­graph does more than doc­u­ment. It engages the viewer. 

Best Prac­tice 1: Cre­ate a bal­anced composition. 

Start by pick­ing a sub­ject. Every pho­to needs a sub­ject. Maybe it’s a per­son. Maybe it’s a build­ing. Maybe a flower, or a cat. Regard­less of what it is, you should try to apply the rule of thirds. It’s a pret­ty sim­ple con­cept. Think of your view as being over­layed by two ver­ti­cal and two hor­i­zon­tal lines.

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Now, place your sub­ject on the lines, or even bet­ter.…. on the inter­sec­tions of the lines. See J. M. W. Turner’s paint­ing The Fight­ing Temeraire below. The sub­ject is obvi­ous­ly the ship. If you were the artist, would you have been tempt­ed to place the ship in the cen­ter of the paint­ing? It is the sub­ject of the paint­ing after all. Turn­er knew bet­ter though. In the sim­plest sense, the ship-in-tow now has space on the can­vas to maneu­ver as it approach­es you (the view­er). It may seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive at first, but a sub­ject too close to the cen­ter of the frame cre­ates an unbal­anced composition.

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(I can’t move on with­out men­tion­ing how much I love the above paint­ing. Did you know that in 2005, it was select­ed as Britains’s favorite paint­ing? On the can­vas, the ship is being towed to the scrap yard. This was a great fight­ing ship that had par­tic­i­pat­ed in the British vic­to­ry at Trafal­gar. Note the set­ting sun on the right-third line rep­re­sent­ing the sun slow­ly set­ting on one of the Navy’s great epochs.….. the age of sail.)

Best Prac­tice 2: Tell a story. 

Turn­er does this so effec­tive­ly above. As a trav­el­er, you have so many oppor­tu­ni­ties to tell sto­ries. When I say sto­ry, I am not nec­es­sar­i­ly refer­ring to a com­plex nar­ra­tive. What I mean to say is that a ship is just a ship. What makes the paint­ing above mean­ing­ful is that it express­es some­thing about the ship. Let’s take a look at the por­trait below of Theodore Roo­sevelt (tak­en in 1903). 

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What a beau­ti­ful pho­to­graph. If I asked you, What is this pho­to of?” you would say Roo­sevelt”, and you would be right. But of course, we both know that it is real­ly a pho­to­graph of some­thing else. It is about who Roo­sevelt was, or at least who he imag­ined him­self to be. Every detail adds to the nar­ra­tive. Note the illu­mi­na­tion on the west­ern por­tion of the Unit­ed States on the map. The west was the future. It was des­tiny, and Roo­sevelt (as he stares out at an unseen hori­zon even beyond our own bor­ders) envi­sioned this future. A sim­ple head and shoul­ders pho­to might have got­ten the job done, but it would not have told a story

I don’t want to drift too far off sub­ject here. Lets get back to you, and you tak­ing a pho­to of your sub­ject. Per­haps its a wine bot­tle. What is it about the wine bot­tle that you want your view­er to know? Chances are, it is relat­ed to the envi­ron­ment. What’s next to the bot­tle? What’s behind the bot­tle? How do those things give the view­er con­text? My pho­to below tells the sto­ry of what hap­pened to the wine bottle. :)

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Best Prac­tice 3: Don’t fight the light. 

The word pho­tog­ra­phy came from Greek roots and can be trans­lat­ed as paint­ing with light”. Tech­ni­cal­ly, all you are doing when you take a pho­to­graph is cap­tur­ing light. The mes­sage here is rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple. Unless you are using a flash (which I nor­mal­ly do not while trav­el­ing), you can­not con­trol the light itself. You can­not con­trol the inten­si­ty and you can­not con­trol the angle upon which it is strik­ing your sub­ject. So what does this mean? It means that you are the one that has to move in order to find an angle where the light is doing what you want it to do. Where do you think the sun was (rel­a­tive to the pho­tog­ra­ph­er) in the pho­to below?

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Yes, it was behind me. Because it was behind me, the pho­to has clear col­ors, con­trast, and clar­i­ty. Here’s anoth­er exper­i­ment. I’ll just walk into my back­yard and take two snap­shots of our patio with my iPhone. 

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Obvi­ous­ly, these pho­tos were tak­en from two dif­fer­ent angles. In the first pho­to, the sun was in front of me. In the sec­ond, the sun was behind me. Can you see the dif­fer­ence? When the sun is behind me, my sub­jects pop. They have clear col­or, and the image sur­faces have con­trast. In the first image, where I am fight­ing the sun”, the col­ors are washed out. It took me 10 sec­onds to walk to a dif­fer­ent angle. 

So when you trav­el, will you be able to take all of your pho­tos with the sun behind you? Of course not. Some­times you are just stuck with the light that you have. But in most cas­es, you can move and find a bet­ter angle. You can prac­tice this sim­ply by start­ing to pay atten­tion to light. When you are out­side or dri­ving around, ask your­self, where is the good light right now? Is it to my left? My right? Is it behind me? Where do I see col­or and con­trast? This seems sim­ple, but I see so many unnec­es­sar­i­ly washed out trav­el photos. 

One final note about light. If you have an over­cast day, don’t despair. It pro­vides great oppor­tu­ni­ty for you, because this dif­fused light is not harsh. It tends to be even, allow­ing you to take pho­tos from angles that would not have been avail­able to you if the sun were shin­ing bright­ly. So next time you wake up on your vaca­tion to a cloudy day, you can celebrate!

CON­CLU­SION

OK. Those were the three ideas I want­ed to share. Lets review:

  • Think about your com­po­si­tion. Choose a sub­ject and locate it in the image accord­ing to the rule of thirds. 
  • Take pic­tures about things. Not of things. Include enough of the sub­jec­t’s envi­ron­ment so that you can tell the sto­ry. (I am the worst at this most of the time.)
  • Don’t fight the light. Use it to your advan­tage when you can. 

And now, of course, I have to tell you that no great advances were ever made in art with­out artists that were will­ing to break the rules. So have fun, and please share your trav­el pho­tographs with me. I’d love to see your stories.