Months ago when I’d asked for input for post ideas (which I’ve been ever so slowly addressing), I was asked to talk about my photography. I’ve been hemming and hawing since then. You see, I consider photography one of my newest creative pursuits. I’ve only been doing it since July last year. And of course, like any creative pursuit, there are countless technicalities and skills that I haven’t even heard of, much less practiced. So the idea of writing a post about photography tips is intimidating. People’s reaction to my photos has been at first surprising and then gratifying for me. I really enjoy taking pictures. And it’s always nice to have other people enjoy something you yourself enjoy. But expertise? Not sure I’m comfortable with that. So think of this as a collection of things I do when approaching my own photography. Less a list of “should-do’s” or technical details, more a discussion of how I think about and approach taking pictures.
“It’s all about light and composition”
I’m tempted to tell you that my photos are all about light and composition. This isn’t entirely true, but it’s close.
I never use a flash. I always shoot in natural light. And starting out, I quickly became picky about what is ‘good’ natural light. Morning and evening light, cloudy days, and light (non-dappled) shade are easiest. Most of the time I try and avoid direct, middle of the day, harsh sunlight. Dappled light is also difficult.
For people, early morning or evening light is most flattering. Or indirect light from a window if you’re shooting indoors (I use an inexpensive 50mm lens for indoor pictures).
For plants I really like cloudy days. The colors appear very saturated. Or late afternoon, early evening light as long as there aren’t too many shadows. Early morning is also a lovely time especially right as the sun is peeking over the hills.
As far as composition goes, I compose tightly. Meaning, I deliberately crop out extra competing details that don’t add to the image and then take the picture. I rarely crop after the fact. I prefer to do it before taking the picture; it saves time later on in post-processing. You see, the camera records everything, unlike your eyes, which filter out unnecessary details, so you have to pay attention to what is really being captured by the image. Crop out unnecessary distractions and you have a much stronger photo.
My dad, who takes beautiful photos, always composed tightly. So growing up, those are the type of photos I saw. And when I got my camera (at the time a Cannon 350D, now I use a Cannon 450D) he told me:
“Just shoot in auto, you don’t need to worry about any of the manual settings at this point. Most of taking good pictures is composition. You can take excellent photos with any camera as long as you have good composition.”
I promptly ignored his first suggestion, set my camera to aperture priority mode even though I had no idea what I was doing (which is still my primary mode most of the time), and payed attention to his second piece of advice: tight composition.
First, I think about what I’m trying to convey rather than what is actually being recorded. The feeling, if you will, or the essence of the plant or something similarly esoteric but meaningful to me. Then I try and find that within the scene. And only capture that, if possible, cropping out everything else.
Well, I like to think that is what I’m doing. Most of the time I’m not running through all these points in my head before each shot. It’s more automatic and instinctual than that, but the awareness is there. Try and avoid the unnecessary. Only capture the essence. If I could do that all the time with everything, I’d be amazing photographer. But I think it comes with practice. Some things like plants are just easier for me to find the essence. Non-living objects are harder. But the essence is always there, I think.
I move my body around in space a lot as I’m shooting. I’m often contorting myself into weird positions to get good shots of plants. And I usually get down at my children’s level when taking pictures of them. Try out various angles on a scene. The worst thing is just standing there in one position snapping pictures. Get down low, climb up on the picnic table. Do some yoga and get down at bug level and see how this is reflected in your photos.
Dara recently did a post about her four year old and his photography. I loved his pictures. Sure the technical skills aren’t there (in many ways mine aren’t there yet either). But the composition! He’s seeing his world. And he records that and only that, rather than a bunch of competing distractions. And the unique angle of his photos, taken from his small stature gives us a unique perspective on something we rarely see from that angle. Getting down low at child level gives us a new perspective. It brings something fresh and interesting and meaningful to the photo. So do other angles and perspectives.
Mood and Feeling
The second thing I notice about his pictures is the feeling they convey. There is a mood about them. I believe that most of what people are responding to in many of my photos is the feeling I’m trying to convey. I remember realizing this after a post I wrote where all I did was go around with my babe in one arm and my camera in the other with my cheapest, simplest lens and the camera set on one setting. I just snapped a bunch of pictures of our life and my home. I had been feeling really frustrated by the constant buildup of clutter around me. No matter how much I cleaned there was just more stuff everywhere. And my toddler was fussing and insisting I hold him constantly, making any clean up difficult.
Then suddenly I had the thought: “What if something happened to my kids and they were no longer around and I came home to this house and I saw all these little reminders of their lives still scattered everywhere. How precious they would become, all these reminders. Rather than viewing them as annoyances, they would be things of beauty.” (kinda morbid but it worked to shift my perspective) So with Gray in my arm, I went around and snapped a bunch of pictures of it all. They weren’t some of my best photos (in my opinion). But I posted them anyways and the response surprised me. Somehow, what I was feeling was conveyed through those pictures: the little details of our lives matter, they’re beautiful, signs of the light in our lives, even if sometimes we see them as imperfections and annoyances in the moment.
Photography at its compositional best, I believe, tells a story, conveys a mood, a feeling. That is what we are responding to. Thinking about that mood or feeling while you’re taking pictures can really help increase the impact of your photos.
So those are the main things I pay attention to when taking pictures: light, tight composition, interesting angles, and conveying a mood or feeling.
Oh and practice of course. The more I take pictures the more they improve.