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The following post exploring questions to ask when taking a photo is by San Francisco based photographer Jim M. Goldstein.
This year marks the 10th year I’ve been passionately pursuing the art of photography. In that time I’ve learned an incredible amount from photographers ranging in skill level from novice to professional. It should be noted you can learn as much from the mistakes of others as you can from individuals who can nail a difficult shot on the first try.
As they say, “Time flies when you’re having fun” and that has never been more true than these past ten years.
Now that I’ve hit this landmark I thought it important to relay some monumental advice. In the process of thinking of my “monumental” tip(s) I quickly realized that the lessons I’ve learned and used to improve my photography the most have actually been simple rather than monumental. It might seem counter intuitive at first, but small improvement add up to make big changes in the quality of ones photography
Five (5) key tips that I learned long ago now take the form of five (5) questions I ask myself before tripping the shutter of my camera.
The key concept here is to capture your subject with the proper degree of sharpness that you’re striving to obtain. Whether you want a sharp photo of your subject or to capture motion blur the first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you have the proper settings in place. Two (2) settings can impact shutter speed: ISO and aperture.
ISO specifies the sensitivity of your sensor/film to light. Lower ISO equating to lower light sensitivity versus higher ISO equating to higher light sensitivity. In general lower ISO settings equate to slower shutter speeds while higher ISO settings equate to faster shutter speeds.
Aperture specifies how wide open the shutter remains when the shutter is released. Smaller aperture settings (ex. f-stop f/22) require longer shutter speeds or longer exposures while large aperture settings (ex. f/2.8) enable faster shutter speeds or shorter exposures.
Determining how much you would like your subject to fill your frame is indicated by your choice of focal length and how you position yourself in relation to your subject.
Wider focal lengths (ex. 16mm) have a wider field of view and magnify your subject less while longer focal lengths (ex. 300mm) have a narrower field of view and greatly magnify your subject. Lenses of varying focal length have different optical properties and can add different visual characteristics to a photo if applied creatively. Knowing your subject, how you’d like to present it and choosing the proper focal length can make the world of different. An important thing to remember is that even when you settle on a focal length that your greatest photo accessory can be your feet. Stepping closer or farther away from your subject can drastically change perspective. It is for this reason that you shouldn’t just rely on zooming a lens in and out when lining up your photo.
Identifying what is most/least important to your photo and keeping it in/out of focus is critical to keeping your viewers eye on your subject.
To do this one must again pay attention to aperture. Smaller aperture settings provide greater depth of field. It is for this reason that landscape photographers who want more of a scene in focus will often use a tripod to keep their camera still during longer exposures. Conversely larger aperture settings provide shallower depth of field. It is for this reason that a lot of portraiture and event photographers who want only their subject in focus and a blurred background behind shoot with a larger aperture setting.
This will seem like a no-brainer, but making sure your subject is in focus is critical. Having a sharp subject enables your viewer’s eye to settle in on an area of visual interest before exploring the rest of the image.
What may not be so obvious is what you focus in on to get a sharp photo. For example the key to sharp wildlife and portraiture photography is making sure the eye of your subject is sharp. In general for expansive scenes with settings for greater depth of field you’ll want to focus in a third of the way into the scene.
One of the more interesting characteristics of the human brain is its ability to filter out stimulus that we are not interested in. For some that translates to tuning out what our mother in-law is saying and for others it translates to seeing only what you’re focusing on visually.
After you’ve focused on what is most important to you be sure to check the edges of your photograph for distracting elements. Are there wires, bright spots, poles, people, distracting colors, etc? If so reposition your camera to minimize the presence of these elements. Minimizing distracting elements accentuates the ability of your viewer to focus on what you want them to.
The next time you’re lining up your next shot remember Shutter Speed, Depth of Field, Focal Length / Positioning, Focus, Edges. It may seem like a lot, but with practice thinking through these things becomes second nature and your photography is sure to improve.
This post was written by Jim M. Goldstein. Jim’s landscape, nature, travel and photojournalism photography is featured on his web site JMG-Galleries.com, and blog. In addition Jim’s podcast “EXIF and Beyond” features photographer interviews and chronicles the creation of some of his images.