Exercise is not only smart for your heart it can also make you a better photographer. We all know that without exercise we get out of shape and our bodies change and not in a positive way. In much the same way that our bodies get out of shape without using our muscles, as a photographer my cognitive and visual capabilities decrease if I don’t shoot images almost every day. As a professional photographer I have the luxury of being able to carry a camera every day and thus always tweaking my skills but many folks don’t have this luxury and if they haven’t shot pictures in a while they feel visually about the same as not exercising.
Today almost everyone owns a camera. The process of taking a picture has become so simple that even a child can do it but it takes a truly special vision to capture the world in a graphically brilliant manner in 1/500 of a second. Over the years I have picked up many photographic exercises that I regularly practice and teach my students to keep them in shape and make them into better photographers.
The Invisible Circle
One of my favorite exercises is draw an imaginary circle of any diameter around you in any location. Any location will work just fine. Whether you are in a room with 4 white walls or on beach with a spectacular sunset simply draw an invisible circle of any diameter around you and force yourself to find images within that diameter. At first you may say that there is nothing here but as you begin to really open up your eyes and your mind you will no doubt find things that you would have otherwise passed over and many of these things can produce brilliant photographs. I recall teaching a class in Santa Fe and told the class that everyone must make an image within the confines of the classroom. At first the students said there is nothing here but soon they began to open their eyes. There were two brilliant images produced. One was a close up of the black bruises on a banana peel which was simply incredible. There was an abstract pattern on black and yellow which was vibrant and visually intoxicating. The second was a silhouette of handle of the drapes in the room. The sun came through the tweaded rope while the solid handle used to draw the shades was silhouetted in warm afternoon sunlight. Both of these images were brilliant and yet when we viewed the images as a class no one else in the class could figure out what was photographed to create these brilliant images.
I love this exercise and in almost every location I go to I still draw an invisible circle of some diameter and usually find something graphically appealing in even the most mundane locations.
Triangles in the corners
Learning exactly what lens to use and where to stand and how to frame a shot is a challenge for many photographers. When we are attracted to a subject we tend to look towards the center of the viewfinder and rarely pay attention to the periphery. It is in the periphery where we find things that detract from the image. It may be a branch sticking in or a pattern of color. Jay Maisel once pointed out to me that these extra-unwanted items tend to exist in the corners of our images forming triangular patterns. If you have a triangle in the corner of one of your images and want to determine if it adds to the photograph or detracts from it, cover up everything except the triangle and if the triangle is important, keep it in. More than likely the triangle will be an area of black or white or a branch and by itself is anything but a good image. In this case crop the image and remove the triangles. As an exercise when you are framing an image take your eyes and glance to the periphery in the viewfinder. Look for triangles being formed and if you see them it is a good indication that you need to move in tighter on your subject. Space is defined and determined by shapes and forms. Positive space is where shapes and forms exist; negative space is the empty space around shapes and forms. For images to have a sense of balance positive and negative space can be used to counter balance each other.
Learning the light
With today’s high tech cameras it is very easy to simply set the cameras on auto exposure and most of the time everything works. The problem is that you never really get to learn exposure and most likely when you shoot in snow or on the beach or in backlit locations you will end up unhappy with your photographs. An excellent exercise to help you but comprehend light and exposure is to walk around with either a hand held light meter or even your digital SLR set on manual. Start out by going into a room and try and determine the exposure for the ambient light in the room with your naked eye. After you make a guestimation, check your light meter and see how close you are. If you practice this exercise for about a week you will get good enough so that your brain becomes the true light meter. You will know when your camera is right and when it is wrong and when you need to compensate for mother nature as in a beach scene or snow. With a little practice you can become quite accurate. I can walk into almost any lighting condition and guess usually within a 1/4 of stop the ambient light. This helps tremendously when you are shooting and trying to use lighting to control the mood of a scene.
Taking photographs without a camera
A fantastic exercise to do with a group is to have everyone sit in a circle and look carefully at their surroundings. Each individual sketches an image that they could produce within an area that is visible to the group. One by one you go around the circle and everyone shows their sketch and talks about what they would have photographed. It is very helpful and enriching to see what other people see in the same surroundings. This exercise truly helps one open both their eyes and their mind by developing the skills for previsualization. A follow-up to this is to then have each person make the photograph that they sketched to see if they are capable of actually executing the image they visualized.
Front Light, Side Light, Backlight
The texture, color and light of a subject change dramatically as you move 365 degrees around your subject. To many times photographers miss the best location to photograph from because they remain stationary once they see something. Next time you are attracted to a subject try to walk around the subject photographing it from all sides. This is a wonderful way of learning how light changes a photograph.
A similar exercise is to photograph a subject from the exact same position from sunrise to sunset. As the earth rotates the light dramatically changes the subject. Yet another variation of this is photographing the same subject throughout a year as both climate and light change the composition
Rule of thirds
The “Rule of Thirds” is the most common means for determining where to place the subject in a photograph. It’s based on the concept that the strength of an image improves when the main subject is placed at key locations away from the center of the frame. Essentially, Imaginary lines are drawn dividing the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. You place important elements of your composition where these lines intersect.
Typically we have been trained to place things in the center of the frame. If you were to draw a picture of your house you would most likely place it in the center of the page. The problem, of course, is that placing the subject in the center of the frame normally provides little interest for the viewer. The brain works very logically. If the brain expects to find something in the center of a picture, and it’s located there, the brain is not very excited. Placing the subject away from the center provides visual stimulation. The Rule of Thirds can be used to weigh an image.
Light and Dark
Light colors are less stimulating than dark colors when they fill approximately the same amount of space in the frame. Thus, a large dark area is more attractive to the brain than a white area of the same size. Also, an element that takes up more physical space in the frame is more visually stimulating than an element that uses less space. We can “bottom weight” an image by placing the top of our subject along the lower third of our image. Locating the top of the subject below the lower third gives it even less emphasis. We can also “top-weight” an image by placing it along the upper third of the frame.
Breaking Personal Space Develop a repoire with your subject
Generally when photographing people we are comfortable at a distance and lens choice that doesn’t invade their personal space. When we do this we end up being an observer rather than a participant in the scene. When photographing people or even animals it is important for the camera to cause the viewer to be a participant not just an observer. One way to do this is intentionally invade someone’s personal space. Getting closer than might be comfortable will evoke emotion and reaction from the subject and this can be the difference between a good photograph and a fantastic one.
Depth is an important quality of good photography. We want the viewer participate in a three-dimensional world. Adding elements to assist the brain can help. If your subject is a sunset on the beach adding a person in the foreground will help create depth. Images with depth tend to be more compelling than ones that look “flat.” Avoid joining the foreground and background. Remember that if you are photographing a three-dimensional seen the image may be reduced to one plane and kill the image. The typical case is photographing a person in front of a tree, resulting in an image where it looks like the tree is growing out of his head.
One method of creating visual strength in an image is to create focal points that draw the viewer’s eye to that area. Focal points compel the viewer to look at them first. Isolating a subject creates a natural focal point. Throwing everything in the scene out of focus except for the main subject is another example of this technique. The viewer’s eye is attracted to whatever is sharp in the image. While on the topic of sharpness, in most photographs there is no such thing as almost sharp. The brain wants to see something sharp not almost sharp. Almost sharp simply isn’t there. The brain won’t accept a basketball player dunking the ball who isn’t sharp. The viewer’s eye can’t remain focused on an area that is out of focus. That said, there is also generally a problem when everything in an image is sharp. Now the problem becomes the brain perceiving the image as cluttered. Keep it simple. Having clutter will cause eye fatigue for the viewer. Where you place the horizon in your shot affects what is emphasized.
Contrast in tone or color between elements is yet another way of creating a strong focal point or havoc in the image. If for example the image is equally divided between two tones, the viewer will become confused, because each will compete against each other. Think about the classic sun setting on the ocean. If the horizon line is placed in the center of the frame, both the sky and water take up an equal amount of space. The viewer feels uncomfortable not knowing really where to focus. This image will lack strength, and the viewer will quickly forget it. If the horizon is lowered placing emphasis on the sun the image will be helped. Raising the horizon places emphasis on the water.
Asking students to photograph themselves is always a challenge and a reward. It forces one to think creatively. Do you show your face? Do you show the camera? Usually the most basic self-portraits and thus the least interesting are images shot in a mirror while the most interesting are simply reflections or shadows. A similar exercise which is even more challenging and helps tremendously with creativity, comfort and personal space is to photograph someone you don’t know like a classmate in the nude. I have over the years asked classes to pair up with someone and after the pairs form; I have asked them to photograph each other naked.
Be creative. Standup bend down and lie down
The best photographs are made when the photographer chooses a vantage point to suit the subject, and it is surprising how few subjects are suited by the height of a human standing. When photographing a subject, standup, lie down, bend down and continually move. You will be surprised at how strong an image can become when you change your point of view with a new angle. Also, even if you turn around, something fantastic might just be in your viewfinder. Using a ladder or standing on a sidewalk just to boost your height by a few inches can also dramatically change the scene and composition of your photograph.
Framing a scene
The use of a frame can turn an otherwise plain picture into an incredible one. Usually a foreground element is used to create the frame. Using a window or an arch or a door can isolate and successfully frame a subject making it more visually compelling. A frame can also successfully help to create depth. When you are composing a shot, watch the foreground, middle ground and background. Not only watch them as frames but also as keep your eye on the various planes of color that occur. You may need to physically back up a bit, kneel down for a more pleasant composition, or zoom in to include your subject within your chosen frame.
Fill the frame.
Your minds eye tends to exaggerate what you see through the viewfinder of your camera. You often perceive things a bit bigger than they actually are and you also tend not to notice ‘slight’ distractions like the branch growing out of the side of the frame. Keep things simple and move in to fill the frame. Finding the proper vantage point is tough and when photographing people it is much easier not to fill the frame and not to break their personal space but this won’t lead to a dynamic image. Make sure your subject fills the frame. The best way to do this is to move in closer and watch the periphery of the frame. Before you press that shutter release have a quick look round the edge of the frame and behind your subject.
Ask yourself: What are you photographing?
Are you photographing the bug or the flower? Before you click the shutter ask yourself are you shooting what you are seeing or are you simply pressing the button? Letting extraneous elements interject will distract the viewer from what you want to portray. Crop your image before you shoot it and keep it simple. The goal of many photographers is to create an image that exhibits some underlying organization so the viewer sees what the photographer intends for them to see, but leaves enough ambiguity within the frame of the image so the viewer has to put forth some effort to explore and fully appreciate the image. New photographers often include too many elements in their images and can often improve their composition by removing unessential elements. Beyond a certain point, however an image that is too simple fails to hold ones attention
Color or the Absence of Color
Color is an obvious attraction to many photographers. As a professional photographer I always use to tell my assistants that all we need is a women in red generally referring to the addition of dynamic color to help make an image strong but the absence of color often enhances our perception of form as well. Light emitted from above and to the side when applied to portraits creates what is often referred to as “Rembrandt lighting” and shooting into the sun can create dramatic silhouettes. Sometimes it is the lack of color or color becoming monochrome, which can help to create drama.
Images can have rhythm in much the same way that music has rhythm. In photography the repetition of similar shapes sets up a rhythm that makes seeing easier and more enjoyable. A fence or a line of trees has rhythm and rhythm is soothing to our eyes and soul. To be effective, rhythm also requires some irregularity. It is the out of place picket or tree that really makes an image of trees or fences unique. Therefore when composing your images look for repetition with variation.
Sometimes the strongest images may be the ones that are only comprised of form, color, texture and light and may not be anything concrete at all. An abstraction is something that’s not readily identifiable as a picture “of” something. It’s nonfigurative. Instead, it evokes associations and emotions by division of space in and of itself. The important thing to remember is that photographs can be very strong without actually being a photograph of anything in the literal sense of the word.
Changing the lens or not.
While most photographers love to travel with every lens they own, I find that going out to shoot with every lens I own normally leads to spending more time looking in my camera bag rather than viewing the world I am trying to photograph. One exercise, which I learned from one of my own mentors, is simply to take one lens and walk around with it. Rather than spending your time deciding on what lens to use, you end up opening your eyes to what can I do with this lens. In the end you train yourself to see with a given lens and this is extremely helpful. Each day you go out pick a different lens and pay careful attention at how your images change.
It was Jay Maisel who taught me about gesture and it’s importance in an image. Many times it is the gesture of the image, which truly becomes the moment captured in time. Gesture doesn’t always have to come from a person. A tree leaning to the side has gesture, as does a flying bird. Gesture can also be in the form of emotion as in a crying or laughing child. Gesture helps to create moments and moments help to separate a simple picture from a true photograph.
Shadows and light create drama and far too many photographers think that shadows ruin an image. Try creating images using shadows and making the shadows darker or lighter than they appear to the eye by controlling the exposure. Doing so can help truly create dramatic images. Without shadows, a subject has no form, or texture and appears flat. Shadows don’t have to be dominant and harsh to achieve the effects of form, and texture. They can be soft, to show the most delicate light, shape and form. Generally, harsh, black shadows cause problems especially in reproduction because of loss of detail but from a compositional standpoint, black shadows can be very useful in balancing a scene and directing attention to the point of interest. Harsh shadows can also be excellent for emphasizing texture and form, for creating interesting patterns, and for directing attention.
Texture is fascinating and can provide a very important role in the drama of an image. Texture can help create depth, dimension and emotion and too often it is overlooked. The smoothness of skin or the rough edge of peeling paint is examples of texture. In fact it is texture, which is many times the appealing quality of an abstract image. Texture helps to emphasize the features and details in a photograph. By capturing “texture” of objects being photographed, you can create form.
When people observe a soft, object or something like ripples on water they have an urge to touch it. Texture can be used to give realism and character to a picture and may in itself be the subject of a photograph. It usually takes just a little different lighting or a slight change in camera position to improve the rendering of texture in a picture. When an area in a photograph shows rich texture, the textured area usually creates a form or shape. Texture is most commonly brought out with an oblique angle of light, (sidelight) which accentuates things like cracks, bumps and ridges to create the textured effect. Textures give depth and “feeling” to a subject. Look for the play of shadows on surfaces. Watch for the direction of the light and how it creates shapes and lines and forms and adds dimension to your subject. Three-quarters light makes things appear round, capturing the three dimensional depth of the subject. Front light, while it tends to flatten out the textures and cast shadows behind the subject, can illuminate the details in the texture such as the fine patterns, lines, or colors in the subject.
The things that stimulate me are light, texture, gesture and color. These qualities make photography spectacularly rewarding. Like anything in life practice helps to make perfection and photography requires practice, which brings me to the most important exercise of all which is simply to make sure you are carrying a camera. Without the camera there can be no perfection and carrying the camera can exercise not only the mind but it also qualifies as physical exercise. Understanding elements of visual design and how they can affect our emotions will help make you a better photographer. While no rule or guideline is absolute and can’t guarantee success, practice and exercises can help develop the skills necessary to become a successful photographer. A successful image is dependent on many characteristics coming working together and a viewer that is sensitive to what it is you are trying to communicate. Of course some of the most stunning images break all the rules, which is why they are stunning, but in the end practice and exercise will help make you a much better photographer.