How do you make better pictures? I think that what makes a good photo is how deliberate the photo taking process becomes. There are many decisions that go into making a picture including composition, distance, focus, depth of field, shutter speed and overall exposure. The more you think about each of these decisions before making them, the better a photo tends to be.
Before you point and click, you or your camera make at least seven decisions. I advocate taking back as many of these decisions from the camera as you can. The camera is usually programmed to make safe decisions for you. Daring photos — photos that show people a world they don’t usually see — are rarely made with safe decisions.
- Moment: What’s the exact right moment to take the picture? Did we get the right look in everyone’s eyes? Did we capture the motion in a way that brings it to life?
- Composition: What goes in the frame? This is more than just capturing the subject in the frame. Should they be centered, at the bottom, at the top? Should their surroundings be included? Should you cut off their arms or their feet? Did you make the picture at the right moment to arrange the actors in the photo in a way that tells a story?
- Exposure: How bright should the subject be? Should you make sure that a person’s face is show in full detail or would you rather have the background exposed properly and leave a silhouette?
- Distance: How close do we get to the subject? If you’re far away from a subject and zoom in it will look more flat. If you get closer and zoom wider the subject will look more three dimensional, but also more distorted. Flattering portraits are made from a distance to make noses look smaller and faces look less round. Macro photos are taken up close and make even bugs look like they live in a photo just as big and deep as ours.
- Depth of field: How much of the scene should be in focus? This is controlled with the aperture on a lens and to a lesser extent how far in you focus. For portraits it’s nice to only have a person in focus and leave their background blurred. Anything below f/2 will have very narrow depth of field, anything above f/8 will have everything in focus. I find that f/4 is a bit of a sweet spot allowing me to capture a person and their surroundings but not take in too much of the background.
- Focus: What do we focus on? When the aperture is wide open only a little bit of the scene can be seen in focus. Should we focus on the person on the right or the one on the left? Should we focus on just their eyes or just their hands?
- Shutter speed: How much blur should be in the photo? Do you want to stop a raindrop in mid flight (1⁄2000 sec) or do you want to expose slow enough that walking people show a slight blur (1⁄60 sec)?
- ISO: How much noise should be in the photo? This is arguably the least important, but ISO 80 will show almost noise and above ISO 1000 will show noticeable grain and grit. I usually set this high because I don’t care too much about the noise in my photo.
When you get into photography you should experiment with all of these values. I’ve taken photos where only one finger on a hand was in focus and also taken ones where the whole universe feels sharp and detailed. I’ve taken color photos that blow out the background and make it all white — these are some of my favorites because they are surreal.
I deliberately set 1⁄125 of a second exposure so that the raindrops would be blurred and the bicycle would show motion. I pushed up the exposure after capture in Lightroom to make the world look surreal and make the umbrellas blend away as abstract shapes. Shanghai, China.