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Discover The Value Of Your Own Mind For Better Composition in Photography
Can you accurately picture your own face without looking in a mirror? How about remembering a loved one? Do photographs show us the same pictures we hold dearly in our mind? Can they even do so at all?
These questions are rhetorical; the answer is, ‘no.’ But why not?
You’ve probably had the experience of being unable to express the magnificence of a scene in a photograph no matter which camera you use or whatever techniques you try.
In many cases, learning new techniques helps us. Sunsets not looking fiery orange and red in the pictures? Set your white balance to the ‘Sunny’ preset. Unsightly shadows at midday? Move your subject to the open shade. But sometimes we need to go deeper and understand what’s going on.
I had a breakthrough a couple of days ago teaching photography to a private client in Barcelona. It’s changed the way I photograph, and I’m going to share it with you in this article.
We get about 80% of our impressions about the world through our eyes. Since they’re open for about 18 hours a day, that’s a lot of information coming in!
So much in fact that the mind has to filter out most of what our eyes look at. This job is done by the Reticular Activating System, or RAS.
I’m going to take enormous liberties with the actual biology of the RAS. Sorry scientists; I’m claiming artistic licence
Your RAS has three three main methods to filter what your eyes see to create your uniquely subjective view of the world:
This is very common, and gets more effective with age. For example, we see many strangers every day but rarely take a moment to see them as individuals; they are just a part of the crowd. This process of generalisation is why children can stare completely entranced by something that an adult will walk past without a second (or first!) glance.
Have you ever noticed how if you’re watching a really good film you might not notice anything else in the cinema for hours? Or if you’re having a deep conversation with someone you really care about everything else apart from them seems to disappear? The mind is great at focussing our attention on something that’s important to us and making it really stand out. A pilot friend of mine compares this to the way that radio traffic that mentions his aircraft seems to stand out vibrantly from the other chatter.
Of course with so much information flooding in through the eyes and only a limited capacity to process it, a large amount of what we see is simply cut out before it reaches our conscious awareness. If you’re in the car or on a train for example, a lot of the scenery that flashes past is lost. Looking at the world, we tend to ignore a lot of the clutter that surrounds us, especially if it has no obvious value or lacks contrast.
How does the mind choose what to focus on and what to pass by? Well a lot depends on our beliefs and past experiences.
I have a friend who believes that the world is an amazing place and everyone is inherently good. His Reticular Activating System concentrates on the positives and ignores the negatives.
His perception of the world is quite different from a pessimist’s. It is almost as if he doesn’t see bad reactions; if a waitress is rude to him, he either won’t notice or just assumes she’s having a hard day.
Psychologists call this Confirmation Bias; we tend to see what agrees with our preconceptions and disregard anything that challenges them.
What can we learn from this? Two things. Firstly, beliefs and experiences change how you see the world. This is the secret to the elusive ‘artistic eye’, and is how we can effectively teach ‘Art’ with Holistic Photography.
Secondly, and what we’re focussing on here, is how the RAS changes our perception of the world in a way that we can learn from and apply to our photography.
On my courses, I teach that the most important thing in photography is to have clear idea of what you’re photographing.
This may be concrete; in which you’re trying to preserve a specific object or a scene. Or it might be more abstract, when you want to express a thought or feeling.
What you look for is what you will see. If I’m driving then signposts will stand out to me. But if I’m photographing a picturesque town, they’ll probably fade into the background.
The camera is far more objective. It provides a level of realism that previously would have been unimaginable, but it lacks an RAS to highlight our intended subject and filter out distractions.
To reach another level in our photography, we can consciously act as the camera’s RAS. This means filtering the world so that our subject stands out in the photograph.
How do we do this? By using the same three principles that the RAS uses to filter information;
Understand what you want your photograph to communicate. Use symbols. People will see a policeman, not the individual wearing the uniform. They can see warm colours and assume that it’s a warm day. Try and make the elements in your photograph stand for something. And keep it simple. Gestalt aesthetics notices several effects we can use; like objects that are close together seem to be a group, or a few objects in a row can create a line.
One of the most common flaws I see in photographs is no clear subject. It might be somewhere in the frame, but it just doesn’t stand out in the final photograph. Fortunately, there are several tricks in aesthetics that we can use to draw attention to our intended subject.
a. The first trick takes advantage of the RAS’ tendency to notice Contrast. Colour Contrast may have helped our ancestors avoid tigers in the jungle once, but now it’s the theoretical basis for including someone wearing red in a green landscape. Or photographing yellow flowers against a blue background.
You can also create Tonal Contrast; have your subject in the direct sunlight against a shaded background or vice versa; make sure to adjust your exposure so your subject looks good – don’t worry if the background is completely black or white.
b. Fill the frame. It’s a very common piece of advice, but why does it work? Simply, if your subject fills the frame then it will dominate the picture. It’s often better to use a wide-angle lens and get closer because the perspective will make the viewer seem more engaged with the scene.
You may have noticed that a good photograph can be completely ruined by anything that distracts from the subject. Again, contrast matters; so white vans in an otherwise dark background or areas of bright sky can distract your viewer’s attention.
a. I grew up in the English countryside and one of my earliest memories was my mother picking up litter that people had dropped. No-one wants a crisp packet in a landscape nor a plastic bottle on a monument. Sure, you can Photoshop them out, but airbrushing can take time to get right. If there is litter in your scene, put it in the bin; you’ll be doing everyone a favour.
b. Suppose that the distraction is a crowd or a car – what then? Well if the photograph is worth it, you can wait until they move or come back later. But if time is a factor, you can hide potential distractions behind something else; or just adjust your position until they’re outside the frame.
So that’s it! Three things to practice that will improve your photography. The best way to get the most out of them is to focus on each one for a few days so that your mind becomes used to performing them. Let me know how you get on.