The Three C’s: A Quick Guide to Better Photos

Cameras

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” -Ansel Adams

You don’t need to travel the globe to take extraordinary pictures. The word itself when broken down, extra ordinary, reminds me that it is the photographer’s job to find everyday, ordinary subjects and MAKE them extraordinary. Anyone can take a picture of a sunset on a tropical island but how many people can create a fascinating picture of a toaster? If you keep the letter C in mind while you are shooting and editing your pictures you can improve their quality. C stands for…

Clarity: Clarity refers to how clear the photograph is in terms of focus (is it blurry or sharp) and intention (if you meant to take a picture of a toaster have you gotten close enough to it for the viewer to know that this was your purpose). Clarity starts in the camera. Many cameras have manual focus options. This allows you, the photographer with the creative ideas who knows what you want, to focus in on the important elements of your composition rather than relying on the camera. Cameras make assumptions about what the “average” person would want in focus while taking “average” pictures. It is not uncommon to have trouble holding the camera still, especially during long exposures (over 1/30th of a second). You can use a tripod to the steady the camera while you take the picture to avoid camera shake.

The aperture of the camera (labeled as f-stop) determines how much of the scene will be in focus. Higher f-stops such as f-16 and f-32 will yield greater focus in more areas while lower f-stops such as f-2 or f-4 will create only small areas that are in focus. If the picture is not in focus when you take it then it will remain unfocused later when you edit or print it. If you cannot manually set the focus on your camera you can adjust your program settings. For high f-stops (more focus) try the landscape setting. On most cameras this looks like mountains. For low f-stops (selective focus) try the portrait setting. On most cameras this looks like a person. Double-check to make sure the picture you took is the picture you want.

Composition: Composition refers to what elements are included in your picture and how they are arranged. Is the picture shot straight on or is it taken at and angle? What is included? What is left out? Are there lines that lead your eye around the page? Are the elements mostly to the left, to the right, at the top, at the bottom, or in the middle? How much space is around the main subject? When in doubt, take many pictures of the same subject. Not only will you have many images to choose from but you will also get additional practice. Scan the edges of the picture to see if there are objects being cut off such as people’s heads, hands, feet, etc. Look for objects that don’t belong in the shot such as equipment or cords on the floor, bunny ears, strangers “photo bombing” your images, etc. Other common things to look for are telephone poles, lampposts, or signs that appear to being coming out of people’s heads, flare/glare from the sun or bright lights, and food in people’s teeth. While these can be removed later this process is time consuming and tedious.

Thirds

While there are no rules to composition per se, the rule of thirds can help you. Image folding the picture to the left into thirds. The peacock;s body would be aligned along the left third of the picture. The lines of the tail feathers radiate outward from this point making dynamic diagonal lines. This is often more interesting than placing the main subject in exact middle of the page. You can also use this idea for landscapes. By placing the horizon line at the top third of the picture you can emphasize the land while placing the horizon line at the bottom third of the picture helps to emphasize the sky.

Contrast: Contrast refers to the difference in value between the lightest and darkest areas in your picture as measured by the mid-tones. A high contrast image has very dark areas and very light areas without much gray in the middle (i.e. pictures from a copy machine). In a low contrast image the difference between the shadows (dark areas) and highlights (light areas) is more subtle (i.e. pictures of a foggy day). Dynamic pictures often have a wide range of values that span from light to dark. You can determine how much contrast you want in your pictures as you take them by controlling the light or in a photo editing program after the fact. Taking pictures on sunny days, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon, will usually result in pictures with a lot of contrast. Taking pictures on cloudy days or indoors (without a flash) with usually result in pictures with lower contrast. Additional fill lights, flashes, and strobes can change the quality of light to increase or decrease contrast.

Preventative Photoshop is what happens when photographers do their best to get the picture they want to look in camera. It is easy to say “I’ll just fix it in Photoshop” however taking the time to shoot multiple pictures, adjust your camera settings, and pay attention to the quality of light now will save you time and effort in front of the computer later. There are limits to what Photoshop can do and there are also limits on your time and patience. Photoshop cannot focus a blurry photograph or make up for missed moments.

Photo credit (top): mice▲musculus via photopin cc

Photo credit (bottom): Henry Crun via photopin cc

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