There are certain things in photography that are easier to teach than others. The technical aspects and the likes of understanding your camera are important - but it is also likewise important to know that composition is king! I sometimes get emails from people asking me to help them with their composition and style. As much as I can (and do) pester my students about learning the backbone of exposure, today’s camera’s are more than capable of forgiving a photographer that knows little about exposure. Shooting in RAW gives you that extra edge – and I really speak from experience here. When I first started my career in photography as a poor undergrad – I remained, for the large part, hooked to aperture priority.
Style and composition, though, is a different question altogether. It surprisingly has an element of ‘many are called but few are chosen‘. Even in our age of tilting LCD screens and the like, it remains a photographers greater challenge.
It is commonly believed that some people ‘just have it’ while others struggle to find compositionally pleasing images. I will try to address some of the intrinsic issues of composition in this article and suggest a way forward for the more despaired among us.
1. Don’t believe in the ‘natural photographer’ hypothesis
I honestly believe that people that just pick of the camera and produce wonderful compositions aren’t so much natural photographers as they are simply people that have had prior exposure to the arts. Some are excellent painters, or make wonderful sketches. All the same – they have a trained eye and a predefined style that ‘non-natural‘ photographers weren’t exposed to. Remember this is, in today’s time, the bigger battle in photography. The rest of us sorry souls have to endure the drudging process of training our eyes to become good photographers. The important thing to remember is that it can be done.
For those of us who are constantly saddened by the ease with which camera makers have pumped in aids like live-view and tilting LCD screens – get over it. If they help people capture better images then let it be. This is a business after all. But a personal take from many students of mine, many are shy to experiment. Try to consider different perspectives with the use of such aides. Reflection shots are a good example of photos that benefit tremendously from the tiltable LCD screen function.
Put your camera as close to the water without actually touching the water and observe the creation of perfect symmetry on your LCD screen. The fire away.
This is a technique used by many landscape photographers to create exceptional images that help capture everyone's imagination.
You can even do the same with little puddles as is the case below in Havana.
I went through a bit of a lomography phase back in the day and while almost always I would get a terribly image, once in a while you can be impressed with the results.
In this photograph, Ally looks to me while I snap away from my hips. The result is a pleasing ‘candid’ feel and a unique perspective that adds to the image.
In an opposite but equally different photograph, I happened upon a table of delegates at a conference, tucked myself in a nice position and then shot the image below with my hand stretched out to the top.
With your digital camera and your aides, don’t be afraid to experiment. Sometimes, the results can be very rewarding.
You could go through several images without good results but the more you try and the more you start to experiment with perspectives – the more such choices will come natural to you when the opportunity presents itself.
3. Read the rules, and then disregard them
I focus a great deal on rules with my students. The problem with rules of composition is that they are great to start off with. You would, eventually want to trash all these simple rules such as rule of third or rule of odds. They make cliche photographs and suppress the artist within. But sadly, you need to be comfortable with these rules before you disregard them.
4. Look for role models
I’ll say it – there’s no harm in trying to be someone else when it comes to photography. I know some photographers that have invested themselves quite heavily in both equipment terms as well as time in photography and yet, their photographs leave much to be desired. Typically, this is because they are either contempt with their images and see no reason to get better, or because they simply lack direction and inspiration. What they really need is a role model photographer.
Emulation can be the best way to learn the art. It certainly was for me. I looked through hundred of photographs each day – observing little details each time and slowly transforming into a hybrid photographer whose style was both personal but also strongly influenced by the 15 or so photographers that I followed so closely. Whether it was exposure, silhouettes, portraits, or something else for that matter – observing photographs and believing that I can take the same types of photographs was instrumental in my progress as a photographer.
There are exceptions of course – such as when your favourite photographer uses several makeup artists, stylists and set designers as well as props like fire extinguishers to create the illusion of smoke or fog – then proceeds to an intensive editing process that takes several hours. It would be very expensive for your to emulate this person’s style but even here, perhaps it is the way the person tells the story and the planning process that you find particularly appealing. Perhaps you are more of the setup type of photographer and your love for this work (you must have a strong preference relative to other types of work) has at least helped you identify this. You might even find yourself improving in terms of design and placement – knowing what colours work well together and what textures complement each other from those that don’t. The things you learn from photography can be surprisingly applicable to your everyday life.
Ultimately, I came to pursue a single photographer’s style and to me this Godlike figure is Sebastiao Salgado. There is a lot to admire about Salgado. He wasn’t a trained photographer but a hobbyist that took to photography after his retirement as an economist. To me, his photographs literally come to life and capture so much more than the people he’s photographing. Sometimes I stop to wonder what his subjects are doing today? Where are they? Are they happy and well, especially since he covered so many wars.
My suggestion to you is to carve out your own style as influenced by the numerous photographers that inspire you.
5. Give editing its fair share
One has to wonder why Instagram is such an instant hit with so many people. I often hear people telling me that they should just stick to their iphones rather than make the investment in a big camera. I agree. It ultimately comes down to what you want out of your photography. If it’s convenience and documenting time with friends and family without the ordeal of carrying a camera – then I couldn’t agree more. SLR photographers are always complaining about the tug of carrying a camera and how it really starts to wear you down after a long day’s outing.
But without digressing too much, lets get back to why instagram is so successful – for the first time – we actually have regular non-photographers and enthusiasts dabble with the idea of post-production. Working on details such as contrast, colour correction, and adding a couple of filters can produce wonders.
Post production softwares such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom have several advantages:
· They allow you to enhance your photograph through a few basic tune ups
· By cropping the image, you can either remove distractions or increase the prominence of the subject
· By using tools such as the brush tool, you can enhance details such as texture or increase the presence of the subject (dodging and burning)
· Work on colour correction to strengthen the realistic appearance of your image
These basic steps can really be the difference between an ok photograph and a stunning one. There are obviously things you can do in photoshop that you cannot in lightroom. Lightroom essentially works with details already in your photograph. If you would like to replace the sky with something that has more texture or give your subject an extra pair of hands then you are using the wrong software.
Here is an example of a post production – photographing feedback cylce:
Each time you run through this cycle and given a sufficient dosage of exposure to works that you admire – your ability to get the most out of an image improve significantly, and by using such tools as the brush in LR – you will naturally start paying attention to subtle details within your composition.
Eventually, you develop an intuition for the chemistry between different parts of your image or even in your own home. I remember being particularly annoyed by a new lamp because it destroyed the balance of colours and took away from the art work that was placed in the center.
6. Its probably your lens
Its unfair for you to make comparisons between a landscape photograph taken with a 50mm portrait lens and another taken with a 16mm wide-angle. The same goes for portraits. Please take note that when you use these specialized lenses to do a job they were not designed to do – you will most often get a result that you’re not happy with.
Find out what sort of photographs you love to take. If you travel a great deal – get yourself a a wide angle and a telephoto lens. If you just purchased a camera because you are a new Grand parent, then get yourself a portrait lens that isn’t too deep into the telephoto range – like a 50mm or 35mm.
Standard kit lenses and travel lenses produce satisfactory results but are all-purpose lenses and leave much to be desired at the end of the day.
Photography is expensive! Yes! But it is an absolute waste if you don’t enjoy your photographs or purchase a lens because someone said to you that it was a good idea. Which lens and why depends on what photographs interest you the most.
7. Print and frame your images
You need to pat yourself on the back every now and then. If there is a photograph that you enjoy – don’t be shy to print it and get it framed. Let people that come to your home say great things about it. You will beam with pride and will no doubt think to yourself that perhaps this road to taking wonderful photographs isn’t quite as painful.
Always comparing your photographs to others is a depressing, necessary act to pushing the boundaries of what you are capable of doing. You need to enjoy this road – and take seriously any compliments that comes your way. When someone talks about how great a photographer you are – Don’t brush it off. Say thank you and if there is a particular story to recount on how that photograph came to be then share it. Of course, don’t flaunt or boast about how excellent your work is – but be sincere about sharing with people what you are passionate about. There’s nothing like the support of friends and family.