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Tips for Better Pictures

 

Today's e-tip:

Improving the pictures
you take is an art


Your digital camera doesn't see the way you do. Understanding the differences in the way you and your camera sees is the start of taking great pictures.
Improving the pictures you take is an "art"

There are two kinds of pictures you can take with your camera:
  • Documentation; and
  • Art
Documentation is just that: documentation of something, someplace or someone. It documents objectively, not subjectively.

For example, I often use my cell phone to take pictures of documents, signs, or something unusual. These pictures are meant to remind me later of something. They document something. We’ve all seen somebody’s vacation pictures that shows an animal’s (deer, bear, etc.) back-end walking away from them. This is documentation – it documents "this is what I saw".

Photojournalism can also fall into the realm of "documentation". The pictures you see in the newspaper are typically documentation.

All other pictures you take fall into the realm of "Art". These pictures display a subjective interpretation of the photographer (you).

If you want to take better images, you need to start thinking of your images as art.

art
"Art" is defined as:

"the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."

In other words, to create photographic art is to create a compelling image that stirs the emotion of the viewer. If your image doesn’t create an emotional response in the viewer, then it falls into the realm of "documentation", not art.

Photography, as "art" is what you should be striving for.


Ground Rules
If we're going to talk about photography as art, I need to set a few ground rules.

You can take multiple photographic images and superimpose them on each other to create an artistic image. That's not the "art" that I'm going to talk about.

You can also apply "art" filters to an image - to make it look like a painting. That's not the "art" that I'm going to talk about.

What I am going to talk about is taking realistic, compelling digital images. The image could be a portrait, landscape, macro, or any other type of image. It's about inspiring emotions in the people that view your images - it's communication without words.



You, me and the camera
If two people stand in exactly the same place, viewing the same scene, they won’t actually see  the same thing. Each of us has a brain, and, based on our previous experiences, emotions and preferences, we see things a little differently. Our emotions get involved to change how we see things.

The camera also sees things differently. Our eyes and brain combine to define what we see, but the camera has a lens and sensor that sees things very differently – which is a good thing. By changing settings (aperture, shutter, ISO speed, etc.), we can change how our cameras see. Understanding how these settings affect the final image is important in creating your art.

If you were a "paint & brush" artist, your tools would be the brush and the paint. As a photographer, your tools are the camera and post-processing software.



Composition
Composition is one of the most important aspects of photographic art. A badly composed image will never impress, but good composition will always make a positive impression. When a person views an image with good composition, they get the feeling that nothing could be added or deleted from the image to improve it. They may not think of this consciously, but when composing an image, you should.

Sometimes you want to isolate your subject - you can do this with contrast, color or background blurring. Sometimes you just want a tight crop. This image uses a tight crop, color contrast (green background against a pink flower) and background blurring. There are no distracting elements - its simplicity helps helps create a compelling image.

art



Achieving Art
Good images often require them to be sharp. They always need to be well saturated, well adjusted for highlights and shadows, and have good composition. It also requires good light – after all, when you take a picture, you’re not just photographing your subject, but you're photographing the light that is falling on your subject – and it’s the light that can make or break your image.

Here are two simple images taken from my bedroom window - the images were taken about an hour apart. One has flat-light; one has good-light. Same subject - different light. The first is documentation; the second is art (granted, not great art, but art nonetheless).

Documentation Art
art


Art often requires a unique point of view. As the expression goes, you must think "out of the box". Find a unique viewpoint that shows your subject differently than a human being might see with their eyes at about 5+ feet above the ground. Get low, get high, shoot at different angles – find your own unique vision.

art

One of the best advantages I had in teaching workshops for 10 years was seeing how other people see. We’d all go out and photograph the same subjects, but each person would see, and photograph, those subjects very differently. Taking and sharing pictures with other people can be a great learning experience.

Here's how four different photographers saw the same subject:

art


The photographer Freeman Patterson said:

"The camera always points both ways. In expressing the subject, you also express yourself."


Each picture you take is an expression of you. You need to make your images show what you want them to show.


Become involved!
For all too many people, photography is a passive pursuit. They carry a camera around their neck and shoot randomly. Occasionally they get a good image, but not often. Photography needs to be an active pursuit. You need to become a decision-maker. You must decide what elements need to be in an image, and, more importantly, what doesn’t. You need to decide how to present your subject without distraction. When you casually look at a scene, your brain filters out various components, and you only see what you want to see – typically just your subject. Your camera doesn’t filter anything – it captures everything in its field of vision. You need to slow down and start looking for all of those distractions and figure out how to isolate your subject, so the viewer sees what you want them to see. The foreground and background are just as important as your subject.

Your camera's aperture setting determines how much depth of field your image will have. You get to decide which of these images you want to take. One has the foreground sharp and the background blurred - the other is the opposite. Your camera is capable of taking either one of these - it's up to you to decide which one you want to take.

art


A tripod can be your best assistant in achieving photographic art. Tripods have two purposes. The first is obvious: to stabilize the camera. The second, and equally as important, is to slow you down. This is critical in getting good images. When you hand-hold your camera, you tend to shoot quickly. A tripod won’t let you shoot quickly – it makes you slow down and think. This extra time allows you to think about the foreground, background, camera settings, composition, light, etc.



Post Processing
Post-processing your images is a critical component of your art. Shooting RAW is also critical, as post-processing a JPEG image that has already been post-processed by your camera is fairly useless, as most of the data in the image has already been deleted by your camera.

Your goal in post-processing should not be to remove or add objects that weren’t in the original scene – it’s to create an image that shows your vision. Sometimes that does mean providing something simple that wasn’t in the original scene, such as a vignette.

A vignette can help to isolate your subject:
 
art

But, most of the time post-processing only requires that you adjust the highlights and shadows so you have deep whites and blacks (levels adjustment) and add a bit of sharpness. These two adjustments can make a huge difference in your images, and make them much more pleasing to view. Sometimes very simple post-processing can have profound effects - other times it's much subtler. The images on the left are JPEG images that the camera (Nikon D810) processed, and the images on the right are RAW images that had post-processing applied.

JPEG created by the camera JPEG created by post-processing the RAW image
art



What NOT to post-process
I constantly see really bad post-processed images. Some people think that more is better - it isn't. Post-processing should be a simple process of subtle adjustments. Images should not look like they were edited. In fact, "editing" isn't what you do when you post-process. What you are doing is "adjusting" the image so that it looks more pleasing - and that often requires very simple adjustments.



Summary
Creating compelling photographic art requires you to be an active participant. You have to ask yourself "what is it about this scene that I want to share and what do I need to do to capture an image that will convey the emotion that I feel?". To do this, you need to:
  • Think about your intent
  • Look for good light
  • Find a unique viewpoint
  • Watch for distracting foreground and background elements
  • Actively compose the image
  • Set your camera’s settings so that the resulting image has the creative aspects you want
  • Post-process to create your vision
Before you take a picture, start asking yourself: is this documentation or is it art? Remember, your goal is to surprise the viewer - to evoke an emotional response.


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