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It All Depends on How You Look at It

Good photography is about the art of seeing things. Here's a collection of short tips for learning to see.

Squint to Check for Contrast Range
Compared to what occurs in the natural world, a camera can only capture a relatively small slice of subject brightness within any given shot. Most photographers have taken images that have proven disappointing when they discover that half of the image is way overexposed, or that the other half is severely underexposed. Everything looked good to their naked eye before the pressed the shutter release, but the resulting image nonetheless didn't come out the way they thought it would. The surest way to know what you're getting yourself into is to spot meter various points across the viewfinder area before you shoot, but that can be time-consuming. Before you even get your camera out though, you can quickly judge the brightness range of a scene simply by squinting. Slowly close your eyes and take note of how the scene reacts to the progressive darkening. Areas that are of similar brightness will go dark together. The brightest areas will be the last ones to succumb to the advancing eyelid darkening effect. If a good chunk of the sky resists going dark until the very end, you know it must be considerably brighter than everything else, despite what your fully open eyes would otherwise have told you.

Look for Shapes, not Things
Most good compositions take advantage of what things resemble, not just what they are in real life. By allowing everything you see to become abstracted into a collection of colored shapes rather than namable objects, you can more easily find good compositions. Never mind what you are actually taking photos of, simply pretend that all you see is shapes and lines, colors and forms. Don't worry, the resulting images will still contain the things themselves. It's just that their placement within the frame will thereby have a better chance of being arranged in pleasing manner.

Look at Images Upside Down
A good way to help with looking at things in an abstract fashion that emphasizes their shape over their objective existence is to view the image upside down. In this way, you will be seeing things in less familiar context, thereby making it easier to disregard what you know things to actually be. Trees hanging from the top of the frame look less like trees than when they grow from the bottom up as they normally do. People's faces look less recognizable upside down. You get the idea. Thankfully, digital cameras make this trick easy to employ, while you are still on site. Simply shoot an image, and then rotate your camera and look at the LCD camera back to see the world upside down.

Sit Down, Lie Down
Another good trick to help see things in a new way is to look at it from underneath. Except for objects that are taller than we are, we invariably look down on things without ever even considering what this implies. Flowers, most animals and plants, and plenty of other photographic subjects are shorter than we are. As such, most images of such subjects tend to be shot from above. But if you sit down on the ground, or even lie down, you will be able to see things from their level, or even from below.

Tripods Help You See Better
Normally, when you look at something, your attention is focused far more on that thing that on what surrounds it. If you like what you see and snap a picture of it, you may find that something in the periphery distracts from what you intended the subject to be. You simply hadn't noticed it, or paid enough attention to it, when you took the shot. But after the fact, once you have the luxury of examining the entire frame, does it become apparent that you missed something. Too late. But this problem has an easy solution. My solidly mounting your camera on a tripod, you not only gain the stability needed to avoid camera shake and create sharper images, you also gain the ability to scan the entire frame before you shoot. Your composition is set, and you can examine everything to make sure you really like it. If you notice a branch encroaching from the corner, you can recompose to avoid it. If you find the placement of your subject needs a bit of tweaking, you can make the needed corrections ahead of time. Yes, you can come close to doing this when hand holding, but its surprisingly difficult to hold a camera still as you look around the frame. The natural tendency is to move the camera at least a little bit as your eyes move. Only be locking the camera down on a tripod can you be sure that what you see is what you will get.

Forget Everything and Just Look
One final tip, and no doubt the most important one. Find your subject in whatever way you want to, but once you do, forget everything, and just look. Look with the eyes of a child, not a trained photographer or naturalist. Explore your subject to see what it looks like to you, at that point in time, not as you know it to be from previous occasions or from books. Be playful and creative. And have fun with it.

Date posted: January 22, 2017


Copyright © 2017 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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