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Taking the Image

Once you've taken the time to configure the camera's settings so that the technical quality is assured, it's time to think about what else goes into making an interesting and successful photograph and how to use your camera to achieve those ends. If you're already a seasoned photographer, some, if not all, of the topics we're about to cover may be familiar to you. But it's worth noting that although traditional framing and compositional guidelines can be applied to all photos, with digital photography, certain aspects need to be treated differently than they would with a film image.


When we view any scene, no matter what the lighting conditions may be, we have the benefit of the world's fastest and most advanced auto focus, as well as sophisticated light metering and white balance systems that have yet to be rivaled. We're talking about the human eye here, of course. The way a camera sees an image and the way we see it are very different, and what we view with our eyes is never exactly the same as what is recorded by the camera. Predicting how the camera will capture the lighting and the different planes of focus in a given scene is something that comes only with experience and knowing how your camera and lens will respond. Although you may be somewhat at the mercy of factors such as lighting, focal length, aperture, and shutter speed, you do have total control over how to frame the image.

The rectangle of the viewfinder is the canvas where you compose your photographs. It's been said that painters include, whereas photographers exclude. Painters begin with a totally blank canvas, which they proceed to fill in with brush strokes to render the scene they want the viewer to see. Photographers begin with the cluttered jumble of reality in their viewfinder and selectively exclude all but the most vital aspects of the photograph they see in their mind's eye. If there is something in a scene that painters don't want in the painting, they will simply not paint it. But if photographers are faced with the same situation, they must employ creative framing to exclude any elements they don't want in the final image (Figure 4.25).

Figure 4.25

Figure 4.25 By carefully considering how you frame an image in the viewfinder, you can eliminate distracting details, or find a better composition. In many cases, you can do this simply by moving closer to the subject (right).

Horizontal or vertical?

The rectangular or square aspect ratio of most camera viewfinders can be a blessing and a curse. In some regards, it can make composition easier since it defines the shape where you must compose the image. On the other hand, since our view of the world is not limited by rectangular constraints, we often find we must work around the narrow window on the world that the viewfinder provides.

If your image format is rectangular, the first choice you face is whether to frame the image horizontally or vertically. Many novice photographers use horizontal framing because most camera designs encourage you to hold the camera in a horizontal orientation. Until you become used to it, using vertical framing requires a conscious effort to rotate the camera. Depending on your photographic experience and your skill at seeing images amid the visual confusion of reality, deciding on a horizontal or vertical frame may come easily to you, or it may take some practice. Certain subjects will obviously lend themselves to one or the other, of course. But others are not so easy, and some may work well with both methods. Above all, try to be conscious of not falling into the routine of taking all your images as horizontals (Figure 4.26).

Figure 4.26

Figure 4.26 Horizontal or vertical? Both of these shots are good photos of the subject, but the vertical one is a stronger composition that fits the subject better and makes good use of the prominent diagonal element in the scene.

When you look at a scene, put away any preconceived ideas about how it should be framed and try to distill it down to just the basic shapes and colors. Using this approach, you should be able to see whether elements in the image suggest a horizontal or a vertical view. Some scenes, such as landscapes and large group portraits, are obvious candidates for the horizontal frame. The vertical frame is ideal for images where there are strong vertical lines, such as soaring skyscrapers, towering trees, or the classic head and shoulders portrait pose. But even with images where the orientation of the frame seems clear, be open to trying a different approach, because you might find a new and better composition that didn't occur to you at first (Figure 4.27). When in doubt deciding which frame orientation will work best, go ahead and take the image as both a vertical and a horizontal.

Figure 4.27

Figure 4.27 Don't be afraid to break the rules if that results in a better photo. Some subjects are obvious candidates for a vertical composition, such as the photo on the left. But they might also work well as a horizontal. You'll never know unless you try!

Experiment with angles and different points of view

Don't think that just because the camera presents you with a rectangle that you are just limited to horizontal and vertical. Remember that you have 360 degrees of rotation available to you. Can you find anything interesting when you tilt the camera so you view the scene at a diagonal? Such a view may give the scene more of an abstract feeling, but there's nothing wrong with that if it creates an interesting image.

Change the point from which you view the scene, and you may discover new images that weren't apparent in your initial composition (Figure 4.28). If you first took the image from an eye-level standing position, get down low and see how it looks from closer to the ground. Look around you and try to imagine how the dynamics of the composition might change if you moved to the left or right. It's even easy for experienced photographers to fall into a visual rut and automatically compose an image a certain way, or in the way they've done it in the past. If your first idea is to take the photograph with a specific composition, go ahead and do it, but then try to find at least two other compositions for the scene.

Figure 4.28

Figure 4.28 Two examples showing the initial photos of a scene and better compositions that were discovered after viewing the subject from different angles. Don't settle for the first composition that comes to mind. Explore different angles, framing, and viewpoints.

If you're traveling through a scene, especially if you're on foot, don't forget to look back every so often to see how the view changes while you are walking away from it. There's an old saying: "You can't know where you're going unless you first know where you've been." We think this is great advice for life in general, but it also works well for photography. It's natural to concentrate on where you're going and to anticipate the new views and images you may see around the next bend in the road. But we have found many great and often unexpected images simply by looking back over the path we have already walked. For one thing the lighting is likely to be different, and in many cases, that alone is enough to create a compelling new image. The dynamics of the scene will also change, and you may see new relationships between certain elements in the image or between the foreground and background that create an entirely different photograph than what you saw when you were only looking ahead.

The Importance of Cropping in the Camera

Some photographers like to frame the image a little loose so they can have some extra room to apply a specific crop later when the image is printed. For example, when framing an architectural photo with a traditional film camera, a photographer may frame the initial composition and then step back one or two steps, or zoom the lens to a wider view, to allow for some straightening and cropping.

Making every pixel count

With digital photography, however, cropping is not a practice we recommend. The reason is that cropping a digital photograph means that you are throwing away pixels and effectively lowering the megapixel resolution for that particular shot. If you shoot a horizontal photo with a 12-megapixel camera, for example, and then decide later on that it works better as a vertical, the act of cropping it to the different orientation will turn the original 12-megapixel images into approximately a 6-megapixel image. By halving the resolution of the image, you also halve the file size and drastically affect how large that image can be printed. To avoid this, don't waste any of the viewfinder area. Take advantage of every pixel that the image sensor has to offer and fill the entire frame with the image you want to capture.

If you're shooting image elements that will be composited into a separate multi-image collage, consider framing your shots to take advantage of the diagonal width of the viewfinder. This will give you more usable pixels than if you had filled the frame either horizontally or vertically. The difference is a small one, admittedly, but if you're trying to maximize pixel resolution and the image will be used in a collage where the diagonal orientation won't be an issue, this is one way to increase the pixel count (Figure 4.29).

Figure 4.29

Figure 4.29 By framing the Statue of Liberty so that she filled the diagonal width of the viewfinder, the maximum number of pixels was used to capture the statue. Although not an option for a "straight" photo of the statue, the diagonal slant to the image is no problem for photos that will be used in multi-image collages.

Get closer

Robert Capa, the famous photographer who covered many of the major armed conflicts in the middle part of the twentieth century, once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, then you're not close enough." We think this is excellent advice, although if you're seeking the job title of combat photographer, you have to exercise caution at how literally you apply this motto to your own photography: Capa died in 1954 when he stepped on a landmine while he was covering a small regional conflict in a country called Indochina (later to become Vietnam).

If you are not in a combat zone, however, and you need to move closer to the scene, then by all means do so. One of the most common mistakes that even serious amateur photographers make is including more in the frame than is necessary. Get close to your subject, and then move closer still. Try to fill the frame with only the elements that are essential to the image. Pixels are precious in digital photography, so don't waste them on things that dilute the main subject (Figure 4.30).

Figure 4.30

Figure 4.30 Get closer! Use as much of the viewfinder as possible and distill the composition down to the essential elements.

Don't be lazy and rely on the camera's zoom lens to do the job for you (unless you're standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon or some other equally formidable precipice). Move closer first. If you are photographing people, of course, there's a limit to how close you can get before the moment is ruined or the person you are photographing becomes ill at ease or downright annoyed. Once you are as close to the scene as you can get, then use the zoom lens for fine-tuning the composition to exclude any extraneous elements that detract from the primary image.

Details, details, details

Getting physically closer to what you're photographing will also help you see details more clearly, and that, in turn, may lead you to discover new photographs and new relationships between different elements in the scene. One exercise you can do to remind yourself to look for the details in a subject is to take the initial shot and then make a point of moving much closer for a second shot, and then closer still for a third shot. Since you're shooting digital, if you chance to discover more interesting compositions from your close-up vantage point, there's nothing to stop you from taking even more photos (apart from a full memory card). Figure 4.31 shows a photograph of two old tow trucks that have both seen better days and a close-up detail view of one of the trucks.

Figure 4.31

Figure 4.31 By moving in close to examine the fine details of one of the trucks, intriguing patterns and textures in the rusted metal and peeling paint are revealed.

The closer you get, the more abstract the image may become, but that's a big part of the discovery process that makes photography so rewarding. Finding an interesting image where you weren't expecting it is one of the great joys of creating photographs.

Image Relationships

Most photographs are pictures of scenes we view with our eyes, whether it's a child playing, a still life, an African landscape, kayakers on a lake, or a busy street scene in New York City. We say "most photographs" because extremely fast or slow shutter speeds can also reveal images that we can't see, such as star trails in the night sky or Dr. Harold Edgerton's ultra-high-speed photograph of a speeding bullet shooting through an apple. Beyond the concept of photography as a representation of what we can see, however, a photograph is also an arrangement of elements within a square or rectangular area (the frame). The relationship of these elements to one another—whether they are actual objects or simply areas of light, shadow, and color—is one of the factors that separates a photograph with a good, visually interesting composition from a photograph that's just another picture. Consider the following:

  • The importance of the frame. The frame is the stage on which you present the performance of your image. How you use the stage can take an ordinary picture and turn it into a creative photograph. The frame can be busy and cluttered with lots of activity that gives it an edgy sense of tension, or it can be quiet and orderly, imparting a feeling of calm and balance. How elements interact with the edges of the frame can also be very important to the composition, as can the use of white space or "empty" areas that can be used to create a frame within the frame.
  • Balance. The rectangle of the viewfinder gives you a frame that contains the image. Within this frame the arrangement of image elements can be balanced using either a symmetrical or asymmetrical approach. Symmetrical balance is apparent in images where the subject is centered or where different areas of equal size, whether they are actual objects or simply areas of light and shadow, create a balanced arrangement within the frame. One way to use asymmetrical balance is to create a triangular arrangement that juxtaposes two smaller elements with a larger one. The two smaller elements create the counterbalance for the larger object or image area (Figure 4.32).
    Figure 4.32

    Figure 4.32 In the image on the left, the symmetrical design of the train station lends itself to a formal, balanced composition. In the image on the right, an asymmetrical balance is formed by the juxtaposition of the larger foreground tree with the road and smaller trees in the background.

  • Foreground/background. How the foreground and background elements relate to each other is one of the key factors in a photo. Does the background inform or comment on what is happening in the foreground? Or is it a distracting element that is unrelated to the foreground subject? The relationship between the foreground and the background can be subtly changed through effective use of depth of field. Whenever you compose a shot that has a distinct foreground element, take a moment to survey what is happening in the background. This is good practice just to be sure that there is nothing in the background showing up that you don't want in the photo, but in some cases you may see something that would work well if it was included.
  • Size, position, and point of view. The size of image elements and the way they are viewed contribute to their importance in the overall image, as does how they relate to each other. By composing an image so that certain elements are larger, for instance, you focus attention on those areas and give those elements more importance in the final image. This approach can often be successful in images that focus on smaller or more mundane objects that we usually don't pay much attention to (Figure 4.33).
    Figure 4.33

    Figure 4.33 The size of image elements and their relationship to each other can be used effectively in a composition to draw the viewer's attention to a specific area, to make a visual comment, or to give importance to ordinary objects that we may see every day.

  • Line, form, and color. The camera is ideally suited to examine the world and isolate intriguing compositions of form and color. In some photographs, the subject is not necessarily any specific object in the image but the lines, shapes, and colors that exist within the frame (Figure 4.34). Lines can be employed to direct the viewer's attention within the image, and they can also be used as a subject, creating abstract patterns. Cities are great places to look for images with strong lines (Figure 4.35).
    Figure 4.34

    Figure 4.34 In this photograph of a swimming pool at night, the image is not so much about the pool as it is an exploration of lines, shapes, and color.

    Figure 4.35

    Figure 4.35 The lines in this architectural study create an interesting urban abstract.

  • Light and shadow. Photographs exist because of light, so the interplay of light and shadow can often make for compelling images, even with subject matter that might be thought of as ordinary (Figure 4.36). Whether the shadows are cast by recognizable objects or represent only a close-up detail of a larger shadow, you can usually find interesting images lurking in the shadows. High-contrast lighting, normally the bane of digital photographers, can be highly useful for creating intriguing relationships between light and shadow.
    Figure 4.36

    Figure 4.36 Harsh, high-contrast light, normally a very challenging condition for digital cameras, can be used to great effect when concentrating on the images formed by highlights and shadows.

  • Use of motion. Movement, either in the subject being photographed or movement of the camera itself, can affect an image in intriguing ways. If you cherish the idea of serendipity or random chance in the image-making process, incorporating the trails of movement as seen by a slower shutter speed is a great way to create images whose final appearance is a mystery until after the shutter has closed. For images where the motion of a moving subject is recorded as a blur but the background is sharp, you'll need to use a tripod, since these effects generally entail slower shutter speeds that are not appropriate for handheld photography. If you're using the camera to create the movement, however, no tripod is needed. Even images that would not be remarkable when photographed in sharp focus with no motion can be transformed into very interesting and surprising compositions by using a slow shutter speed and moving the camera during the exposure (Figure 4.37).
    Figure 4.37

    Figure 4.37 Using a slow shutter speed and moving the camera during the exposure (also known as drag shutter) can create interesting and unexpected images. In this 4-second exposure, the camera was panned to follow the man as he walked across the scene.

  • Use of focus. For the photographic purist, crisp, sharp focus is one of the standards by which any photographic image is measured. In the 1930s, Group f64, which included such visionaries as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham, promoted "straight" photography (as opposed to the soft focus "painterly" or pictorialist photographs that were still popular at the time). One of the hallmarks of this approach was a sharply focused image with great depth of field. But images with incredible depth of field and tack-sharp focus represent only one type of photograph among many possible interpretations. The use of shallow depth of field, for instance, is one of the most effective ways to direct the viewer's attention to specific areas in a photo. Selective focus also is particularly well suited for visually conveying the vague and subjective sense of memory or emotion. And even though an image with crisp, sharp focus can be a thing of beauty, don't feel compelled to worship at the altar of precise image clarity if it doesn't serve your creative vision for an image (Figure 4.38).
    Figure 4.38

    Figure 4.38 Sharp focus certainly has its place in photography, but the use of soft focus, or even an image with no obvious point of focus, can be an effective creative tool. In the case of this image, a motion-blurred view of a praying mantis out for a twilight stroll is more an interpretive abstract than a representational study.

  • Breaking the frame. The first item in this section referred to the importance of the frame. Just as important, however, is realizing that the frame is not sacred. You should push the edges now and then to see what you find. Try composing an image that consciously violates all the principles of "good composition" and see if the results intrigue you enough to follow that road a little farther. The immediate feedback of the LCD, as well as the cost-free nature of digital exposures, gives you a safety net as you experiment with a radical framing idea. Do all portraits have to be centered? No. Do you even have to include the entire face of your subject? Not necessarily. By going out of your way to push and break the boundaries of the traditional frame, you may discover a new way of composing images that works quite well for certain subjects (Figure 4.39).
    Figure 4.39

    Figure 4.39 By "breaking the frame" and making a photo that violates all the traditional rules of photographic composition, you might discover an image that works well for a particular subject or that helps to create a certain feeling or emotion.

  • Taking risks. Chance, serendipity, and fortunate accidents are all important to any creative undertaking, whether that process involves industrial design, poetry, sculpture, painting, or photography. It stands to reason that if you always follow the same routine when taking pictures, chances are good that you will consistently make images that look similar. Although this is not negative in any way, and consistency is advantageous when learning any new discipline, there is much to be gained by trying new photographic techniques. When you change or, better yet, discard your routines, you unlock the potential for discovering something new and fresh. True, by taking risks with your image making there is the very real possibility of a card full of disappointing images that never quite got off the ground. But there's also the chance that you'll find an outstanding image where you least expected it or create a cool visual effect out of the ordinary ingredients of daily life. Besides, it's digital—it doesn't cost anything to experiment except a little of your time!
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