Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lesson #3 - How to make GREAT photos

Let's get something straight.

I'm glad you like some of the photos I've taken but what really matters to me is that I like them. I shoot for ME FIRST! I've entered a few photo contests with some of my absolute favorite shots and I've come away disappointed. I've posted my favorites on internet photography forums and I've had people tell me why they didn't like my best work. Please understand - I'm not afraid of criticism but I do recognize that opinions are like bellybuttons...... everyone has one: some stick out and some are full of lint. Our goal is to get you making photos that YOU like. I can tell you what I like about a photo and I can give you some ideas about what makes a photo compelling to ME, but the big question for YOU should be whether or not YOU like it.

With all that in mind, many of you have told me that you are disappointed with the photographs that you get and that you wish you could make shots like I make. You should probably know that I get lots of disappointing photographs too. I'm shooting at a rate of 40,000 shots per year these days. LOTS of those shots aren't very good. Many are downright disappointing. The trick for me, however, is that I usually know what to do when I get a lousy photo. I know how to adjust the camera - on the spot - to salvage the moment. That's what Lessons 1 and 2 were all about. Learn to use the camera so that when you are standing in front of that beautiful mountainside..... you can get it...... on the second or third try, at least.

TRANSLATION: Digital media is cheap. Shoot lots of photos. Learn to look at the display on the back of your camera and learn to ADJUST your shooting based on what you see. END OF TRANSLATION!

Now let's talk about COMPOSITION.

What makes great photographic composition? Is it a great subject? Or, is it something more subtle? I believe it is possible to make great photographs with lousy subjects and lousy photographs with great subjects. So what makes the difference?

Good photographs have EMOTIONAL IMPACT. If its a shot of your kid or your dog or your aging grandmother, it's easy to understand the emotional impact. But what about a landscape photograph. How can a beautiful mountain photograph have emotional impact? Simple: It has to make the viewer feel like he is there instead of just looking at a pretty picture.

How can a photograph make you feel like you are there? We'll get there with three simple concepts: Arrangement, Perspective, and, uh..... Arrangement, again.... This should be fun!


For me, a photograph should draw the eye of the viewer into the frame. The most compelling photographs make the viewer feel as though he is part of the scene. Most postcards appeal to us because they remind us of BEING THERE. Of course they are perfectly exposed and the color is captured during the best light of the day, but what really makes them work is that they draw us into the scene and stimulate the emotions that we felt when we were actually there.

The lines and elements of a photograph can draw us in ...... or bore us completely. Let me tell you what I have seen over and over again. As many of you know, I love Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In fact, I was there TODAY. I'm writing this after spending part of my afternoon in what I consider to be one of the most beautiful places in the whole wide world! I always chuckle as I drive up the main highway because I see people pulled off in the National Park Service pullouts photographing the spectacular Teton Range. The mountains along this drive are unbelievable. If you've never been to Grand Teton National Park, you should put it on your list. If you don't have a list..... start one and put GTNP at the top. It's a must-see.

Anyway, I see these folks snapping photos from the highway and I'm sad for them because I know they are going to be disappointed with their photographs BECAUSE THEY ARE FLAT! They'll say things like, "well, those mountains are unbelievable.... my pictures just don't do them justice." The problem is that there is nothing to DRAW the viewer into the photograph.

One of the best known photographs of the Tetons was taken by Ansel Adams in 1942 from a spot known as the Snake River Overlook. After you drive past three or four boring pullouts, you get to the overlook and you can take almost the same photo that Ansel took. Here's the one I took today:

This shot works because the viewer is drawn into the photo by the foreground and middle ground. Grand Teton, the 13,770-foot mountain in the background, anchors the scene but its the foreground of the trees and the middle ground of the river that make it work so well. Without the foreground and middle elements, this would just be a FLAT photo of the side of some really pretty mountains. Granted, you would have recorded what was there if you just shot the mountains with no foreground elements. But if you really want that POSTCARD feel, draw the viewer into the photograph by including foreground and - if possible - middle ground elements.

Here's another shot of the Tetons that I took last summer. It's at a place called Schwabacher's Landing and you have to hike a couple hundred yards from the parking area at the end of a two-mile gravel road off the main highway. Go to the GTNP visitor center and you'll see lots of posters and postcards from this spot....

This shot works because of BEAVERS! Beavers built a dam on this little backwater of the Snake River causing the water to backup into a nice pool that creates a perfect reflection of the mountains. You get foreground with the reflection, middle ground with the trees on the back of the pond, and the Teton Range anchoring the background. The elements of this photograph work together to draw you into the frame. It almost feels like you are there!


Diagonal lines that lead away from the foreground are another great way to draw the eye into a photograph. Fences, roads, rivers, arms, legs, you name it..... use it to draw the eye into the photograph. Here's an example....

This is the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia. I took this shot back in 2000 using film.... and I got very lucky! Everyone notices the spectacular bridge leading your eye across the harbor, but did you notice the railing in the FOREGROUND?

Here's another example that I love...

This is the west endzone at the Aledo High School Stadium. See how the endzone lines draw you into the photo from the foreground and notice how your eyes follow the lines into the frame and end on the impressive home bleachers. Because I'm not facing the home bleachers straight-on, the line of the seating leads away on another diagonal. It doesn't hurt that the sky behind the bleachers is interesting as well! Imagine how boring this would look if I just shot straight across at the home bleachers.

Another example: Anyone hungry for TexMex?

I took this shot looking up at an angle. I took some others looking straight-on at the building and there just wasn't anything that made those shots appealing. The perspective of this shot just makes it work so much better. Or, maybe I'm just craving chicken enchiladas.....

Arrangement, again!

Maybe you are shooting something that doesn't allow any neat perspective and it doesn't afford the luxury of strong foreground elements.....what do you do then?

There is something called, "The Rule of Thirds," that you need to know about and you need to be prepared to break it whenever you feel like it.

The Rule of Thirds says that you should arrange the elements in a photograph so that they are not centered left to right or top to bottom. The most "pleasing" arrangement is for the elements of the photograph to be located one-third of the way across the frame and one-third of the way up or down in the frame.

TRANSLATION: Don't center your subjects. END TRANSLATION.

Don't center the horizon - one-third of the way from the top or bottom is much better. A person in the photo? One-third of the way from the left or right. Person doing something? Let them "do it" toward the open part of the frame. Pitchers pitch better from one edge toward the middle of the frame. Running backs run toward the open field....unless you want to make him look elusive and then you show them running out of the frame with people chasing him. (See Lesson 2.)


Emotional Impact happens when you draw the viewer into the photograph. You want to make them FEEL like they are a part of it. You can do this by including foreground elements. You can draw them in using diagonal lines and different angles and perspectives. You can draw them in by arranging the elements in a pleasing way. This stuff works! When I look back at my best photos I recall exactly what it was like when I stood there. I want you to be able to feel the same thing when you look at your photos.

You also need to understand that shooting photos this way - using these concepts - becomes a part of HOW YOU SEE. After a while you won't have to think about what you are doing. You will just find yourself drawn to the kind of scenes that work. You will even find yourself skipping the roadside pull-out in favor of something much greater.


Take a look at the photos in my Personal Favorites Galleries. Try to notice all the different ways I use diagonals lines, foreground elements, and the rule-of-thirds in my shots. You might also notice how often I break the rule-of-thirds, too!

NOTE FROM THE TEACHER: I'm a little lonely out here and I'd love to get some feedback on what you've been reading. Is it helpful? Is it a heaping pile of smelly refuse? Send me an email and let me know what you're thinking about these lessons so far. Thanks! JRA

1 comment:

Chris said...

I like your pictures and article. Well done.
Fully agree, every one has a different view.