Shoot for the Moon: Taking good pictures isn’t rocket science
AMC Outdoors, September 2005
We’re being buried in a digital avalanche. In the past, we received a wallet portrait of our newest family members once a year at Christmas. These days, we receive approximately one billion digital images in our email inboxes twice a week.
Take little nephew Jimmy. His loving parents have documented his every move for our viewing pleasure. He’s asleep, awake, drooling, screaming. He’s posing on the left, to the right, from straight down on top of his head. Here’s Jimmy throwing food and smearing apple sauce up his nose. Followed, of course, by a detailed chronicle of Jimmy’s first spit-up.
Or maybe it’s your second cousin’s latest trip to a national park, detailed down to out-of-focus close-ups of the ratty chin fur of their favorite campsite chipmunk. Interspersed, of course, by vague images of distant mountains with empty foregrounds or an endless series of smiling Aunt Betty dead center in every shot.
My advice: Edit your images for quality before unleashing them upon your unsuspecting friends and family. This task is made easier, of course, by capturing fewer, better images in the first place.
Follow these five simple tips and next time impress with quality, not quantity.
Identify your subject
Good photos almost always feature a clear subject—people looking at the image should be able to immediately figure out what it’s a picture of. As you set up your shot, determine what element is going to be the main subject. That’s easy if you’re photographing a person, group, or animal, but more challenging when you’re taking pictures of a forest, a landscape, or some other outdoor scene that lacks an obvious subject. In this situation, look closely at the scene. Is there something that catches your attention? An interesting rock, tree, or cloud? A stream, mountain summit, or waterfall? If nothing jumps out at you, walk around until you find something that does. Keep in mind that the subject must be large enough within the image to not be overshadowed by its surroundings. That moose 100 yards away might be exciting now, but won’t be later if it only appears as a distant black smudge in your photo.
Know the rule of thirds
Now that you’ve got your subject identified, it’s time to place it within the photograph. Number one rule here: Do not put the subject dead center. Centering an object tends to create a one-dimensional photo. This might work for close-up shots that feature only one element, but not for larger scenes. The reason? Viewers’ eyes are drawn immediately, and exclusively, to the center of the image. All other aspects, background and foreground, are virtually banished from the viewer’s awareness. Instead, utilize the rule of thirds. Mentally draw four lines across the image: two that divide the photo into thirds vertically, two that divide it horizontally. Place the subject at one of the four points where these lines intersect. This opens up the rest of the photo for other elements that you’d like to include, while still retaining an easily discerned subject.
Make a scene
Good photographers incorporate their subjects into a broader composition. The goal here is to highlight elements in the foreground or background that add a sense of place, mood, scale, or depth, but do not overwhelm or steal attention away from the subject. Mountain peaks or billowing clouds in the distance, a flowing stream or cluster of wildflowers in the foreground, a green wall of leaves filling the background—these examples all add something to the image. But keep the composition simple. Pick only a few elements to fill in the scene; too many will clutter the image. And watch out for busy, chaotic backgrounds that distract the viewer.
Use a polarizing filter
Now that you’re set up and ready to shoot, consider using a polarizing filter, which eliminates glare, sharpens edges, and enhances the contrast between clouds and sky. They are ideal for shooting autumn foliage, and can radically enhance fall colors by eliminating reflections off of shiny leaf surfaces. Most scenes that incorporate water also usually benefit from the use of a polarizing filter. Waterfalls, dew drops, and streams can all be brought into sharper focus by reducing reflected glare. Polarizing filters are inexpensive ($20–$40), and quickly screw on to the end of a camera lens. (They are not available for most basic point-and-shoot cameras, however.)
Lose the emotion
Don’t let emotions color your perception. We love our friends and family members dearly, and to us they might be the most beautiful things on Earth. But to an unattached viewer, they’re just, well, a bunch of random people. Photos for the family album are one thing, showing off your pictures to others is another thing entirely. Keep your emotions in check as you photograph and look beyond those adorable faces to craft a richer, fuller scene that anybody can enjoy. The technical world of photography can easily overwhelm, as any trip to a camera store quickly illustrates. Stay focused instead on these simple techniques, and get out, have fun, and get snapping!
—Matt Heid is senior editor of AMC Outdoors.