Thoughts on photography

Photography has been a hobby of mine for a while, but no doubt I am still very much an amateur.  Thus, I am always hesitant to talk about my photography on here lest I come across as doling out unsolicited advice and feigning expertise about something on which I am most definitely not an expert.

But, I just read this article in Slate and it stirred up some excitement in me, because I never realized that there was a whole movement dedicated to the photo “philosophy” I adopt myself!  Actually I think it is kind of dumb to label things like this, particularly with the much hackneyed word “slow.”  Nonetheless, the article makes some very important points.

In our culture today, cameras are a dime a dozen.  So is the seemingly infinite ability to take and store photos with them.  No longer are we limited by film, or by bulky, unportable cameras.

This has created an impulse to document every mundane moment of our lives.  One visit to facebook and you will see that it is cluttered with pictures of friends taking shots at a bar, hanging out on a sofa, or 100 different poorly-lit frames of your cat in various positions.

Cats. Sorry, I had to!

And something profound has been lost in this impulse to record — we have lost the purpose of photography as a means to create beauty and elicit emotion.  And sadly, this phenomenon has even infiltrated subjects such as once-in-a-lifetime vacations, family holidays, etc.  You come home from your trip to the islands and see that all of your photos are of bushes, or contrived group shots in front of one landscape after the other (which you can’t even see because it is backlit).  None of the shots adequately conveys the beauty of the location or the happiness you experienced while there.

We don’t accept that kind of photography when we hire a professional to do it — just take a look at any wedding portfolio.  The best shots are ones that capture moments that display the sheer joy of the event, not the posed pictures where everyone is included.  So why don’t we have the same standards for ourselves?  Posed shots certainly serve a purpose, and while I’m not saying they should be banished, I do encourage you to think outside those limits, think about what you’re really photographing, and focus on the beauty and artistry of it, not simply as a compulsion to record.

And I promise you, you don’t need any special equipment or skill to take pretty photos.  Even the most basic point-and-shoot cameras take beautiful photos these days, with the technology improving so rapidly.  And by avoiding a few common mistakes, your pictures will be vastly improved.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned, again, with the huge disclaimer that I don’t really know what I’m talking about either!

Control the impulse to document. Ask yourself — is this a subject that really means something to me?  That I would want to print? Put in a photo album?  That I would be proud of?  Is this a photo I will look back on with fondness 20 years from now?  Or is it just a bush on the side of the road?
If you really want a photo of the bush, try taking it up close or at different angles, to capture the texture of the leaves or the way the light is shining through them.  Some things look cool in person but just do not translate well to the digital chip inside your camera.  Avoid cluttering up your files with a thousand of those types of pictures.

Think, what exactly interests you about the bush?  The way the leaves are shaped?  The color?  Get up close and frame the photo in a way that highlights that property.

Here is an example of where taking pictures of fall foliage can be improved by thinking of more interesting angles, rather than trying to fit what your eye sees (a barrage of big trees in screaming colors) into what your camera lens sees.

Do not ever (ever!) use the built in flash. There are some people who say that only natural light should be used for photos, but in my opinion that is usually code for “I don’t know how to properly use a flash.”   Artificial lighting is fine — if you know how to use it.  So if you have a hand held or shoe-mount flash aparatus, or a complete studio lighting set up, and you know how to use it, by all means, do. (Though, if that’s the case, you probably don’t need to be reading this ;)).

But I would guess that 99% of people, myself included, do not possess these things.  In that case, try your best to use natural light exclusively.  Turn the flash built into your camera OFF and never turn it on ever again!  It is the #1 mistake people make and it almost automatically ruins all photos.

There are a few exceptions to this rule.  And I don’t even like to use them, but sometimes it is a must.  If you are shooting outdoors, in very bright light, and it is casting all these weird shadows, sometimes it is okay to turn on the flash — this is called “fill flash” and it smooths out the shadows caused by harsh, directional light.  Your built-in flash is not perfect, because it is also a harsh, directional light, but sometimes it is better than the alternative.

Many cameras made these days, even basic P&S cameras, have the exceptional ability to shoot in low light without a flash (i.e., they have high ISO options and minimize the noise, plus image stabilization).  If you are purchasing a camera, I highly recommend seeking out reviews that mention this ability specifically.  A tripod is helpful, but setting your camera on any stable surface will also do.  It also helps to remember to stand steadily and hold your elbows firmly at your side when shooting in low light.

Bottom line: turn the flash off!  And do not think about turning it back on!  Your photos will improve 100%.

Photo with built-in flash. See how awful it is?

Same subject, no flash: looks much more natural

Simplify, simplify.  I am guilty of this too.  Trying to fill my camera lens with everything my eyes see.  But again, what we see in the real, three-dimensional world doesn’t always translate well to a two-dimensional photo.

Take this photo here.  A bumblebee extracting pollen from a beautiful bush.  In black and white, it’s really obvious how difficult it is to discern what you’re seeing.  Can you even tell there’s a bee somewhere in there?  I’m sure it was beautiful when I saw it, but it doesn’t really work on camera.

But here is another photo on the same bush (albeit different insect).  Look familiar?  I’ve converted it to black and white for a more direct comparison.  I cropped it closer and blurred the background (with the aperture, see last bullet point) and now it is much more obvious that the butterfly is the subject.  But you still get a feel for the foliage as well.

In sum, make an effort to think about what it is you’re taking a picture of — and truly make it the subject.  You can achieve this by cropping it close, minimizing background clutter, and focusing exclusively on what you deem the subject.

Focus! It is easy to take photos out of focus.  I do it all the time by mistake.  Take your time, concentrate, and make sure the camera is really focused before you click.

Here is a little tip:  most autofocus defaults to focus on whatever is in the center.  But what we want in focus is not always in the center.  You can get around this by pointing your lens at the subject, pressing the button halfway down to focus, and them recompose the shot by moving your camera back to wherever you want without removing your finger.  It will retain the focus from whatever point you held the shutter button halfway.

For example: focus on the pumpkin, then reposition pumpkin to the left, while holding down halfway

This also works for exposure.  Have you ever tried to take a picture of a sunset, only to find it all washed out (or the opposite — for example a pumpkin with a sunset in the background, and the pumpkin ends up too dark)?  Point the camera at the sky (or at the ground toward the pumpkin) and press halfway down.  This will tell the camera “I want the sunset exposed properly, not the pumpkin in front of it (or vice versa).”  Then recompose the photo however you want while continuing to hold the button halfway.

Of course, this only applies when you’re shooting on auto mode.  So…

Venture away from full auto mode. This takes some practice.  I am still learning myself.  But ultimately, it will give you so much more control, and you’ll no longer have to “trick” the camera into doing what you want.  You just tell it to do what you want!

You can teach yourself how to do it.  This website has some good information.  I actually took a class at an extracurricular arts center at my university, which helps because it forces you to go out and do it, the only real way to learn.  But you can certainly do it without a class; just go out there and really dedicate some time to getting comfortable with ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

Most cameras, even P&S ones, also have shutter priority and aperture priority modes.  So if you are photographing a waterfall, and really want to capture the flow of the water with a slow shutter speed, with shutter priority you can set the speed to whatever you like and the camera does the rest for you.

Anyway.  That is enough from me.  I hope you’ll start thinking about photography less as an obligation and more as a fun, creative way to make memories!

-R

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