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Take Your Images from “Meh” to “Wowza” With These Basic Compositional Skills

Take Your Images from “Meh” to “Wowza” With These Basic Compositional Skills

Composition and the skills related to creating compelling composition in photographs are something photographers spend a lifetime honing and improving. It is composition that plays a large part in setting one’s own style or signature ‘look’ in photographs and makes an image go from a snapshot to a thought provoking experience. You can spend years journaling, reading and studying composition. But, overall, a photograph with good composition has four basic elements all working together:

  • A clearly defined subject and background
  • Balance
  • A point of view
  • Simplicity

To begin, let’s look an amateur photo I took some years ago. At the time, I thought I was taking a great image. But when we evaluate it according to the standards of composition, it turns out to be nothing more than a mediocre snapshot. Why is this? First, there is no clear subject and background. One could argue that the trees are the subject, or that the building is the subject. Is it the red or green parts of the building?

Busy Photo Example

Example of Busy Composition

For the viewer, the question arises, “What am I supposed to be looking at?” And if this happens, your image has failed. Second, the image is not balanced. It is just one big blob of “stuff” going on. There is virtually no negative space, and no breathing room for the eyes. It’s busy and unfocused. Third, while this image has a point of view (that if a tourist looking upward from the street), it is not an unusual or compelling point of view. It is that which any of us see most of the time on any given day. Had I climbed to the rooftop across the street, or climbed one of the trees and taken a photograph, the point of view would at least be different. Finally, as we have said, this image is not simple. It’s crazy busy.
With a poorly composed photograph as a backdrop, let’s look at a much better one. And as we go through it, I will bring in a couple of other elements that you can be thinking about as you start to intentionally compose your own images. Looking at this image there is no question that the bicycles are the subject and that the sunset is the background. So, right off the bat, this second image is a million times better than the first. Just this simple “detail” is powerful. (This is why sunset images are so popular as nature does a lot of the composing for you!).

Bikes at Sunset

Family fun bikes at sunset.

An additional element that adds interest to the subject is that the bicycles are at opposite angles to one another. The one on the left leads the eye to the darker parts of the image, and the one on the right leads to the brighter parts. By capturing the bikes like this, the eye travels around the image in a natural way. In the Paris image, the eye does not “travel” at all. Instead it rests in one spot like a stunned starfish on the beach; lost and confused.

The sunset image is balanced in at least 2 ways: (1) by the use of light and dark tones and (2) by another object (the rock formation) to the right. The darker tones at the bottom of the image add weight and serve to steady the image. And of you look carefully, you will notice that some vignetting has either been applied around the edges in post-production, or as a result of the lens (some lenses have a bit of a fall off that can be a good thing). The small peninsula to the right that is just a smidge higher than the bike wheels offers balance so that the ‘weight’ of the bikes does not overpower the image. Although, even if this image did not have the rocks, but instead continued on with negative space, it still would work as a well composed image because the image is further balanced by tonal contrast.

The point of view of this image is subtlety different. It is not exactly from the bikes’ perspective, but it is not from the usual height of your average adult either. It looks like the photographer either knelt down or placed the camera on a tripod about 3-4 feet high. The result is a point of view that not commonly seen. This makes the viewer spend more ‘time’ on the image and makes the photograph more interesting. The other strong element in this image is that it has a clear foreground, middle ground (the ocean) and background (the horizon). Landscape images tend to offer this for you naturally, but this can be created by creative application of aperture, particularly with a prime lens.

The simplicity of this sunset image is obvious; two bikes overlooking the beach. With not much else going on, it allows the mind of the viewer to begin to create a story for the image. Why are the bikes there? Whose are they? And so on. The large sky is essentially good use of negative space. Negative space is one of those “issues” in photography. Some say not to have too much, others have mostly negative space in their images. But an image, like the Paris one above, with no negative space is unlikely to work.

Making images that contain strong compositional elements is mostly a matter of awareness. Take your time and try to address these 4 basics, and you will see a major improvement in your images.

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Photography Basics – What Is White Balance?

Photography Basics – What Is White Balance?

Color Cast in Film – White Balance before Digital

Before digital photography, film really only came in two flavors.  Daylight balanced, and Tungsten balanced.  Daylight film was for “normal” light that you would encounter outdoors.  Tungsten was a closer match to most indoor lights.  Each of these light sources has a different color “temperature” and using the wrong film for the light source gave you a color cast or tint that you didn’t really want in many cases.  To compensate, you used filters.  You can read more on photographic filters at wikipedia (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photographic_filter#Color_conversion) if you want, but that is a little outside the scope of this article.

White Balance in Digital Photography

With most, if not all of, today’s cameras, you can select the color balance of your choice when you are taking your pictures.  You don’t need to use a corrective filter.  You also have many more choices than just Daylight and Tungsten.  And you can see the results immediately after taking your photos.  With the Auto White Balance settings on most cameras, which does a pretty good job in most situations, most people even forget this setting even exists.  I really don’t think about it a lot myself most days, but notice times when my camera is picking something slightly off from Daylight when I’m outside, and my photos are not getting the most favorable color cast.  So there are times when I force the camera to Daylight, or possibly to the Shade setting to make sure it’s doing what I want it to.

Shooting Raw and Setting White Balance in Post

If you have your camera set to save RAW format images when you shoot, you can change the white balance setting on your computer later when you process the RAW files.  This is one of the reasons I like the RAW format.  You can make some subtle changes to your images later, because what you have in the raw file is the original unprocessed data captured by the sensor when you pressed the shutter release.  JPG’s have the result of what the software in the camera processed from this data, but the RAW file leaves decisions up to you rather than making them for you.

Examples of White Balance Settings

I shot some example images to illustrate the difference between the settings.  These images were all shot together, in direct sunlight on a mostly sunny day.  So the  “normal” shot should be the one using the Daylight setting.  You will see that the Cloudy Sky, and Shade settings each get a slightly warmer hue to them.  This is because a cloudy sky will give a slightly colder hue (a little more blue) than a sunny sky, and shade will be slightly colder than the cloudy sky.  The white balance settings for these light sources will “warm” the light in the image to compensate.  The difference between these images isn’t drastic.

Now look at the one for indoor lighting.  That one is very different, with a noticeable blue cast to it.  This compensates for indoor lighting that is quite different from the natural outdoor lighting on a sunny day.  Most cameras will also have both a “regular” indoor and a fluorescent indoor light setting on them, because fluorescent lights are a bit different that other light sources.

Just remember, in most cases, the auto white balance setting will take care of this for you.  But it’s making assumptions based on the scene in the viewfinder that may or may not be correct.  So if you watch your image results in the viewfinder, and they aren’t what you want, you should be able to change the setting and correct it.  Or, if you’re shooting in RAW, change it when you bring your images into your computer software for editing.

Getting Creative

Now that you understand how to correctly set your white balance, how can you use this setting to add some creative or dramatic effects to your images?  Here are 5 great examples of how to alter outdoor photos by changing your white balance setting in your camera (or in post) by professional landscape photographer Ian Plant.

Creative Use of White Balance – Ian Plant

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Setting Goals to Improve Your Photography

Setting Goals to Improve Your Photography

Goals for Inspiration, and Motivation


One of the biggest struggles I have, probably the single largest barrier to improving my photography, is just getting out there to shoot.  Sounds simple.  Just pick up the camera and go out the door, right?  But shoot what?  That is the problem.  It’s like staring at a blank piece of paper, or a blank computer screen, and not knowing what to type.  One way to get past this is to set yourself some goals.

Goals do a couple of things.  First they motivate you.  If you have goals, actually written down, it makes it harder to leave the camera at home and go do something else.  It keeps you accountable for making an effort to create images.  They also keep you from going out and looking for “that image” to jump in front of your camera.  You know what I mean.  Those times  you go out to shoot, not knowing WHAT image you want, looking for a special image to present itself to you.  I’m guilty, I’ve been there, more often than I would like to admit.  But it’s not the way to get better, and it doesn’t help you to create compelling images.

Setting Your Goals

OK, so what kind of goals do you need?  How do you figure out goals that you can achieve, and that will be helpful.  Many self help courses, and personal management trainers talk about SMART goals.  Smart is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.  SMART can, and should be applied to ANY type of goals you create, but let’s talk about how they pertain to photography for a moment.

Specific.  A specific goal is a goal that has some focus (pun intended).  Just like a photo, a goal needs a clear subject.  What do you want to improve on.  Are you trying to improve your macro skills, or take better black and white images?  One good, and specific goal to improve your black and white shots would be something like “I am going to take 1 Black and White image each day for a week.”

Measurable.  Is the goal above, 1 black and white image each day for a week Measurable?  Yes, 1 image, each day, for 7 days.  “I should really start taking more black and white images” isn’t really a goal.  It’s not at all measurable.  A little better, but not quite there, is “I’m going to take some black and white images this month.”  Possibly “I’m going to shoot ONLY black and white images this month.”   That could work.  It’s measurable, if you have more than ZERO color images in the month, you didn’t meet your goal.

Attainable.  If I set a goal of shooting 1 image of a flag blowing in the wind on top of Mt Everest before Friday.  This meets the first two criteria of our SMART goals.  It’s Specific.  It’s Measurable.  But if I’m not going to be climbing Mt Everest this week, it is not Attainable.  Getting to the top of that mountain takes some advanced planning.  If I said Before I Die instead of This Week, the attainability of that goal may increase.  But it’s pretty broad.  That’s a long range goal, and to get moving on it, you need some smaller steps to get there.

Realistic.  The Mt Everest goal may not be realistic for everyone.  If I really wanted to, I probably could get there.  But I have other things I would rather get to before I die, so I seriously doubt I will ever make it to the top of Mt Everest.  It’s not my top priority.  Something that exceeds your budget, or the time you can put into it, may not be realistic.  I am all for stretching.  Don’t be too quick to determine a goal to be unrealistic.  You can do some amazing things if you set your mind to it.  Just make sure you set a goal that you are WILLING to commit to, then GO FOR IT.

Timely.  What does this mean?  Well, the “Before I Die” goals are cool, and everyone should have a bucket list.  But if you are trying to improve your photography, your SMART goals should be goals that you can achieve in the relatively NEAR FUTURE.  Ideally, goals that you can meet today, this week, or this month.  You should achieve them soon so that you can feel a sense of accomplishment.  Mix in some bucket list goals if you want to, but if all your goals are way out in the future, you will get discouraged, and you will not make progress.  They all feel far away in time, and you will always feel like “I’ll get to that eventually.”

SMART Goals

Setting SMART Goals

What Goals Should You Set?

There is the criteria, your goals should be SMART.  Great.  Now what?  I can’t set your goals for you, but I can tell you how I have determined some of my goals.

Photo Contests or Challenges.  These give you some great goals.  There is usually a deadline set for you.  Either you meet the deadline or you don’t.  They set a theme for the image you need to submit.  And you may be able to get some sort of feedback on the image you create.

Personal Projects.  Determine a personal project.  Make it something you enjoy shooting.  One of my favorite personal projects is Entropy and Rust.  Whatever you like shooting, if there is something that you would like to create a substantial collection of work for, then maybe this would make a good personal project for you.  Set a goal to take 10 new photos for your personal project by the end of the month.

Teach someone a skill.  Find a way to teach the new skills you learn.  The best way to reinforce what you learn, is to turn around and teach it to someone else.  That reinforces what you have learned, and helps you to retain it.  Maybe a goal is to teach some basic photography skills to a youth group.  You could write an article on your blog.  Or teach your mother how to use one of the features on her new camera.

Think about what you are trying to learn.  Specifically, what do you want to improve.  We all want to be better photographers.  But to get there, think about which of your skills are lacking.  And think about how you might improve them.  Keep the 5 aspects of the SMART goals in mind when determining how you will get better.  Make goals, and write them down.  They just don’t have the same impact if you just let them float around in your head.  Lastly, go out and shoot.  I recently heard someone say “Create with Intent.”  I don’t know what podcast I heard that on, so if you know let me know so I can give the person credit.  Think about the image you want and then go make it rather than waiting to get lucky and have an image present itself to you.  Setting goals will help you do that.  Have fun, and go out and shoot.


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6 Great Tutorials on Exposure

6 Great Tutorials on Exposure

The Digital Photography Tips website has a good article on Understanding Exposure.  This is a good starting point if you want to brush up on the basics of what exposure means, and how a camera works.  Read more…

We also have a useful article here on Photomonium about Light.  This provides a very quick summary of the elements of proper exposure.  If you haven’t read this article yet, give it a look while you are learning more about Exposure.  Read more…

This article on CNET provides 5 basic tips for perfect exposure.  Some of the tips are the basics, but it goes into a lot of detail.  Everyone should be able to get a little new information from this article.  Read more..

From Outdoor Photographer magazine, these tips go beyond the basics.  After seeing many variations on basic tips, such as using your camera’s exposure bracketing, this article provided some tips I hadn’t seen before, and some that you wouldn’t normally think of as helping with proper exposure.  This article is worth checking out.  Read more…

This is a good basic exposure article, but with some fantastic examples.  It goes into a lot of detail about making creative decisions about exposure, equivalent exposure settings, and the results you get from the various choices available.  Read more…

Slightly off the topic of basic exposure, but a nice stretch for someone looking to learn more about exposure, is this article on Long Exposure photography.  This provides 8 tips for getting long exposure shots in lower light, and getting the most creativity out of shots taken with slow shutter speeds.  Read more…

 

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Shooting Fall Colors – the Basics

Shooting Fall Colors – the Basics

Today is the last day of summer.

Bright Leaves Up Close

Bright Leaves Up Close

Soon there is going to be an explosion of color, as the leaves turn to brilliant red, yellow, orange, and brown. It is an amazing color palette. Since the colors come and go according to both temperature and altitude, you need to research for fall color shooting.

Location is a consideration. If you live in a zone that is known for its fall color, then no problem. If you don’t you, might need to travel a bit. Think about a park, a nearby National Forest or Preservation area. Go look in your back yard; it may seem common to you, but spectacular to those who haven’t seen it.

Camera/lenses , important but don’t fret over it. If you have a DSLR, then likely you have a lens that will work just fine. If you want to take expansive, colorful landscapes, then you might consider a wide-angle lens. If you don’t have one, think about renting one.. If you want to be closer, then you might consider a much longer lens; say a whatever to 300mm lens, (these lenses now come in multiple iterations). Even a 400mm lens might be just the ticket. You might like the flattening effect it gives.

Filters are another consideration. A circular polarizing filter will intensify colors. If you plan to use several lenses, don’t purchase a filter for each lens. Buy the requisite size step up rings and then one filter large enough to cover all your lenses. A graduated neutral density filter is also useful. If the scene being photographed has a broad contrast range beyond your camera’s dynamic range then the use of these filters is a must. These come in stops as # 1, 2, or 3–very useful on a bright day. Another piece of essential equipment is a tripod or some support for those situations that require longer exposure times (think water as in creeks and rivers) is vital. A beanbag stuck in the crook of a tree will do the job so don’t break the bank.

Camera settings relate to the available light. Think about depth of field. Use large aperture for nice bokeh in background, small aperture for greater depth of field. White balance settings are also important. If you are able, set a custom white balance. If not set daylight for being out in the full light. On most days, I set my WB to cloudy as this enhances the reds and yellows, something I like. You might also set various picture controls so use them to your advantage.

Give some thought to the time of day. The golden hours are terrific if you can be there at sunrise or sunset. If not, any light can be good light with some adaptation. Use your filters, adjust your camera settings, get into the woods and do some detail shots of leaves or a single leave. The sparkles of light that leak through the upper canopy of the trees can make the forest scenery look like jewelry.

Have a clear subject.  Whether you get a closeup of a single leaf, or a rock with leaves around it.  Or maybe you find an old barn with a colorful hill in the background.  Even one of your kids or a pet in a pile of leaves.  Have a focal point in your image, an obvious main subject that is strong and catches the eye of the viewer.

The most important tool in the box is you. A bit of imagination, a willingness to play with your camera will make all your shots better. Hey, all you can lose is a few pixels. Have fun.

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8 Autumn Photography Tips

8 Autumn Photography Tips

This is one of my favorite times of year to photograph outdoors.  The air is crisp and clean, and the colors are absolutely amazing.  Here are some tips for getting great autumn images.

Fall Pumpkins

Fall Pumpkins

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