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Blast from the Past: A Photographer’s Eye

The Daily Post is on hiatus from December 24 to December 31, so we’ll be highlighting great posts from the…

The Daily Post is on hiatus from December 24 to December 31, so we’ll be highlighting great posts from the archives that you might have missed the first time around (never fear — there’ll still be a new Photo Challenge on Friday!). 

Let’s go back to the start of Cheri’s excellent Photography 101 series, and revisit “Viewing the World with a Photographer’s Eye, Part One,” with taleneted guest photographer Ming Thein:

In the first of two posts, Ming Thein, a prolific photographer on WordPress.com, offers a big picture view of photography and talks about viewing the world with a visual eye. He introduces his four fundamentals of photography — from composition to light — and the elements of a great photograph.

Simply put, Ming pushes you to think about photography . . . like a photographer. 

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Ginza, Tokyo. Sony RX100. (I include camera info to demonstrate that it really doesn’t matter what you use.)

When I was asked to write for the Daily Post, I admit I was a little worried about the magnitude of the task at hand: ultimately my own site is very much about what goes into the creation of outstanding images. And that’s a 600+ article, 1.3-million-word work in progress. That’s obviously not going to fit into the length of your average post, so today I’m going to throw the rulebook out of the window and start again. I encourage you to do the same: regardless of your experience with photography, do the same. Approach this article with an open mind and no preconceptions.

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Nadiah. Sony RX100

We live in a visual world. Text used to be the message medium of choice, but since most people don’t have the time or patience to digest large reams of text, increasingly dense information packages have become the norm — video, for instance, is at least 24 images per second. And then there’s sound and HD to pack in even more information. This means that digital media — blogs, sites, etc. — now has two challenges: to attract attention, and to hold it long enough for you to say what you want to say.

Photographs can do both of those things: firstly, your images have to be punchy enough to have immediate impact, and secondly, support the rest of your text. (If you want to go even further, truly excellent images should stand on their own and tell a story without any supporting text; too often captions/titles and images get separated online. But I’m getting ahead of myself here…)

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Shwedagon, Yangon. Leica M Typ 240

There are several common misconceptions about photography: it’s about art, it’s about light, it’s about subject. All of those things are true, but even before all of that, it’s about people and psychology. (Even photographs that have no people in them!) The photographer makes an interpretation of the scene/subject; on the other end, the viewer makes another interpretation. The very best photographs and photographers convey their ideas cleanly to the end viewer, while still leaving room for imaginative interpretation. This means that to make a good image, you need to be able to recognize one.

Look at lots of images, by famous photographers and otherwise (my site’s curated reader Flickr pool is a great place to start for inspiration). Take your time, and pause when one catches your eye. Ask yourself why: what is it about this image that attracts and holds your attention? It might be the quality of light, the angle, the composition, or the subject itself — or even all of the above. File it away for future reference.

You may not be able to replicate all of the things you see, but being consciously aware is the first step.

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Photography imitates art. Nikon D800E

There are a lot of elements involved in creating an outstanding image. I have a very detailed analysis on my site, but the basics are fairly simple, and something I always begin with in my workshops. Realistically, there’s only so much we can consciously think about when shooting, and these are the critical items:

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Lunch. Olympus OM-D

1. Quality of light.

You can make stunning images of a very pedestrian subject if you’ve got great light; the opposite isn’t true. In fact, if you have no light at all, you can’t make a photograph, period. Good light has only one defining quality: directionality. This helps us to project a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image; the real hint here is to look for shadows. Without shadows, we have no clues as to texture, depth, spatial position, etc.

Changing the direction of the light on your subject changes the way the subject looks, and a good way to understand this is to start experimenting with a posable desk lamp and a small static subject. (If you’re interested in learning more about controlled lighting, I’ve got a series of articles that begins here.)

Start thinking about how light affects your photos:

  • Look for sources of light in your shot, natural or artificial.
  • Pay attention to shadows.
  • Move around your subject — see how lighting changes.
  • Take photos with and without the flash.
  • Shoot in the morning; shoot in the afternoon; shoot at night.

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Absence of light is just as important as the inclusion of it. Omega Speedmaster 9300, Nikon D800E

2. Clarity of subject.

What is the photograph about? If you show the picture to somebody who wasn’t there at the time you took the picture, will they see the same things you do? If the subject doesn’t stand out from the rest of the frame, then it’s not going to be the first thing your viewer sees. Subjects can be isolated by light (or shadow), depth of field, color, texture, and motion (panning). (We’ll cover a lot of these elements later in the series.) Our eyes are drawn to areas of high contrast, brightness, and things that break pattern. Make sure any areas in your image that do this contain something you wish to highlight.

Questions for beginners to ask themselves:

  • What is the subject of the photograph?
  • How will you draw attention to the subject?
  • What else is in your frame? Are these elements necessary for your shot?

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Vienna fog: it’s all about the man. Leica M9-P

3. Composition.

This is the art of arranging all the elements in your frame into an aesthetically pleasing way, and a way that draws attention to your primary subject. It covers the relationship or implied relationship — spatial, color, light — between subjects to tell a story. There are many ways you can do this: filling empty space with subjects, finding the right backgrounds or light to make your subjects stand out, and of course careful placement of lines and frames within the composition to lead the viewer’s eye through the image. (We’ll discuss the placement of lines and frames within the composition in future posts.)

At this point, we’re starting to move away from the technical into the artistic: there is a “right” exposure and point of focus, but there’s no “right” composition — only compositions that look right, and those that don’t. This is a learned skill through practice, critical observation, and analysis of other images. (A primer on compositional theory and how to achieve balance — a composition that doesn’t appear to be “empty” in any place — can be found in this post.)

We’ll discuss composition more soon — for now, things to think about:

  • Pay attention to the different spaces within your frame.
  • Take note of patterns and shapes.
  • Look for lines in a photograph, both natural and man-made.
  • Look at objects as possible “found” frames, such as windows.

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Minimalist architecture. Hasselblad 501C on Ilford Delta 100 film

4. The idea.

Can somebody viewing your image see what you saw in your mind at the time of capture? If not, is it because you didn’t execute it clearly, or because you yourself didn’t know what you wanted when you were shooting? Most often, it’s the latter. This is the toughest of these four fundamentals to master — knowing what you want to shoot before you shoot it. When I’m on assignment, the idea is usually very clear: it’s either whatever the client wants, whatever portrays a certain part of the product in the best light, or whatever elements I need to tell the desired story.

If I’m out and about and shooting for myself, it’s a bit different. I’ll notice interesting light first, then figure out if there’s a composition or subject that works with it, and if so, shoot. If I don’t have these things, I probably won’t bother breaking out the camera. No point in making compromised images, especially if you know they’re going to be compromised from the outset.

Takeaways from the Daily Post editors:

  • Ask yourself why you’re drawn to a particular subject/scene.
  • Don’t just point and shoot — observe a scene first.
  • Look at a potential shot from several angles — then take a picture.
  • We all see the world in different ways — how can you convey your own unique perspective in a particular shot?

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Sometimes, a smoke is just a smoke. Apple iPhone 4.

In part two next week, we’ll take a look at the little things you can do to make your images stronger — shot discipline, selection — as well as common mistakes and some things to practice for the future.

Ming Thein abandoned a successful corporate career to pursue his passion. Now he’s a professional photographer, writer, and teacher; he specializes in watches/product and architecture/interiors and runs workshops internationally several times a year. He is a member of Getty Images and Nikon Professional Services. His WordPress.com site and portfolio can be found at www.mingthein.com.

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2013 onwards. All rights reserved.

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