A Better Picture

Three years in the Advertising business has convinced me that ideas are really powerful and that a photograph that has a strong idea is the most powerful tool to convey a message. A strong idea is always brought out in a simple, clear picture that has a strong subject and minimal interference from un-necessary elements.

Everyone’s seen pictures where things have gone wrong; Bleached out faces, heads cut off, tilting horizons and telephone poles sticking out of heads! All of which interfere in our understanding of what is happening in the photograph itself.

So our question is “How do you make a better picture?”

  1. Take pictures with the sun behind you! No, don’t blind your family or friends, with the sun directly in their faces! In fact, doing that may make their faces lose their shape, giving them a flat appearance. Keep the sun at an angle behind you and it will cast pleasing shadows, making the shape of their faces more apparent while still lighting them sufficiently. I’ve found that it is best to keep it between 30-70 degrees from the person.
  2. Use ‘depth of field’. Though it sounds all complicated, depth of field is only the area of a photograph that is in focus. Try to get the background out of focus if it’s cluttering up the photograph. You can do this by moving in close, using a large aperture and zooming in close.
  3. Fill your frame with the subject. This will make it clearer, more defined and easier to appreciate. If your subject is both a monument as well as a person, make sure that the height of the person is at least one third that of the viewfinder frame. This makes sure that people wont have to squint to figure out who it is that’s in the picture.
  4. Try Unusual viewpoints. Try looking down from up, or up from down… sideways and around corners! You never know how a different viewpoint could change the entire look of your photograph.
  5. Look at the background. A cluttered background will always interfere with the photograph. Try to un-clutter with simple, textured walls, patterned windowpanes or anything that is striking, yet non-intrusive. Remember that the telephone post sticking out of your mother-in-law’s head isn’t funny to anyone except you!
  6. Really look at the picture that you’re taking. Elements in a photograph interact with each other because there is no real sense of ‘depth’ in the photograph. Remember that your camera’s frame is also an element and that unlike something that you see with your eyes, a photograph has a defined border. So place these elements in relation to each other as well as in relation to your camera’s frame.
  7. Try to use the rules of composition as far as possible. These are ‘rules of thumb’ that can be broken if you want. The rule of thirds, golden section, and usage of perspective, line, rhythm and texture among others, can greatly improve the ‘viewability’ of your pictures. You can find a comprehensive list at this wikipedia entry, and I’ll deal with them in detail in a future ‘photography tip’ post.
  8. Try to frame your subject within a shape if possible. Doors, windows, walls and hangings are good ways to emphasise the shape and size of the person that you’re photographing. Sometimes photographers take photographs framed within ‘created frames’ such as a person’s legs, to add depth.
  9. Try a variety of pictures when you’re on vacation. Variety both in subject and style. Take some portraits of the locals, some close ups of curios with interesting backgrounds, some landscapes of the hills or the beaches. Take pictures of locals, restaurants that you liked and things that you did. This gives you more to look at than just people’s faces, and adds dimension to your memories when you look at the pictures years later.
  10. Remember that your brain sees things differently. Your eyes see things, of course, but it’s the brain that interprets what you see. You may see a speck in the distance but its movement gives you a cue that it’s a car. Those cues are absent in a photograph. Also, the brain has the ability to concentrate on just one object in a scene, like a pair of binoculars! All too often we look at pictures in which we see just a bare beach or just hills when in fact we were trying to capture the strange bird on the beach or the cute house nestled among the trees below the hill. Remember that as a guide, an object needs to fill up at least 1/30th of the camera’s frame to be clearly visible.
  11. Keep taking pictures. By this I mean take pictures every week. After all, you do need to practice if you want to keep taking good pictures. Imagine trying to win a table tennis match after practicing once a year! Same case with photography. Here’s a great exercise; choose a household object and take a single photograph of it every day for five days. Try to make each photograph as distinct from the others as possible. This will keep you in touch with your camera and hone your compositional skills to a great degree.
  12. Read your camera’s user manual. Learn how to use the different modes that your camera and flash have. You’ll learn how “fill-flash” can help you when you’re taking pictures in the sun and how “red-eye-reduction” can help reduce the ‘deer in the headlights’ feel that you sometimes get. Believe me, I’m not trying to turn you into a book worm! The reason I’m not trying to explain them here is that each camera is laid out just a bit differently and it would be pointless trying to give directions for every camera.

Taking photographs is always a learning experience and even the most experienced photographer learns with every time that he shoots. And always remember, its not your camera that takes the photograph. Its you! Like veteran wildlife photographer T.N.A. Perumal said in an interview with The Hindu, “No matter how good the camera, and how many more frames you can click per second, it is instant visualisation, legwork and immense patience that produces that masterpiece.”

So go ahead! Make that masterpiece! And do mail me a copy!