This guest post is the third of three in a photography series that was kindly contributed by Brad and Margus. The first article can be found here and the second article can be found here. We highly recommend you start by reading Part 1.
Rule of the thirds
Margus: This is a traditional photographer’s portrait “rule” where the eyes must be placed at around the upper third of the picture for the most effective representation of the portrait. Sounds simple — until you see most people still shoot faces with eyes smack in the middle of the frame: simple intuition does not cooperate as a trained technique.
Tip of the ages: Turn on the guide lines in your camera. Not only will you be able to use the “thirds” rule by placing your subjects into those nicely marked grid “boxes” or just line those nice buildings straight with gridlines, but your horizon will almost always be level, too. (Unless it’s done in a very intentionally creative way. There are way too many pics around with the horizon noticeably tilted that “hurt” your eyes on the first look.)
This is where you operate in the center line between the vertical and horizontal gridlines.
This may look like a rather complex way of composing a picture, but you can simplify it just by moving your subject out of the center (both vertically and horizontally). And when you look at things this way — the traditional “rule of the thirds” is actually an asymmetric rule. It’s just how the human eye and the brain behind it works.
For me this is usually the most effective method of composition.
Down on the Ground
Get a different perspective by using a different angle; simply putting your camera on the ground or using a very small and short tripod. Objects become “tall” or emphasized in close perspective. You can also use long ground shadow (or reflection) as your subject.
Things that are in logical repetition can give the eye a pleasing perspective when composed right. We tend to like order, thus it’s a classic eye-pulling trick to use for any photographer.
Less is More
This is the single most important trick in photography, in my opinion. The human brain works in an awkwardly interesting way: it tries to average, minimize, and simplify because there’s too much information coming in most of the time. But when this is already done, it tries to make things more complex and the mind starts to wonder — this is where the magic starts to happen! It’s no coincidence that one of the most expensive artworks ever sold is a single painted black square (Kazimir Malevich, estimated value starts at $20,000,000).
Hence, the less you get into the frame and compose it creatively, the more effective it becomes to the brain behind the eye that is watching it.
The same applies to shadows. Modern HDR photography, where everything “must be” visible, has unfortunately killed this true and fine art. But it robs the realness and real beauty of the image. The human brain looks for drama and contrast — no highlight can truly shine without an accompanying shadow. While we mostly first observe the highlights on the image like in the minimalism example above, it’s actually in the shadows where the eyes finally stop and the mind automatically asks, “What’s there?” While the mind doesn’t get any info from the eyes it goes off to wonder by itself and the magic starts from there. Thus, it’s often the deep shadows that give “story” to a photograph.
Yeah, that African sun looks big and nice . . . but what does she actually look like? What does she carry on her head? Fruits, bread, clothes? What texture and color is her dress? What ground does she walk on? Grass, gravel or mud? You create the story through your personal experience . . . and it’s all in the shadows.
One of the creative tricks is to use your camera’s different metering options:
- Matrix or evaluative (full frame)
- Center weighted
Er, what Margus said; he basically covered the majority of what I would say, and some of the concepts I note below are simply different ways of expressing the same ideas.
I would add a couple of thoughts on design principles. First, in addition to the Rule of Thirds used throughout photography and design, also consider the Golden Ratio or “Fibonacci Sequence.” Both the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio provide you tools that can help you create images that are visually engaging and keep the viewer looking around an image.
Second, know when to toss out the rules. Years ago, I was at a photojournalism seminar in New Orleans, and a presenter finished showing his work and started taking questions. Someone asked about a very unusually framed image from his presentation and asked what design principles the photographer used for the shot. He thought about it for a second and responded, “It felt right.” So, if it feels right, it is. Design rules are great tools, but rules are made to be broken.
Visual References for Scale
As adventure riders, we are out in nature a lot, so we find ourselves photographing nature quite a bit. Remember when photographing a nature scene that sometimes it is hard for the human eye to figure out the scale of what you want to convey in a picture. I have stacks of nature photographs that are disappointing because they just don’t capture the grandeur of it all.
One thing that is often missing from a nature shot is a sense of scale. The eye needs some point of reference to give clues as to the size of what the viewer is seeing. Famous nature photographer Galen Rowell was known for putting a human figure in a scene to give that needed visual reference point. Think about your nature scenes and ask yourself whether the viewer will “get” the size of what you are photographing. If not, try to figure out a way to interject someone or something into the shot to give scale.
Another good trick to improve your photos is to think in terms of layers. A picture of a mountain is cool. Add a lake in the middle reflecting the mountain, and it gets better. Add rocks or foliage in the foreground, even better. Add a motorcycle and, well, you’re golden. Layer upon layer of information keeps the viewer engaged.
Gathering Light & Movement
Photography is all about gathering light. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more light the camera captures. Things that move during an exposure often become beautifully blurred, or the moving light source leaves a light trail. Capturing the movement of light takes a lot of forethought, but the end results are often stunning.
As Margus notes, we humans have a natural tendency to look for patterns. That can make patterns in your subject matter very interesting. It’s also interesting when the pattern is broken in some way.
The Weird, the Wacky, and the Whaaaaaa?
As adventure riders, we get off the beaten path probably more than any other breed. It’s human nature to seek out the unusual. When you see it, STOP! Take the time to capture that image. I’ve finished so many rides thinking how I wish I had taken just a few extra seconds to circle back to get that thing that made me smile or left me in awe. Get the picture. You’ll thank me later, as will your riding companions. And no bike is picked up prior to the obligatory photo — there’s a rule.
Details over the broader scene
I have a bad habit of shooting wide and forgetting about the details. The two shots below are examples of what I mean. A friend and I went out to shoot at a local antique store. Here is my shot.
The last thing I’ll say is that great pictures are emotive — they make you feel . . . something. Maybe you see an image and are left angry or sad or just amazed with the beauty. Every image is different, but the greatest images are emotive. Looking back at my last trip, I shot over 200 images (mostly on film), and of those 200 I processed just over 150. Of those 150, I think five or six or decent, but only two are memorable to me because they are emotive:
This second image left me a wondering. There was an entire farmstead that looked to have been abandoned ages ago, with antique equipment just sitting in a field. I saw the top of the old Ford truck poking out of the tall grass and rode over to investigate. I came away with a bit of a haunting image and an untold story of loss that I doubt I’ll ever learn. I imagined the hard work that some family put into this place, only to have it left for nature to erode it back to the Earth.
When you shoot, look for those things that make you feel something. Many of Margus’s incredible images from around the world give you a lens on places most of us will likely never actually see. But those environmental portraits and stunning nature shots are all beautifully done and are emotive in one way or another. You look at his work and you feel.
Images like that are rare. When you find those emotive scenes, take the time to think through the picture to figure out how to convey the emotion you feel while there. Think through exposure and framing and design principles, make your choices . . . and don’t forget to push the button. And don’t forget to share. Who knows, maybe you’re the next Ansel Adams or Robert Capa or Henri Cartier-Bresson waiting to be discovered.