My Photography 101 posts are primarily for “newbie” photographers who want to evolve beyond their camera’s Automatic Mode. The posts are short and not meant to be detailed tutorials. Their purpose is to spark interest and curiosity, impart a little information, and prompt would be photographers to investigate the art of picture taking more thoroughly. The views expressed are my “opinions” only, and make no claim to be the last word on photography.
Acceptable photographs (note that I did not say excellent or outstanding photographs) all have 3 elements in common. These 3 elements deal with the techie side of things, not the artistic. Oftentimes new photographers will try to explain away faulty technical elements in a photograph as artistic license, look at Picasso they say. Picasso was first a master of the realistic painting genre long before he ventured into the the world of the abstract, thus exercising his artistic license. It just won’t wash guys, first you must master the techie side, and then (and only then) explore the artistic. You must know the rules before you can successfully break the rules.
What 3 elements am I talking about? They’re simple, but not always easy to accomplish (even with modern digital cameras and lenses). A photograph must always be in focus, a photograph must always be well exposed and a photograph must always be well composed. Simple, right? But not so easy.
1. Focus. A photograph must be critically sharp, or as photographer’s are fond of saying “Tack-sharp.” The focus point on human or animal subjects is always on the eye(s). If the eyes are sharp other portions of the subject can at times fall out of focus. With other subjects your focus point should be where the interest is. My photo of a wild Orange-winged Amazon Parrot is critically sharp, and I focused on the eye. Because the rest of subject was on the same focal plane it was in sharp focus too (look at the feather detail). Achieving sharp focus takes some forethought, here are a few hints: I use a single focus point 90% of the time (in automatic mode your camera defaults to multiple focus points, great for scenics but lousy for single subjects), if not on a tripod your shutter speed should be 1/Focal Length or greater (i.e. with a FL of 200mm your shutter speed should be 1/250s or greater, this will prevent blurriness due to camera shake), you should have sufficient depth of field-DOF to keep your subject in focus (this is controlled by your aperture, your f-stop, and your FL). Google this subject for further study.
2. Exposure. Exposure (the light and dark of your subject) is the product of: shutter speed, aperture setting and ISO. Many photographs are either underexposed (too dark), or overexposed (too light). How many times have you taken a photograph of a person against a beautiful sunset, only to have them become a dark silhouette? That’s because your camera’s automatic mode exposes for the sunset, but leaves your subject underexposed (too dark). A properly exposed image does not blow out the highlights, nor obscure the detail in the shadow areas. Your human eye does this automatically, but a camera is a machine. That’s why your photo doesn’t look like what you saw. I recently shot the image above in the Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes. This was a challenging exposure situation, exposing for the sky alone would throw the foreground into deep shadow, and exposing for the foreground alone would completely blowout the sky. My solution was to use evaluative metering (averaging the exposure between sky and foreground), and then working with shadows and highlights in Photoshop (this is more advanced than most “newbies” want to attempt). Read about your camera’s metering modes: Evaluative Metering, Spot Metering, Center Average Metering.
3. Composition. Composition is simply presenting your photo to its best advantage. There is an artistic rule in composition called the Rule of 1/3’s. It was discovered by the old painting masters hundreds of years ago, and it works. There are times to break the Rule of 1/3’s but first learn it and then use it. The exceptions are few and far between. Basically the Rule of 1/3’s discovered that centering your subject in the center of the frame is not pleasing to the human eye. Why is that? Who knows. In this photo, of an Anna’s Hummingbird, you will notice that the subject is not in the center of the frame. He is basically in the right 1/3 of the frame, and there is more open space in the direction he is looking. Also the perch he is sitting on is approximately in the lower 1/3 of the frame. Hold up a piece of paper and cover the left 1/3 of the frame (the open space), when the subject is centered it looks cramped and awkward. I’ve posted on the Rule of 1/3’s before (in more depth), but you can also Google the subject to gain a better understanding.
To summarize: The 3 “must have” elements in any acceptable photograph are focus, exposure and composition. If your image lacks any one of those elements then don’t waste your time on it. An acceptable photograph is only the beginning, from there you want to create an excellent piece of art. This is where the artistic side of photography comes in, and where creativity really shines. Mastering the techie side of things will allow you to fully realize your artistic vision. If that’s not important to you, then stick with taking snapshots in automatic mode. No harm, no foul, it’s not a sin. But if you dream of becoming a photographer, an artist, it’s going to take hard work, study and practice. I think it’s worth the effort. Happy shooting. SFD
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler