We all want to make better photos. But how do we improve? What are we striving for? Here are five elements to consider, whatever our chosen subject may be, that directly impact the quality of your photography.
- Great lighting + careful exposure.
- Engaging composition.
- Careful timing.
- Resonant color and/or tonal range.
I believe the more you can integrate any of these five elements into your images the more satisfied you will be with your photography. I also know that it is no easy task to include each of the five in a single photo!
1. Great lighting + careful exposure
“Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman, founder of Kodak
Light is the substance and essence of photography, not of photographs, but of photography. Where there is no light it is impossible to make a photograph. Light is the raw material of photography. We’ve all been aware of light since before we were born, but for most people, this awareness remains in their subconscious mind. If you want to become a truly creative photographer you must begin to consider the light with your conscious mind.
Learning to see light and be aware of changes in light is one of the most significant actions you can take to improve the quality of your photographs. Controlling your camera to expose well and capture the light the way you see it, or how you imagine it will look in your photograph, goes hand in hand with seeing the light.
Many factors affect the quality of light. The more you are able to see and appreciate the light you have to work with when you are photographing, the more creative you can be and the more interesting your photographs will become.
2. Engaging composition
“Now, to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk.” – Edward Weston, photographer
Composition is how you arrange the elements within the frame of your photograph. It’s about what you include within your frame and what you leave out. You can control your composition by choice of lens, your point of view from where you take our photograph and sometimes by moving the physical elements you are photographing.
Rules of composition have generally originated from those studied by classical painters and have been around since before the camera was invented. You can study them, rigidly apply them, and at times still not achieve engaging compositions.
The more the chosen subject material within your frame is carefully chosen to show a meaningful part and is suitably balanced, the more engaging your compositions will be – regardless of whether you follow the rules or not. Like any artistic creative form of expression, knowing the rules so well you apply them as second nature, will produce more compelling, engaging results.
3. Careful timing
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous term (and book title) “The Decisive Moment” sums up what is regarded as another essential element in creating good photographs. The moment you choose to open the camera shutter has a significant influence on the quality of the photographs you make.
Depending on your chosen subject, this could be a split-second decision or it may even take weeks and months of planning to finally reach the right moment.
Being prepared and anticipating action, time of day, weather, seasons, etc., are all part of creating photographs at the right time. Frequently when we take photography workshops to the local fresh markets I capture fleeting slices of life. We’ve been visiting the same markets for a number of years and I’m used to the flow of the activity there, so it’s easier to predict the action than when visiting for the first time. Whatever situations you find yourself in, it’s important to observe what’s happening around you and anticipate when the most interesting action to photograph will take place.
If you prefer taking landscapes or cityscapes you will need to be aware of the weather patterns and seasons. Planning ahead for when the angle of the sun is best for your chosen scene will result in richer, more pleasing photographs.
The best sports photographers typically will only photograph one sport. They know the game, the teams and maybe even the individual players. This allows them to more easily anticipate the action and be prepared, having the right focal length lens on their camera and having it focus on just the right spot when the most interesting action happens.
Anticipate the peak of action
Composing your image in anticipation of the action you hope to capture is a method employed by most of the best street photographers and photo journalists. Finding a location that will afford you an interesting composition, with strong elements to support your subject, good lighting, and a pleasing background will inevitably help you produce more captivating photographs.
There’s nothing wrong with shooting on the fly, but if you are able to incorporate as many of the five elements we are discussing into your photographs the more satisfying the results will be.
4. Resonant color and/or tonal range
“The ability to see the quality of color and it’s different relationships is an art, as well as a skill that must be honed through continual exercise.” – Nevada Wier, travel photographer, and author
Where light is the essence of photography, color and tone (tone only when you work in black and white) are the expressions of reflected light captured by your camera. Color and tone are what you see when you look at a photograph. You do not see light, you see what the light is reflecting off, and this is represented by color and tone in your photographs.
By resonant color, I mean color which affects the viewer because it is significantly incorporated into the photo. The same goes for a resonant tonal range in your black and white photos.
Being aware of the relationships of the various colors in your images. Choosing to compose to exclude or include subjects of contrasting or complementary colors can greatly affect the look and feel of your images. If you see an object within your frame that is not pleasing to you because it breaks the harmony of the image you wish to make, you are then better off considering how to compose the shot to exclude that color. At other times you may wish to include something of a strong contrasting color to add impact.
The absence of color in a photograph leaves a far greater reliance on the tones in the image to make it work. To create resonant tone in black and white photos it’s vitally important to pay careful attention to the light. Even a black object, when photographed in certain lighting conditions, can appear as it is white, or a white object may appear black.
Technical purists say that you must show a full tonal range, from black to white and a substantial variance of grays, in your black and white photographs for them to be acceptable. I don’t agree. I don’t believe a good photograph can only happen if it adheres to a set of technical rules. Shooting in hard light and exposing for the highlights can produce powerful black and white images with little or no grays at all. A lot of popular street photographers employ this technique very well.
“Photography is the art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliot Erwitt
The first four elements I have discussed can be learned by careful study. This last one can be more of a challenge for many people. Some will achieve it effectively with a relatively little study. Others will labor over the technical issues so much that any intuition is substantially blocked out of their photography experience.
Knowing our camera intimately, how it functions, what dials to use to set the exposure, (and understanding why you need to) where the essential settings are in the menus, and when you are best to adjust them, will free you up to be more intuitively creative with your camera. For some people, this is easier than for others.
If your brain is preoccupied with trying to figure out how to use your spot meter so you can expose for the highlights, for example, you will be distracted from really connecting with what you are photographing and the situation. The more using your camera becomes second nature, the freer you will be to connect with your subject and follow your intuition as you make your photographs.
Learning to use your camera so you can make well-exposed photographs intuitively will free you up to focus on creating photographs. Images that convey not just what you saw, but the way you saw it and your experience of that moment in time.
I haven’t met many people who enjoy photography that don’t wish to improve their craft. There’s such a great feeling of satisfaction in producing good photos, especially when you see a growing improvement in the results.
I believe as you study the five elements I have outlined in this article, and learn to include them in your photography you will be pleased to see great progress in the images you create.
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