Cropping is basically controlling the way an image is framed. When you’re taking a picture, think about what you see in the viewfinder. Do you want the subject to fill the whole picture, or do you want it to look really small? Would the picture look better if you turned your camera on its side, to an “upright” frame position? Is there anything in the frame that distracts you from the subject of your photograph, and can you leave it out? What you don’t show is just as important as what you do, when you’re trying to tell a story.
Consider getting closer to your subject—sometimes close-up shots can show more detail, which can give a viewer a richer understanding of your subject and/or its surroundings. The brilliant photojournalist and war photographer Robert Capa loved getting close to his subjects. He said that if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough!
It also helps, much of the time, to have a real relationship with your subjects. Robert Capa was a soldier, so he was able to capture at close range the details of other soldiers and their lives during wartime. The photo diaries on Rookie work because the photographers are taking pictures of their actual lives, in intimate close-up.
Every photo has a perspective—that’s just the view from the camera lens, and how objects are perceived by it. But when you get to know the basics of perspective and can skillfully apply them, your photos will have a greater sense of volume, space, depth, and distance.
Changing your viewpoint or the position of your camera will ultimately determine the perspective of your image. Move around and see what your camera sees. Do you want the objects in the background to appear a lot smaller than those in the foreground? Then move close to the foreground subjects, and focus on them. Do you want a building or a person to look tall and imposing? Lie down on the ground and point your camera up.
The surreal work of Bill Brandt emphasizes scale and perspective. His work provides a lot of great examples of what you can achieve by playing with scale, depth of field, and abstraction:
When you take a photograph, you are literally recording patterns of light. The very word photography comes from two Greek words that together mean “drawing with light.”
The type and amount of light in an image, the color that the light casts, and where the light is most concentrated will all impact the feeling your photos convey. You can, of course, control all of these variables very precisely if you use only artificial light sources, in a controlled indoor environment. If you’re using natural light (aka the sun), though, there are a lot of variables—mainly time, weather, and location—all of which will affect the brightness, clarity, color, and tone of the light in your photos.
A good way to experiment with the varying qualities of natural light is to choose a subject and shoot it outdoors at different times of the day. Note the variations that occur at these different times—the shadows, the highlights, and the overall color of the image. The time of day affects the intensity of light and the colors in a photo. If you’re taking a photograph in the first or last hour of sunlight in the day (also known as “the magic hour”), the reds and yellows will be much stronger in you results, and the shadows not as dark, as at other times of day. The magic hour is called that because it makes everything look beautiful and magical.
Take a look at this series Olivia did back in August. A perfect example of what the magic of the sunset and twilight can do to your images!
A lot of photographers—especially people who use digital cameras—love a cloudy day, because it softens the edges of everything. But maybe what you’re shooting would benefit from the hard edges that a sunny day will give you. Experiment in different weather conditions. Sunlight looks different in different parts of the globe, too. If you get a chance to travel, bring your camera along and observe whether the light in your photos looks different depending on what city you’re in.
You can use lighting to accentuate the physical characteristics of your subject. Harsh light accentuates high-contrast textures—photographing a weathered rock or aged hands in a harsh light will emphasize the rugged characteristics of these surfaces. Softer light is usually better when you’re not trying to accentuate surface details.
It can be hard to pinpoint what gives a photograph its character—its attitude, its mood, and the feeling it gives you. When looking at a photo that you like, ask yourself, What is it that draws me to this subject? Is it someone’s facial expression, or a particular pattern appearing on a building, the way two objects or bodies are interacting, or something else altogether?
Character is kind of the X factor that takes a beautifully lit, well-composed photograph over the top. There are plenty of professional photographers who make decent livings taking photos that are technically flawless, but ultimately boring. Capturing a feeling is way more important than any of the tips above. Use your camera to tell a story that means something to you. Use it to notice what you love about the world, or what makes you excited, or mad, or antsy. To quote Lauren Poor again: “There isn’t really a universal guide for making a ‘good picture.’ There’s so much possibility for discovery and creativity, and so many different kinds of photographs that function in so many different ways. Figure things out for yourself, understand how you can create and how what you create will function. And just have a friggin’ blast creating and discovering!” ♦
This piece was adapted from a fold-out wall poster that Ruby made called A Basic Guide to Analogue and Digital Photography, which can be found here.