In the past few days, a number of people have asked eerily similar questions of me about one of my passions: photography. The question boils down to this: I want to take great pictures. What camera should I buy? I expressed to each of them that they were asking the wrong question.
The question they wanted answered was, “What are the basic skills needed to make great photographs?” And my answer is that they needed to understand a few basics about their camera. Keep in mind that both of them are artistic and already take some good pictures, but they want to take it to the next level.
Better images are the result of a better photographer, and absolutely NOT the result of a better camera. I will have you know I enjoy photography enough to study it a bit, so can help folks. But I have a lot to learn myself.
So, what separates a well-made photograph from a snapshot?
At its simplest, a strong image is a function of good composition, exposure control, and depth of field management. So here are brief thoughts about why each is important, along with informative links that teach you about each!
1. Composition. Simply put, what are you taking a picture of? Know what the subject of each image is, and understand its relation to everything else in the image. I like simple images. Images that have had that lamppost removed from the corner, no cutoff heads, cropped as tightly to the subject as is prudent. Get it down to the very essence of what the photographer wants me to see. Get closer to the subject. In a perfect situation, WALK closer. Only if that is not possible should you rely on the zoom feature of your lens. Learn the Rule of Thirds. Practice frequently.
Later on, I might suggest you deepen your knowledge of the subject by reading up on Ansel Adams’ Zone System, but not yet.
Here are a couple examples of my favorite compositions. I took each photo shared on this page.
2. Exposure. Learn to control how your camera records light, and you will almost eliminate those underexposed (dark or partially shadowed) or blown out images (way too bright, like the sky appears when you come out of a dark room into bright sunlight).
3. Depth of Field. Understanding where your camera focuses most sharply (it usually has an idiot-proof light or cursor on that point) and using it properly can improve images dramatically. Controlling how much of your photo, from the near-field to the farthest-away part of what you’re photographing, is in sharp focus is really important when shooting portraits, head shots, flora and fauna, and for artistic control.
Learn how by viewing the Dummies series 2-minute video tutorial.
A couple of my favorite DoF images:
As your skills grow, you can become more creative in choosing your focus, but your baseline skill should emphasize sharp sharp eyes.
For a more sophisticated look at depth of field, visit Cambridge in Colour’s excellent article.
And that’s all folks! That’s it.
And indeed, the more you learn about photography, the more questions you will inevitably come to ask yourself. But save them until you can be comfortable discussing the holy trinity above. A frustrating characteristic of my fellow photography enthusiasts is that we tend to forget, as our experience and knowledge levels increase, what made us love making photographs in the first place. And let me tell you: there is a rush when you control your camera to create an image. When people compliment you, its fun to know WHY its good, rather than wondering, “hmm, wonder what I did right to luck out and get that shot?”
This post will reduce photography to the three things Matt Brandon cares most about. (I figured no one could tell me I am wrong, if I posed it this way instead of “the three things every photographer needs to know.”) Now, when other shooters post thoughts, they can simply add to the things you should master, rather than arguing the relative agreement with mine.
If you can understand and manage each of those aspects in your camera, and only use automatic features sparingly, your images will get even better than they already are. Your best shots won’t improve; you’re bound to have lucked out in a number of shots you’ve taken and conquered composition, in particular, by accident. And your automatic camera settings allowed you not to screw up the focus. But if you want to end up with a lot more “keepers” and many fewer soft, unfocused, confused, busy, boring photos, you’re now prepared to do it.