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The Main Thing You Can Do to Improve Your Photos

There are a few things most people don’t realize about photography if they’re not interested in the art.  First, it’s addictive… and consequently, it’s expensive.  And it turns out it can also be complicated and perhaps even a little intimidating.  Even casual photographers have experienced a lot of these challenges.  Professionals like myself know them all too well.  Once you reach the stage of being a full time professional (which, by the way, isn’t always as exciting as people think), photography can be just as addictive, (five times) as expensive and just as complicated and daunting as it is for hobbyists.

There are ways to successfully tackle many of the challenges photography presents.  Gear will always be expensive—though good photo equipment is becoming more affordable and accessible to the masses every year—but with practice and initiative there are ways to overcome some of the stumbling blocks on the path to creating better images.  By learning a few tricks and certain skills, we can all make photography a bit less intimidating.

Though I’m fortunate enough to list “photographer” as my job title, by no means do I consider myself a great photographer, or even a master of any of the disciplines involved with what I do.  I’m pretty realistic about my own shortcomings and the things I could do to improve.  There’s always room to get better, and if you do any one thing long enough you get a very good sense of what needs to be done to bolster your skillset and improve your artistic abilities.

Because of the nature of my job, I also find myself in the position of evaluating other photographers’ work.  I’ve been leading tours and workshops and teaching classes the last several years, so I often get requests for feedback from my students and clients.  In recent years I’ve also been asked to judge a few photo competitions.  So I see a lot of photographs from amateur and hobbyist shooters.  And what I’ve noticed is one overwhelming element of photography that many novice or casual shooters have trouble with in their efforts to create a successful image.

No, it’s not a matter of having “better” photo equipment.  Sure, more expensive professional bodies can help create better images thanks to higher frame rates and better sensors, but anyone can create captivating images with even an entry level SLR camera, or a point-and-shoot… or even a phone 1.

So what is the one thing I’d tell amateur photographers to work on in order to present more interesting, compelling images?

 

Composition (and Cropping)!

The so-called best way to compose images doesn’t really exist.  Composition is somewhat subjective.  You are, after all, making choices to present an image the way you as the photographer want it to be seen, but also in the way you feel will maximize the viewer’s experience.  There are unofficial rules and guidelines for composing and cropping photos to make for better viewing, but even these rules must be and often are broken.  Even though there isn’t a strict set of composition guidelines, it’s an incredibly important skill to master.

In the beginning nature photography course I’ve taught, I always felt the composition lesson was the most important one (after making sure everyone first knew how to operate their camera and control exposure, of course).  So many of the photo competitions I’ve judged have featured images that were on the verge of being good or even great, but the photographers’ crop or composition choices failed them.  Composition/Cropping (they’re essentially the same thing… you’re simply recomposing your image when you crop) is the one overwhelming issue that plagues the majority of amateur contest entries.  With a few tweaks, lopping off one edge of a photo or loosening a crop along the top or bottom, a photo can be elevated to much greater heights.

I’ve highlighted the problem.  So what can you do to fix it?

 

What Are You Emphasizing?

First, it’s important to remember that there’s not always one solution that will please everyone.  You should consider your own priorities foremost.  Chances are you’re not working with a magazine editor who is demanding a horizontal double-truck image, or a vertical photo matching the exact dimensions of their cover while leaving enough room for their logo, headers and subheaders.  No, it’s more likely that you have a lot of freedom to choose the best crop as you see fit.

Ultimately, your choices may not always jive with those of your viewers 2.  Several years ago, I visited South Africa for the first time.  In Kruger National Park, we were fortunate to see several kudu.  This happens to be my favorite antelope species, thanks to its beautiful markings, large ears and those regal, spiraling horns.  A small herd of bulls emerged from the bush near the road.  One male posed before an acacia tree and looked right at me.  I loved the symmetry he presented to me, but I was also fond of that thorny backdrop, which made for a very pleasing background pattern.  I was so intent on preserving and highlighting that sweet background texture that I chose to go with a horizontal crop.

Kudu horizontal crop

Eventually I shared the image in an online photo community… and was roundly criticized for not choosing a vertical crop (don’t worry, they were nice about it).  Why go vertical in this case?  In spite of my glorious thorny backdrop—which wasn’t even “clean” or perfect—the strongest part of the image was still the kudu itself.  The V shape of the antelope, the mirrored spirals of the horns and the round dish-shaped ears is apparent to anyone looking at the photo.  If anything, a handsome bull kudu is made for this type of portrait.  But I had fallen in love with the tree behind it and sort of lost sight of the star of the show.  So I heeded the advice and tweaked the photo.

Kudu vertical crop

Vertical was the right choice in this case.  But sometimes listening to the masses isn’t the way to go.  A lot of folks think that edicts like the Rule of Thirds must be followed at all times.  That simply isn’t true.  We are still talking about art, after all, which is largely subjective.

Not long after I shared the kudu photo on that website, I posted another photo from the same trip.

Wild dog

Again, I loved the background of the image.  There was no texture (instead, it’s a nice example of a clean background), but I really liked the way the tones echoed the color of the wild dog’s eyes and its fur.  I wanted to show the subject enveloped in these rich, warm tones.

Once again, some folks disagreed with my choice, insisting that I tighten my crop again and focus solely on the subject.  But this situation was different from the kudu.  There isn’t the same symmetry.  The dog isn’t looking straight at the camera, and the body is jutting out behind it.  Rather than forming a striking, geometric shape, the dog is something of an ambiguous blob.  So I felt if there was one particular aspect of the photo that was more dominant, it was that great warm color.  And preserving more of the background was justified.

 

The Rule of Thirds

Both of the preceding images featured centered subjects, something that doesn’t really come to mind when it comes to the famous Rule of Thirds (though it can be applied to a centered subject more than you may think, just look at the placement of the kudu’s face in that vertical shot).  If you need a refresher about the Rule, read up on it here.  To me, the Rule isn’t something I stick to constantly, but it does come naturally.  I find that successfully adhering to the Rule ultimately helps the viewer do one very important thing: explore the frame.

When John Thomas Smith first mentioned the Rule of Thirds, he mentioned that “two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture : One should be principal, and the rest sub-ordinate, both in dimension and degree : Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part, while parts of equal appearance hold it awkwardly suspended, as if unable to determine which of those parts is to be considered as the subordinate.”

Leading the viewer through the frame smoothly is pretty important.  By composing well, you are helping guide them through the image.  First, you draw their attention to the most important part of the scene, and then you help lead their eye in a direction you choose.  By weighing a subject in one of the “thirds,” you can firmly announce where they should be looking first.

Rock

Your attention is drawn first to the boulder in the lower left third, before you move up to the right and the distant mountain range.  A classic Rule of Thirds composition and one that allows the viewer to explore the frame quickly with an obvious diagonal viewing plane running through the image.

In some cases, we want to base our compositions on the “directionality” of our subject.  An animal in profile is an obvious example.

American Bison

The bison is facing right, so after we look at it, we naturally want to move out ahead in the direction it’s looking.  But sometimes the eye may not move along a direct horizontal plane.

Great gray owl

In this case the great gray owl is facing left, but it also happens to be looking down toward the ground.  So placing it in the upper right corner helps lead the eye in a downward-left angle, following the owl’s gaze.  Thanks to the composition, the viewer is not only naturally exploring the frame, but also getting a sense of what may be happening in the scene.  The owl is high in the frame, so it’s gliding above whatever it’s watching.  It becomes more apparent that this may be a hunt in progress (which is exactly what was happening).  A lot can be inferred by your subject placement.  Composition helps tell a story.

Snowy owl

This snowy owl isn’t “directional” per se, as it’s facing the camera, but by placing it in the upper left corner, I’m trying to convey a sense that it’s launching itself out of the frame to the left.  Exactly as the encounter played out.  This is contrary to the standard “leave room in front of your moving subject” line I hear a lot (e.g., the bison above), but there was a particular movement I wanted to enhance with my composition.  Another rule broken!

 

Life on the Edge

Something else you may have noticed with all of these images: Breathing Room.  Notice that while the subjects are often placed in corners, they’re not too close to the edges of the frame.  The boundaries of your photo double as a distracting line.  Beyond that edge is a harsh field of white (or black or gray) that surrounds the picture.  Help your subject stand on its own by keeping it separated from those distracting edges.  Don’t crop too tightly.

Of course, you shouldn’t crop too loosely either!  Leave too much room behind a profile subject and suddenly the eye is torn whether to go forward or back.  Exploring the frame is suddenly more difficult and anything but smooth.  Remember, “parts of equal appearance hold [the viewer’s attention] awkwardly suspended,” according to Smith.  And he’s right.  You also may allow other distracting elements to draw the viewer’s attention away from more important things.  Bright sunlit twigs, patches of sky, shadows… these can all distract from your subject.

Let’s look at three crop examples.

Bengal tiger

Waaay too loose.  Not only have I failed to crop out distracting dark patches above and below, but the tiger is nearly centered.  My vision is being tugged to the right by all that empty real estate.  We should crop tighter…

Bengal tiger

Whoa, just a bit too much!  At least I got rid of the dark patches and the surroundings are relatively clean.  But I left almost no real estate below and behind the tiger.  The feet and tail almost disappear when they’re jammed up against the edges of the frame like that.  Let’s add some breathing room.

Bengal tiger

Aaah.  So much better.  There’s now enough space along the edges of the frame, while we’ve preserved the directionality of the subject by keeping some extra space in front of it.  The tiger is firmly grounded in the lower right third against a clean canvas.  Not bad.  You may disagree, of course, but always keep in mind how you want the viewer to approach your photograph and explore the frame.

 

Things to Remember

Composition and cropping choices are often pretty obvious, but sometimes choices can be difficult.  Remember to consider the following:

  • Help the viewer explore the frame.
  • Break the rules: consider emphasizing shapes, conveying movement and telling a story.
  • Let your subjects breathe by avoiding cropping too tight.
  • Don’t leave things so loose that you tug at the eye or leave distracting lines and shadows.

Keep these basic tenets in mind and you may find more consistent success in presenting quality images that your viewers will enjoy exploring.

Notes:

  1. I may be an exception when it comes to using a phone.  I take terrible photos with my iPhone.
  2. Especially if those viewing your photo are other photographers… who can be more opinionated about your work because they can imagine what they would have done if they took the shot.

2 Comments

  1. Mac McMillen July 24, 2016 Reply

    Excellent post. I struggle with pleasing composition, so this article was valuable to me.

    Thanks!

    Mac

    • Author
      Max August 7, 2016 Reply

      Glad it helped, Mac!

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