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Beginner’s Tip: Get Closer

I work with a lot of people just starting out in photography. People who want to move off of Auto mode and on to something more. And they show me their images, asking, “What can I do better?”

I’ve started noticing a pattern in many of the images I have seen from new photography enthusiasts. It’s not absolute, but it is common enough that I write here today offering this bit of advice: Get closer.

Here’s the pattern I see when I ask new photographers to photograph something of interest. I’ll illustrate the flow with photos most students start out with.

First, they find something interesting, like this splotch of moss on a tree trunk. They think it’s different and those who haven’t visited Washington often remark at the different varieties of moss we have here. If only we could export it for gold.

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The photo above is what I see a lot of. It’s not horrible, but it is not what the shooter really wanted to capture. They see the moss, they see the tree and they just take a shot, from about four feet away and zoomed out. But the image brings in the background and there is nothing special. They often frown at the camera at this point. Then turn to me with that frown, shrug their shoulders and look for advice. “Get closer.” They sigh again and take a step in.

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The moss gets bigger but they complain about the distraction of the person on the sidewalk in the background. More frowning. “Get closer.” One more step straight forward (moss really is cool).

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Straight on. They are a bit amazed their camera can take a picture so close, to be honest. Some, picking up on the theme, will take things even closer but most of the time, the lens and camera combination won’t allow focus at that range. At this point, they have a close image but everything is in focus and there is no depth to the image. They still aren’t happy, but getting there (at least the sidewalk isn’t visible!).

At this point we take another tack. I have them move to the side. To try another angle. By now they still aren’t sure I’m sane and this is par for the course. Perhaps there is a magic button on their camera that makes pretty pictures? “No,” I reply, “but that’s actually good news.”

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Now the eyebrows raise up a bit. There’s interest in the image. A bit of angle has added in some depth (even at f/9) and the moss is starting to become interesting. They know what’s coming by now if they were to turn to me and ask, so they tentatively ask, “Closer?”  “Yep. And zoom in just a bit.”

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“Oh wow,” is often heard at this point. They didn’t know their camera could take a photo with a clear subject and no distractions. They were able to get a bit closer than when straight on and they now have a focal point. But the aperture is still set to f/9 and bringing in a lot of the moss. So I have them lower the aperture as far as it will go (while still looking through the view finder as it is good practice to learn to adjust settings while looking through the viewfinder if you have one).

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Now at f/5.6 in this case, the focal point is narrowed down and they have an interesting picture. Will it make the cover of National Geographic? Not likely. But I’ve come to understand people learn in baby steps and this is a big one for most; realizing there is more to shoot than the broad view, with a wide angle lens, four feet back.

If you’re starting out, repeat the mantra to yourself the next time you have a subject in front of you and are frowning at your camera’s display of an average image.

Get Closer.

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Peter West Carey

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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