“Using a camera is easy; it’s creating an image that’s hard.” This was something told to me when I started to learn photography. To be honest, it was not something I immediately understood. I mean, what is so hard about creating an image? Isn’t that what cameras do? It took some time for me to learn that it is not the camera a person is holding but rather the person holding the camera that creates an image.
Like many people, I wanted the images I made to look like those I had seen in magazines such as Life and National Geographic. To me those photographs were the pinnacle of great images. Then I thought, “How can I make images like that?” So, I started reading whatever I could find on photography, studied images that made it to publication, and took whatever courses I could find. Additionally, I sought the advice of experienced photographers about composition.
To start I needed a good understanding of how exposure and depth of field can impact a photograph. Then I started experimenting with composition and began to see improvements in my images.
Seeing Your Image
As you look through the viewfinder, before pressing the shutter release, scan your image from top to bottom and side to side. Think to yourself “What is my subject?” Sure, it sounds simple, but it is a great way to train yourself to think about your image before pressing the shutter release.
Now that you know what your subject is, how will others looking at your photograph know? First, start by filling the frame with your subject as much as possible. The hardest thing for many photographers, especially those who have wide-angle zoom lenses, is to move the zoom away from the widest setting. Many photographers think that the more there is in an image the better, but the reality is sometimes less is more and it can makes a photograph a great image.
Once you have filled your frame with your subject, look around for distractions. This could be a tree limb sticking out from around your subject that might give the appearance of antlers. In cases like this you can try isolating your subject using a shallow depth of field. For example, a few years ago I had opportunity to shoot a baseball game between the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles. Take a look at the image of Greg Myers missing the ball. This was taken at F2.8 making the subject in focus but the crowd out of focus to draw the attention to the subject. While it may not be a great image, it serves to show how focus can isolate your subject.
Rules Are Helpful
Now comes the fun part where you select where you want to place your subject and what you want to include along with it. Again, “What is the subject?” Look at the before and after images of Shinkendo founder Toshishiro Obata. In the “before” image, the subject is not isolated enough and the background was a bit distracting. I wanted the students looking on in the background to be part of the image but at the same time wanted to fill the frame with more of my subject. Using the rule of thirds, I placed my subject on the right side of the image and cropped out part of the background. The result was a stronger image and a more obvious subject.
The rule of thirds is like placing a tic-tac-toe board across your image to help with composition. The intersecting lines are considered the strongest points in an image. Bear in mind, this rule is really a guideline; after all, rules can be broken.
Another example is the before and after image of aspen trees below. The trees are the subject and to ensure that I took away some of the sky to make the trees fill more of the frame.
Using Perspective in Your Images
Finally, there is perspective. For landscape images consider placing something in the background or foreground that provides perspective for your photograph. In the image of horses at Grand Teton shown below the horses in the foreground provide a perspective to show how large one of the peaks at Grand Teton is.
Another example is the below photograph of Yosemite Falls. Trees to the left and right are in the foreground to serve as a frame for the falls and provide perspective for the viewer. Some might think the branches are in the way, but to me the image was done this way to show the viewer the same perspective.
With practice, anyone can improve his or her images. The key is to look at each image as an opportunity to improve your composition skills. Before you press the shutter release, spend a moment thinking, “What is my subject?” and “How can I make it look the best?” In time, you will see significant improvements in all your images.
Peter Kotsinadelis is a writer/photographer living in Pleasanton, CA. He has written articles for photographic publications such as Rangefinder, Professional Photographer, and Shutterbug. His photographic work can also be seen in professional offices in Northern California. He is currently in the process of developing a new website for his online portfolio.