‘Photography? But that’s just pushing a button isn’t it?’
The copious amounts of foreground in your holiday snaps would suggest otherwise, amigo. Indeed, if it were that easy, wouldn’t everyone become professional photographers and be paid to travel the world?
Photography is harder than it is given credit for. Without getting into the detail of F-stops and ISOs, simply having an eye for composition is a skill few possess. Fortunately, these are skills that can be learned and despite being a radically amateur photographer myself, I’ll try and pass the little I know onto you over the forthcoming paragraphs.
A simple one but a goody. Confronted with the urge to take a picture, the average man/woman/+ goes through the following artistic process; they pull out their phone and take the picture. Consequently, most people take pictures from the same angle (standing upright) and thus most pictures end up looking the same. By simply crouching, kneeling or, for the overly dedicated, lying down, the image takes on a more engaging composition, something the viewer isn’t used to seeing.
Rule of thirds
An easy trick for a more captivating image is to position the subject, be that a tree, a waterfall or Mum, a third of the way into the image from the boarder. Flick through a copy of National Geographic and you’ll notice the key figure in the pictures is rarely at the centre of the image. Positioning the subject to the side adds character by making the image seem more serendipitous, like the photographer was capturing a landscape shot and the subject strayed into focus. The two thirds to the side of the subject capture the environment whilst the focus of the other third is dedicated to the subject itself. It’s a generalisation but a centrally focused subject makes for an encyclopaedic-like image, merely a photograph of a thing, which rarely evokes a response or implies a story.
More sky, less foreground
Stood in front of some of the most stunning beaches on earth on a boat in southern Thailand, I asked one of my shipmates if they could take my picture to capture the special moment. Handing me back my phone, I was reminded of the subjective nature of beauty. Whilst I had hoped for a background of emerald cliffs tumbling into azure waters, the image instead portrayed me towering above three metres of relentlessly beige sun deck. Perhaps he was simply a huge fan of all things nautical and rather than the tropical halcyon we were stood amongst, wanted me to forever remember the intricacies of the top deck of our transfer boat. More likely, he had fallen for a classic pit fall of mis-composition; foreground is generally unsightly. As a rule, it’s better to err on the side of more sky, less foreground. It makes things seem more dramatic.
Know where the sun is
‘Face the other way so you’re not squinting’
Holiday pics often come down to a choice between scorched retinas or a silhouetted figure. Make the subject face away from the sun so they can open their eyes and the picture ends up looking like a piece of Matisse’s later work. Face them into the sun and they end up looking like they’re attempting a James Franco impression. I’m not sure there’s a balance to be found but it’s worth bearing in mind the consequences of both options. Selfies aside, having as much sun on a subject as possible is a good rule of thumb; it makes for crisper, more vibrant images and for the DSLR users, it allows you to use higher shutter speeds. Also, just about every silhouette shot is a cliché at this point.
N.B. SNOW PHOTOGRAPHERS This is not always the case when in the mountains. Taking shots with light coming either directly into or away from the sensor means lots of whited-out foreground. Taking images perpendicular to the sun’s rays can add definition to an otherwise uniform ski slope.
Practical equipment advice:
- Don’t put a camera down with the neck strap hang off a table- someone will walk passed and knock it off
- Always have a spare battery and memory card (and if it’s cold keep the spare battery in an inside pocked to keep it warm, it will hold its charge better)
- Put a protective filter on your lens as they inevitably get dirty and trying to wipe them clean generally makes things worse
- If you’re using a tripod don’t walk away from it because it will somehow manage to fall over
- Use a shutter speed faster than the focal length of the lens. A higher focal length means small movements are amplified, potentially blurring the images. As a result, you need a fast-enough shutter speed to not be affected by camera shake (so a 50mm lens requires at least a 1/60th second shutter speed; a 300mm lens requires 1/500th second or faster, etc)
- Use a neutral density filter for slow shutter speed images
Know when to put the camera down
Fuchsia sunsets and dazzling fireworks are invariably underwhelming when captured by camera. Sometimes it’s better not to bother and simply live in the moment. Or live tweet it, whatever works for you.