Spotting the picturesque is not difficult: sunsets, landscapes etc. all tend to pretty much smack you in the eye and shout “Look at me! Take my photo!”
Other things, though, take a bit of effort. You have to learn how to look before you can see the pictures that are around you.
One exercise that I’ve found useful in training yourself to look is to go out for a walk, stop at regular intervals (two minutes, five minutes…) and look for a picture wherever you are. The timing part is important — it’s there to prevent you just stopping when you see something; by stopping on a strict schedule, you have to really look at whatever you’re presented with. Don’t move more than a couple of metres from the spot you stop on, but look around, open your eyes, see a picture. Take one photograph, then move on.
The first time you try this, you’ll probably be underwhelmed by the pictures you took. So look at them, look critically and ask if you could improve the picture by changing the angle or framing. Also, look at the sequence: does it tell a story of the area you walked through?
The pictures that I’ve included here are a record of just such a walk that I did a few days ago. I was anxious to try out my new camera†, so I took it with me when I went out with the dog. For this exercise, rather than a set time between shots, I set myself the target of shooting a 24-exposure roll of film‡, without finishing it too soon before getting back.
None of the pictures here are going to win any awards, but that’s not the point; the point is to exercise the looking muscles. I think they do tell a story, though, when viewed as a sequence.
So take yourself out for a walk (it’s healthy, you know) armed with camera and timer, and train yourself to start really looking.
The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.
– Captain Barbarossa, Pirates of the Carribean.
The ‘rules of composition’ are many and varied and occasionally useful. OK, that’s probably a bit snarky, but I get a bit that way because of the number of times they get trotted out as the path to ‘perfect’ pictures.
Or you get the in-depth photo criticism that goes “Ah, well, you see, what you’ve done wrong there is to forget the rule of thirds. If you’d moved the subject a bit to the right, you’d have had a great picture.”
The rules of composition will help to get well-composed pictures – if, by ‘well-composed’, you mean ‘classically composed’. Yes, you should know what the ‘rules’ are. Yes, you should know why each exists and what it’s doing to the final image that you’re composing. But, if you slavishly adhere to the ‘rules of composition’, you will end up with lots of ‘nice’, ‘safe’ pictures†. If that’s what you want, then go for it. Nothing wrong with enjoying a nice landscape or sunset picture, and if that floats your boat, then all power to your elbow – enjoy.
But my wish, when I put a photo up for public view, is to try to put over something of myself, of my reaction to the scene in front of me. I don’t want to give you a faithful representation of a scene that you can then admire as a proxy for being there; I want you to get a hint of how that scene made me feel, of what struck me about it. I’ll give an example a bit further down.
That slavish adherence to the rules, so beloved of camera clubs up and down the country, gets in the way of you expressing yourself through imagery. It is a road to blandness and uniformity. Know when to do something different.
That’s not to say, of course, that you should discard everything you’ve learned, but rather selectively choose to disregard a rule, according to what you want the picture to say.
I need some examples, don’t I?
Here’s one taken according to the rules: horizon a third of the way down, foreground interest, leading lines, blah, blah, blah.
Now, consider leading lines and diagonals. You use them to lead the viewer’s eye around the picture (so it’s said). Is it me, or does that sound a tad patronising?
One thing that strikes me about the seaside (and this one in particular) is how horizontal it is. The horizon, the shoreline – these give a strong sense of flatness. So, let’s deliberately ignore leading lines and diagonals.
I’ve retained a bit of foreground interest with the branch (it’s about 6 feet long, for reference), and the horizon still obeys the rule of thirds. But notice that your eye does not have any problem wandering around the image, despite it not having the lines to lead you.
I think this image says more about that ‘horizontality’ that I referred to than does the previous picture. It takes the idea and makes you notice it; in the horizon, the shoreline, the branch and in the absence of non-horizontal elements. In other words, this image conveys an essence of how I saw that beach – the previous picture is just a picture of the beach, no more. And that’s what I was talking about above – that wish to put over something more than just a record of a scene.
Take this idea one step further, and remove the foreground interest.
Still using rule of thirds, but now the picture is about open expanses, infinity, emptiness. It becomes almost an abstract image, a thing of horizontal blocks of colour, divorced from the original reality it portrays.
And this next one takes it a bit further with lots of horizontal lines, rather than a few blocks of colour.
And now let’s play with the rule of thirds.
The land/sky division is in the middle, and the striped pole is way too far to the right. But it works, I think. The deliberate compromising of classical balance imparts a little tension that keeps the interest long enough to look a bit deeper and maybe spot the reveal. From the place I was standing, that pole was a dominant feature. By putting it in this unbalanced location in the frame, it makes you keep looking back at it, echoing the way it appeared to me at the time.
By contrast, if I take a more classical composition of the same thing, then it becomes merely a picture element, not the dominant one.
To my eye, that’s a less interesting picture. It’s safe. It’s Nice.
And, finally, one that doesn’t deliberately flout the rules, but nor have I attempted to include everything.
I positioned the bottle and the far shoreline according to the rule of thirds, but left everything else to sort itself out. Notice, though, how this is not a picture of a beach; it’s a picture of a thoughtless person, even though that person is not visible.
I hope this has given you something to think about when you’re next out with a camera, because that’s the way to make good pictures: think before you press the shutter.
†The most scathing comment about a photograph that one of my tutors would make was to refer to it as ‘nice’. He meant that it was technically good and obeyed the ‘rules’, but that was all. It was one of the crowd, nothing exceptional, just another nice picture.
I often find myself repeating the adage that it’s the photographer who makes the photograph, not the camera†. This statement is perfectly true.
For certain values of “true”…
What I’m trying to get across, of course, is that the essential parts of a photograph — the subject, composition, lighting, etc. — are nothing to do with the camera, and everything to do with the skill of the photographer. You can take great pictures with cheap kit and you can take execrable pictures with expensive kit.
What’s hidden in that trite little saying, though, is that the experienced photographer will understand the capabilities and limitations of whatever camera he or she is using, and will work within those limitations.
Consider the pictures here: it was a balmy night in Harlech, so I went out for late-night walk. Night-time lighting is wonderful — especially in black and white, when it takes on an eerie, spooky character. Of course, when you’ve got a castle just round the corner, you feel the need to make a few creepy pictures — a bit Hammer horror or old Hollywood Frankenstein style.
The thing about night-time, though, is that the dark bits are, well, dark. Even the lit parts are not that bright. This means that you have to push the ISO setting up on the camera to get even a halfway reasonable shutter speed and, thus, a sharp picture.
And this is where quality will out, because the cheap kit will now start to struggle as increasing the ISO value begins to dramatically increase the noise in the picture. I might write a short post about why that is some time but, for the moment, the point is that it is unlikely that a cheap camera could produce the pictures that I’ve included here.
The thing to look for is those areas of deep, deep black in the pictures. You need a low-noise sensor, otherwise they will just be blocks of random coloured or grey speckles.
Llew Glas Henbethau
The lesson here, then, is that you need to understand your camera’s capabilities and base your concept of the pictures you wish to take around those capabilities. Don’t try to force a camera to do something it’s not capable of: that way lies rubbish photos.
So, here’s a challenge: suppose you’re standing where I am in any of these pictures, but you only have your camera phone, which is exposing with a shutter speed of about a second. This means that, no matter how hard you try, you will get motion blur in the picture. Can you think of a way to creatively work with that camera to get a worthwhile picture? Or maybe just wait for daylight…
† There is the (probably apocryphal) story of the host at a dinner party who said to a photographer guest, “you take wonderful pictures; you must have a very good camera”, to which the photographer replied, “this is a wonderful meal; you must have a very good oven”.