What’s the difference between a snapshot and a photograph? If you’re like most people, your hard drive is full of pictures that mostly qualify as snapshots. These are photos taken randomly at family outings, vacations or other activities. They do a good job of chronicling an event, but they may not be the sort of thing you want to have enlarged and framed. So how do you transform your pictures from snapshots into frame-worthy photographs? Here are five simple things you can do to turn a mediocre photo into a great one.
[Top image Kinderdijk, South Holland, the Netherlands by Flickr user Luke,Ma]
That rule of thirds
If you’ve been taking photographs for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of the “rule of thirds”. Your camera may even come equipped with a handy grid that you can turn off or on in the viewfinder, which will help you compose your photographs according to this trick. If your camera lacks this feature, simply imagine your scene divided by two horizontal and two vertical lines into nine equal sections. Now position your subject so that he, she or it is centered at one of the four intersections of the imaginary lines.
Why does this create a better photo? Believe it or not, there is some pretty solid research that supports the theory behind this particular trick. When looking at a photograph, most people’s eyes tend to naturally fall on those four imaginary intersections. So when the subject of the image is placed in one of those spots, the photograph looks more balanced and the viewer is actually more comfortable with what he sees.
Experiment, but remember that the “rule of thirds” is really more like the “guideline of thirds”. Great photographs don’t have to be neatly divided up in this way, but understanding why the rule of thirds works will ultimately help you become a better photographer.
Use lines to lead your viewer’s eye
In photography, chaos is not your friend. People in general aren’t comfortable with chaos, that’s why hardly anyone likes a traffic jam, a crowded mall in December or a confusing photograph. Most people won’t spend a lot of time looking at an image that is busy or directionless (unless that image has other unique qualities), because it’s too hard to sort out the meaning from all the confusion.
To bring order to an otherwise chaotic scene, try to find the lines that will lead a viewer’s eye through the image or towards the subject of the photograph. Converging lines, such as those made by roads and railroad tracks, will naturally draw the viewer’s eye from the foreground into the background, giving the photograph a sense of depth and distance. The same is true for diagonal lines, which can also make an image appear more dramatic and can even convey a sense of motion.
Alternately, vertical and horizontal lines suggest order and stability; vertical lines such as those found in trees and buildings convey strength and horizontal lines are lazy and relaxing. Curved or wavy lines can help a composition, too—they add a more natural beauty and will draw the eye through the entire image rather than from one corner or edge to another.
Pay attention to your background
Many photographers fall into the trap of focusing entirely on the subject of an image while ignoring the background. Subject is important, but a good background can really make or break a photograph. No matter how interesting your subject is, if it is positioned against an ugly or otherwise distracting background you will lose much of that subject’s potential impact. At the very least, ask yourself if your background is distracting. If the answer is yes, use a wider aperture when composing the photograph—a wide aperture will blur the background and make it less distracting. If you can, move away from the background altogether, or angle your camera in such a way that those elements are no longer in the frame.
Not all backgrounds need to be suppressed, of course. Try to find interesting lines or patterns in the setting where you have placed your subject, and position your camera so that those elements are included in the shot without overwhelming it. A good rule of thumb is to choose your background first, then choose or position your subject so that the background compliments the rest of the image.
Bend your knees, or stand on something
Too many photographers shoot everything from the exact same viewpoint: eye-level. You can of course get good pictures this way, but changing your viewpoint frequently is going to radically improve the overall impact of the photos you take. Human beings view almost everything from eye-level, which is why photographs taken from that viewpoint are often mediocre and uninteresting (they’re just too familiar).
We don’t often view things from a child’s perspective, from the floor looking up or from a high point looking down (mostly because we don’t like to be stared at). Photos shot from those viewpoints will be instantly more interesting just based on the originality of the perspective. It does help, of course, to have a sense of humor or to at least forget about what other people think, because crawling around on the floor like an infant or climbing trees like a monkey will definitely get you few strange looks from passers-by.
Find ways to frame your images
There’s a reason why people put frames on pictures before hanging them up over the fireplace. Frames, like lines, help draw a viewer’s eye into an image and towards the subject. This principle works when taking a photograph as well as when displaying one. The world is full of natural and manmade frames, and they’re easy to spot if you’re looking for them. An archway is a perfect example of this; shooting through a natural or manmade arch will create a focused image with a greater sense of depth.
As with all photography guidelines, though, use frames with discretion—sometimes a frame can actually work against the subject by creating a distraction or even overwhelming the rest of the image. For example, shooting through an ornate window onto a flat landscape will create an image that is really more about the window than the scene beyond it.
Happily, photographers no longer have to worry about wasting film. Digital gives us the opportunity to experiment and practice without being affected by that gut wrenching knowledge that every bad frame is another wasted dollar. So experiment, because in the digital universe failed experiments are free. Just be sure you pay attention to the bad shots as well as the good ones. Ask yourself why certain images don’t work, and try to isolate the successful elements in those that do. And play around with these five tricks whenever you’re out shooting pictures—with enough experimentation and practice you’ll find yourself with far fewer snapshots and more frame-worthy photographs.