Capturing Better Photos
Posted on Feb 03, 2012
This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Digital Photography for the Genealogist
Within genealogy, a photo can be used to document our sources and provide depth to our family history as we record and tell our history. As genealogists, we photograph documents, books, places, people, cemeteries, etc. The only boundaries are within your mind. If you’re like me, photographs decorate my home and office. Photographs are part of every medium we consume, from books and magazines to newspapers and calendars. Pictures communicate our thoughts and feelings.
Have you ever thought about why you like certain photographs? The answers are relatively simple, and you can improve your images by following a few basic rules you will use a majority of the time.
Rule 1: Get in close
Get in as close as possible, thereby eliminating anything in the background that may detract from your subject. For example, when you are taking photographs of flowers, focus in on one flower. Get as close as you can so that all you can see is the petals of that one flower.
Look around your room, there are many pictures that are waiting to be taken. Perhaps it’s the child’s toy on the floor, stack of papers on your desk, the antique wooden table, or books on the shelf. Always ask yourself whether you are emphasizing the things you really want in the photograph.
Practice Example 1. Set your camera up on a tripod, and get as close as you can to a flower while still keeping the flower in focus. You may choose to include some of the greenery or vase, but make sure you are getting rid of all other images in the photo which cause “clutter.” If you can, physically take the clutter away from your shooting area; if you can’t move it, just move the lens slightly so the clutter is no longer visible in the photo. The image you now see should fill 90-plus percent of the rectangle in your viewfinder/LCD display. You should be seeing nothing but the flower’s petals, with enough detail that you feel you could reach out and touch them. The light hits the blossom just right, creating just enough shadow to make each petal stand out from the others, and you get lost in the beautiful swirl and curves with no distraction.
Practice Example 2. With the same setup as in example 1, ask a family member or friend to simply sit in a chair while you take close-ups of his or her face. As you get close, don’t be afraid to crop out portions of the head and face. Focus on the eyes and smile.
Shooting close really works.
Rule 2: Photographic composition
One of the first photographic lessons I learned is there are “sweet spots,” places in the rectangle of the photo where placement of the main subject of the photo will make the photo really pleasing to the eye. This is called composition. Our first instinct is to want to place the focus of our picture right in the middle. Another term for that is called “bull’s eye.” From now on forget about centering your subjects. You will notice a difference in your photos immediately. There are several methods you can use to help you compose better pictures.
Squint: Yes, I’m serious. Squint your eyes until the image is almost a blur. At this point you will see the lines and shapes created by the shadows and light. You will notice how shadows blend together creating shapes and forms that you would not have seen otherwise. It will impact the composition of your picture.
The “rule of thirds” and the Golden Mean: Any image can be divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines (i.e., tic-tac-toe board). The four points created by the intersections of these lines form an area called the “Golden Mean” that can be used to align features in the photograph. I am a firm believer that aligning the photo at these points of intersection creates photos of more interest and energy. Photos are simply more aesthetically pleasing.
For example, when you are taking outdoor shots, place the horizon in the top third. Rather than placing people in the center, put them on the right or left third of the photo.
The Golden Triangle: The Golden Triangle rule is a spin-off of the rule of thirds. To follow the rule, simply draw a diagonal line connecting two opposite ends of the picture. Then draw connecting lines from the two unused ends so that they are parallel to the first diagonal line. At the two points where the lines intersect, that’s where your subject should be. The idea behind this is that keeping the composition in a diagonal line defies the logical straight line that our brain is used to seeing, making the overall composition a lot more intriguing than a simple shot of the subject “bang” in the center.
Odd numbers: Photos stand out when they move away from the element of order and symmetry. Even numbers of objects make an image look simple because it immediately brings out a sense of symmetry. Take a photo of two similar objects and then take the same photo with three objects. Notice the lack of symmetry with three objects, making the image more appealing to look at. This rule works really well with people, birds, animals, flowers, inanimate objects, and just about anything you can think of.
The frame within a frame: This rule works well with architecture and landscapes. Use materials near you in the foreground and include them in your photograph around two or more edges to create a frame; archways, doorways and other such features work well.
Leading lines: Roads and footpaths are a great way to use leading lines to your advantage and draw your viewer into your photograph. When looking at a picture, our eyes look for a pattern or a lead-in to the subject. That’s where lines can be highly effective in any composition. When our eyes spot a line in a composition, they automatically follow it from the edge of the frame to wherever it may lead. For example, a painted line on the road leads your eye into the image, meeting the horizon line, which is one third of the way down into the image. The edges of the petals of a daisy can be leading lines moving into the center of the flower. A row of trees or street lights that vanish in the distance can create very strong leading lines that take the viewer’s eye all the way through an image.
The circle: The circle can be used very effectively when composing a photograph, if the subject is right. The circle keeps the viewer’s eye from escaping from the picture, taking the viewer’s attention, such as in the center of a dartboard. “The Circle” is a tricky element to use in a photograph effectively, but when done well makes for an outstanding photograph.
Rhythm: Dynamic impact in your photograph is created by using “visual rhythm.” This is a way to use repetition of form and shape in an image to create interest.
Negative space: Negative space is a term used in photography that implies only a tiny fraction of the frame is taken up by the actual subject. Negative space is usually used either to make the subject seem very small, or to give the impression of the subject being in a wide-open space.
It’s okay to break the rules: Sometimes your subject just doesn’t fit into any of the composition rules. What do you do? Take the picture the way it looks best.