Have you ever observed what your eyes are doing while looking at a picture? Do you observe a difference between looking at interesting and boring pictures?
A picture is nothing more than a flat representation of the 3D world in which no objects exist. It is pure colors, textures, shapes, and lines. So, the question is “what is a good composition that makes a picture attractive?” There is of course no simple answer, otherwise everybody would shoot perfect pictures all the time.
Bruce Percy wrote a nice book about that: Simplifying Composition, in which he explains how the eyes flow over a picture. Most people when they look at a picture they start between the bottom and the middle left and then explore the rest of the picture. It turns out that lines in the pictures may lead the eyes to different parts of the picture. Have a look at the picture below. What in reality is a road is in the picture a line which takes my eyes from bottom left along the diagonal line to the middle right of the pictures; after that my eyes come back via the repetitive vertical lines (the trees on the left of the road) to the contrasting colors. Finally, my eyes travel again along the repetition of the vertical lines (the trees on the right of the road). This may repeat itself a couple of time, every time discovering more details. This makes a picture interesting.
Lines can be as simple a road, a horizon, a cloud formation, however, they can also be imaginary lines between areas with similar shapes or similar color, or a repetition in texture or shape. Of course, most of the time the lines are not straight, they are curves in various shapes. S-curves cause a strong pull. Think of an S-curve of a river.
Next time before taking a picture have a look at how your eyes flow over the scene to see how interesting it is. Maybe a different position or angle will improve it.
In the beginning I used the built-in flash of my camera. Although I realized that the pictures I took had little to do with what I saw, I did not know what to do. Then I bought a separate flash for the hot shoe on the camera. The reason was that this one was more powerful and I could use the ceiling or a wall to get indirect light. Although this was an improvement, it was still not what I had in mind. The Hot Shoe Diaries and Sketching Light of Joe McNally made me aware of the wide variety of possibilities of using one or more flashes and getting better pictures. He is a very enthusiastic author and makes using several flashes to get better lighting easy. This book has been very influential for me.
The first step is to take the flash off the camera and put it either on the right or left of you. This will create some shadows and gives a better feeling of three dimensions. This is quite an improvement compared to the built-in flash that hits the subject right in front leaving only cast shadows. Cast shadows, by the way, can be avoided in several ways: use several flashes, place the subject far away from the background, make the flash bigger by using a softbox.
Small flash – hard light
Big light – soft light
The second step is to understand how the camera via the built-in flash (master) communicates with the off-shoe flash (slave) without flashing itself. You probably have to read your manuals. The idea is that the built-in flash communicates with the other flash just before the curtain opens. If you know how to do this it is quite easy to start using several flashes (left, right, rear, or top) with different flash power. This is real fun!
The third step is choosing the right Aperture and Shutter Speed. Actually, the Shutter Speed has no influence on the light coming from the flash. The duration of the flash is much shorter than the opening of the curtain. With some cameras you can go all the way down to 1/250 sec. On the other hand, if you leave the curtain open a bit longer, like 1/30 sec, then you will also catch some ambient light. It is important to remember that independent of the shutter speed the flash light freezes motion. The Aperture determines how much light we let through to the sensor. In TTL-mode (automatic mode), however, widening the Aperture does not give a brighter picture, only the flash requires less power; in M-mode (manual mode) it would make the picture brighter. In both cases the power balance between the various flashes is important, because it determines how much light each side of the subject gets.
The final step is to experiment:
where to position the flashes;
the power balance between the flashes;
use TTL- or M-mode of the flash;
what type of softbox gives the right light;
what type of background gives the right atmosphere
The Shutter Speed simply determines how long the sensor is exposed to light. Common is to use shutter speeds faster than or equal to 1/60 sec to make sure that slight movements of subjects and maybe also of the camera are more or less frozen. In general this works fine. However,
if the lens becomes too long it is best to take a shutter speed 1/x sec, where x is the length of the lens;
if due to low lightening the shutter speed becomes too long (less than 1/30 sec) it is best to increase the ISO;
if the subject moves fast and is close by don’t underestimate the required shutter speed to freeze the subject;
when using flash it is possible to use a slower shutter speed (for example 1/30 sec) to catch some of the ambient light without blurring the subject.
However, freezing the subject might not be the goal. There are many examples where slower shutter speeds better grasp what we experience: lights of moving cars in the dark, waves of the ocean, waterfalls etc. There is an almost unlimited number of possibilities to use slow shutter speed. Crafts and Vision has a nice eBook about this, called Slow by Andrew Gibson. In this case it is a good idea to use a tripod to avoid movements of the camera. Have fun with experimenting with slow shutter speeds.
(Aperture f/5.6, Shutter Speed 1/125 sec, ISO 200)
By now I have read quite a few books on photography. One of the first was Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. It explains in very simple words the Photographic Triangle: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO.
Before understanding this triangle I would leave my camera on Automatic. I stayed far away from Manual. My idea was that it was too complicated for me and the camera was smart enough to take good pictures. I never realized that the camera does not know what kind of picture I want to take. In Automatic mode the camera selects one correct exposure out of a whole set of correct exposures with completely different emotions.
The Aperture determines the size of opening of the lens, the Shutter Speed determines the duration of the opening, and ISO the sensitivity of the sensor. All three control the amount of light that is sensed by the sensor.
For Aperture each step in the sequence f/22 – f/11 – f/8 – f/5.6 – f/4 means doubling the amount of light. For Shutter Speed 1/500 sec – 1/250 sec – 1/125 sec – 1/60 sec – 1/30 sec also means doubling the amount of light per step. And, for ISO 200 – 400 – 800 – 1600 – 3200 each step means doubling the sensitivity of the sensor.
So, a triple (Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO) represents the lighting of an exposure. If, for example, (f/5.6, 1/250, 100) is a correct exposure then (f/8, 1/125, 100) is a correct exposure as well: the Aperture is halved and the Shutter Speed is doubled, giving the same exposure; the same is true for (f/8, 1/250, 200): the Aperture is halved and the ISO is doubled.
For every triple there are an arbitrary large number of triples with the same exposure. Of course, there are limitation, for example, the widest Aperture of a lens or the lowest ISO of a camera.
So, take control of your camera and start using the Manual mode, and decide yourself what type of picture you want to take: highlight the subject by a wide Aperture or visible movements by a slow shutter speed. The same exposure, different emotions. In upcoming posts I will elaborate on these choices.
Update: I am a great fan of Sean Tucker. Here a YouTube video of him explaining the exposure triangle.
If people know you take a picture of them they pose. Their faces and body language are different than when pictures are taken by surprise. The ultimate goal of portrait photography is to make people look natural, as if they are not aware of the photographer. From my own experience I know this is not always easy.
The idea of street photography is to take pictures of people in there normal habitat, just being themselves. Most of the time these pictures tell a better story than regular portrait photography where everything is arranged.
However, there is one issue about street photography that I like to address: privacy. Is taking pictures of people in a public space without asking for permission an intrusion in their privacy. In a sense it is. At the same time it is regarded as art. Look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Vivian Maier of very nice black and white pictures taken out on the streets. In my opinion it is essential not to embarrass people with pictures in awkward positions.
Street photography is not always easy with a full frame camera with a long lens. Everybody will see you pointing with your camera. Taking away the unexpected moment. Vivian Maier always used a small compact camera hanging around her neck. Therefore her pictures capture all the emotions in a very natural way. They are really storytelling pictures. And Henri Cartier-Bresson is of course famous for his “The Decisive Moment” with the famous picture of a man just about to step in a puddle of water. Here are some of my street pictures taken in China.