How to Make a Picture
It is not unusual, if you work in photography, to hear people describe the art as “making photos”. For the most part, I have always put this down to the fact that I was generally talking to people for whom English is a second and sometimes third language and that maybe this was just a direct translation of their own way of saying it, but the expression has grown on me. In many ways, the difference between a photographer and someone who takes photos is just that – a photographer makes pictures. Yes, I agree – that sounds really obnoxious and more than a little pompous. To put it another way, the difference is that a photographer composes images. They look for a specific set-up, lighting, angle and framing so that the picture tells a complete story with every pixel. Fortunately, this process is not nearly as complicated as it sounds, as you will soon learn. For the most part, you need only know a few basic principles. There may well be some fascinating science behind why these principles work, but I don’t know it and you don’t need to. The fact is that they do work for taking perfect pictures.
Taking Perfect Pictures – Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is such a well-known concept that even people who have never held a DSLR in their lives know most of what it is about. In fact, most smartphones now incorporate it into their cameras. If you delve into the settings and find the option to ‘show grid’ (or words to that effect), it overlays something that looks like a noughts-and-crosses (aka tic-tac-toe) board on the screen, with a line each one third in from the left, right, top and bottom of the frame.
Put simply, we find a picture more visually appealing if the important aspects of the shot line up with that grid. The amateur’s instinct is to put the horizon of a landscape through the middle of the frame, for example, but putting it on either the bottom or top line, depending on if the sky or ground is more interesting, makes for a better photo.
The same applies to taking a picture of people with a nice background behind them. The instinct is to put them right in the middle of the frame – they’re the most important part of the photo, right? Well, yes they are, which is why they should absolutely not be right in the dead centre of the frame, but instead should be a third in from one side.
The points where the lines cross are the real hotspots of the picture. If your landscape shot has a sunset, put the sun on one of those cross points for the most appealing composition. The same applies with boats on a seascape or wildlife on the savannah or any important element in any kind of panoramic-style shot.
Most DSLRs don’t have that grid when you’re looking through the viewfinder, but they do usually have focus points which line up roughly with where the cross points would be. I imagine the lines between these points and use them as a general guide.
Taking Perfect Pictures – Looking Room
Studying TV news production has helped me with some aspects of photography because some of the rules are interchangeable between the two disciplines. For example, next time you watch a report, take a look at how they framed the footage of an interview. Generally speaking, the interviewee’s head will be a third in from one side of the frame, with the eyes about a third down from the top of the picture (rule of thirds). Importantly, they are framed looking across to the other side of the screen.
Now try taking a picture of someone around you, but with their head on the line one third in from the side of the frame that they are looking at. It doesn’t look right, does it? It looks unnatural and uncomfortable because we can’t see where they are looking.
This applies to more than just portraits. I’ve had to reject quite a few pictures taken at motor racing events because the vehicle was closer to the edge it is pointing at than the one behind it. Get it right and it conveys dramatic motion and action. Get it wrong and it sort of looks like the vehicle is about to run into a brick wall!
Taking Perfect Pictures – Fill the Frame
This was something I actually learnt quite recently, when an experienced travel photographer was sharing his secrets. I was given the task of photographing a food court in Bangkok and, while my interesting angle of a collection of food stalls was praised, a third of the shot was wasted because it just showed a messy background of people eating.
This is where the real ‘composition’ aspect comes in. You need to make sure that every corner of your frame has something in it worth photographing. It doesn’t need to be something really special – a blue sky or a sandy beach would both count. The important part is to make the most of the frame.
Back in the rule of thirds, I gave the example of the nice landscape. As I said, you can put the horizon a third from either the top or the bottom, depending on if the land or the sky is more interesting.
If you have a glorious sunset, with a smattering of clouds lit up in beautiful colours, then cropping out half of it in favour of some boring meadow is a wasted shot. Similarly, if you have a vibrant city under a dull blanket of cloud, you obviously want to focus more on the ground than the sky. That’s a simplified example of filling the frame, but that’s pretty much the essence of it.
Taking Perfect Pictures – Break the Rules
As I said right at the start, photography is an art. The ‘rules’ I have shared above will give you a perfectly acceptable picture in almost any circumstance, and it will be quantum leaps better than the average camera phone shot. However, these rules are not absolutes. There are plenty of examples of people breaking each and every one of them and creating a stunning work of art in the process.
Ultimately, taking perfect pictures come with practise. In the days of film photography, when I was learning these rules myself, it was said that getting one good shot in a roll of 36 meant you were doing well. With digital, you can take hundreds at no additional cost, so there is no reason to shy away from experimentation.
Take pictures at every possible opportunity and try something new every now and again to see how it works out. It might look great, but there’s a better than average chance that it won’t. If it doesn’t, keep trying something different until you are taking perfect pictures.