If you live in the Western world, you’ve almost certainly had significant exposure to the idea that “more is better.” You see this it pretty much everywhere you go—people buy bigger houses when they don’t really need them, the portion sizes at restaurants are enough to feed a family of six from a single plate, and the drive to accumulate—whether it’s more pieces for your wardrobe, more rare collectibles, or simply more things than your neighbor has—seems to be ingrained in our popular culture. So it’s not surprising that when you first start to take photographs, you may approach them with the idea that “more is better.”
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I’m sure you have heard the expression “opposites attract.” It’s a bit of a cliché, to be sure, but clichés often exist because there is some element of truth to them. And while it may not be completely accurate that everyone is attracted to his or her opposite, what is true is that people are attracted to visual representations of opposites. If you’re stuck in a photographic rut, try this challenge: look for pairs of opposite subjects and try to capture them in a compelling way. Keep reading for some ideas.
##The appeal of opposites
We like to look at photographs of opposites because they are objects that we don’t expect to see together. Opposites give us visual contrast, and when two objects contrast in a big way, they give your viewer something to think about. Let’s take a look at one example:
In this image we have two dogs, which it’s hard to argue seem to be complete opposites. One of these dogs is big, and the second is small. Because of this contrast in size we immediately make assumptions about the other differences between these dogs. Some viewers might think the small dog seems vulnerable next to the large dog. Another viewer might interpret the interaction between the two dogs as being almost brotherly—the little dog is looking up at the larger dog with an expression that could be interpreted as something like admiration.
When we see two opposites together, we can’t help but imagine what might happen next. For example, what is stopping the giant dog from having the smaller dog for breakfast? Because that small dog seems vulnerable, we start to worry a little bit about him. And anytime a photograph can inspire that kind of emotion in a viewer, it’s going to be a lot more compelling than, say, a photograph of either one of these dogs sitting alone.
##How to find opposites
Just about everywhere we look in nature there are opposites, or at the very least things that can be represented as opposites. For example, you could say that a desert and a rain forest are opposite, although, it would be a difficult to capture both of those things together in a single photograph. However, with a little creative thinking, you could suggest the idea of dry vs. wet or even rainforest vs. desert by juxtaposing two representative objects together. For example, a few green leaves placed on dry, cracked earth could make a statement about the challenges of life in dry conditions. And if you want to be a little more adventurous, you could search for bodies of water in dry places—rivers do cut through deserts, and a photo of running water traveling through an unlikely place will give your photo some pretty compelling contrast.
Opposites can be human beings as well — try photographing a dirty child next to a well groomed child with perfect hair. Or photograph twin toddlers, one crying and the other smiling (just wait a few minutes, one of them will almost certainly find something worth screaming about). Then ask your viewer to speculate on how well he thinks those two children get along. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if the answer is correct—those two twins might get along famously in the real world—the important thing is to capture the two children in such a way that inspires your viewer’s imagination, regardless of how accurate his conclusions may be.
If you need a simpler approach, think in terms of colors. At some point in your artistic career, you’ve probably encountered a color wheel:
The color wheel is a simple tool that can help you understand the relationship between colors, but it can also be used to help you create photographic opposites. Colors that appear opposite one another on the color wheel are called “complementary colors,” but you can also think of them as literal opposites. The opposite of blue is orange, the opposite of a green is a red, and the opposite of purple is yellow. When you place two opposite colors into a photograph, you get a very striking contrast between those colors. That helps draw your viewer’s attention into the scene, and creates a very appealing composition.
Now what about objects that don’t really have opposites? If you have kids, you know that they tend to be fascinated by the idea of opposites, and convinced that every object must have one. “What’s the opposite of yarn?” you’ve probably been asked. Or, “What’s the opposite of shoe?” Now clearly there is no literal answer to either of those questions, at least not in the same sense as we know for certain that the opposite of cold is hot, or the opposite of dirty is clean. But we can think about ways to juxtapose two objects that seem to contradict one another. For example, we could include a finished, knitted blanket in a photograph with a ball of yarn as a way of contrasting the two—one the raw material, and the other the finished product. We could juxtapose a high heel shoe next to a sneaker. Neither of these pairs of objects are necessarily opposites, but they do create a dichotomy or a strong contrast.
##Your project plan
Now if this is the sort of project idea that appeals to you, you could just set out one morning with a goal of wandering around until you blunder into some good sets of opposites or contrasting objects. However, I rarely recommend this approach because it tends to not be as fruitful as an approach where you have a solid plan. Now you don’t have to type out a detailed outline or anything, but at the very least you should think about some of the opposite pairs you might want to photograph so that you’ll have a game plan when you leave the house. Make a list of potential subjects—black and white, for example, old and young, wet and dry.
And remember to think outside the box of strict opposites—you can also think about ideas or concepts you might want to communicate to your viewer, and find contrasting subjects that convey those concepts. For example, let’s say that you want to communicate your thoughts on climate change—you could contrast dying trees with a gas-powered vehicle such as a large pickup truck.
Think about places around your community where you might see strong contrast. In some towns, there is a clear separation between the poorer communities and the wealthier ones—is there a place where the contrast is obvious, such as a low-income apartment block across the street from a suburban neighborhood? What about the place where the city meets the country—is there a line between civilization and nature? This is going to require some brainstorming, so it’s worth some thought and planning.
Finally, try thinking in technical terms—what are some of the things you typically keep in mind when trying to capture a photograph, such as light and shutter speed? What if you lit your subject with a single, bright light on one side of his face, and let the other side fall into shadow? That might make a strong statement about the two contrasting parts of his personality, his “Jekyll and Hyde.” Or you could use motion blur to create contrast. Put your camera on a tripod, then have two human subjects stand side by side. Select a slow shutter speed and ask one subject to stand as still as possible, and ask the other subject to walk out of the frame during the exposure. You’ll get motion blur on one subject and (hopefully) a sharp image of the other subject, which will amount to a photograph of opposites—moving and standing, or restless and restful.
This can be a really fun project but again, it requires some contemplation and certainly some experimentation. Start with a simple photo of opposites, like in the first example above of the two contrasting colored chess pieces. Then see if you can move on to more complex ideas about contrasting elements or opposites. If at first you can’t seem to really capture the contrast between two things in a compelling way, don’t worry—you have the great luxury of being able to delete and reshoot if things don’t work out the way you’d envisioned the first time around. Think of how you can adjust your camera angle, the way you’ve juxtaposed the two objects and how they are interacting with one another. Try different ideas and then decide later on which ones worked and which ones weren’t as successful. The only way you’ll really know for sure is if you brainstorm and then try every idea that occurs to you. Remember that ultimately your goal is to create images that make your viewer think—if you can do that, then you’ve succeeded.
1. How to find opposites
– Look for opposites in the natural world
– Find examples of opposite people
2. Use opposite (complementary) colors
3. Find contrasting objects, even if they aren’t strict opposites
4. Make a plan
– Brainstorm first
– Think in technical terms
This might have been a harder sell a few decades ago, when a ruined photograph meant some sort of financial cost. Back in the day, if you ruined a whole roll of 36 exposures, you’d be pretty annoyed it yourself. Not only would you be out the cost of the film, you’d also be out of the cost of the development and the time that it took to take your film into the photo shop or pharmacy and wait around for it to come back. And after all of that, you might not be inclined to look at those exposures and try to figure out what went wrong. In fact, you might be annoyed enough that you just throw the whole lot in a trashcan and try to get on with your life.
Today, things are different. Today, we don’t have to pay for every exposure, so we can shoot 36 of them, or even 100, get them all completely wrong and not have to pay a dime. Of course, you might argue that there is a loss of time to take into consideration, but my counter argument would be that the time hasn’t really been lost. Because whenever you make a mistake of any kind, there is an opportunity to learn from that mistake. And these days we also have a little something called EXIF, which helps make it even easier to look at those failed photographs and judge exactly where they went wrong. Read on for more. Continue Reading »
Travel photography is something pretty much all of us do. If you ever leave your house with your camera, and you travel farther away than your hometown to take photographs, you are a travel photographer.
Whether we’re shooting images of our family and friends out there on the road or just images of the destination itself, very few photographers don’t love to capture visual records of the places we have been. But there’s a difference between just shooting a photograph of a tourist destination and capturing an image that has a real sense of place. How do you know the difference? Read on to find out. Continue Reading »
If you use auto mode, aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode, you may have noticed something. Most of the time, your camera does a pretty good job figuring out how to expose a shot, but every now and then—maybe even more frequently than you’re comfortable with—you get a photo that’s really overexposed, or really underexposed. How can this happen in auto mode (or priority mode) and is there anything you can do about it? Read on to find the answer. Continue Reading »
Every artist needs a source of inspiration, whether it’s a “muse” (your kids, your spouse), a list of your favorite photographers on Flickr or a place, such as a beautiful natural spot or your own neighborhood. But sometimes even the most tried and true sources of inspiration can fail to give you the kind of motivation you need, and that’s when you need to find other ideas. Personally, I like to adopt a project—not necessarily just a particular theme but a whole project idea, something that will require time and effort. I find that after I’ve spent a few hours, days or even weeks absorbed in a specific project, my creativity gets a big boost overall. Do you have any photo projects you’ve been longing to try out? Now is the time—and if not, here are some of my favorite ideas. Continue Reading »
If you’re new to your camera, or to photography in general, it can be really easy to get discouraged. After all, most modern cameras have a seemingly infinite number of
different buttons and menu options (confession: there are probably one or two menu options my own camera has that I still don’t know how to use), and that manual is approaching the size of War & Peace. If you spent some time bumbling around your menu system and then just put everything in auto mode in order to end the pain, I can’t say I blame you. But I’d also like to reassure you that being a beginner does not mean that you have to let your inexperience dampen your creativity. Even as a beginner, you can take some awesome, pro-quality images just by following a few basic tips. Here’s how.
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Keep it simple, stupid. Yes, there is perhaps no phrase that is more true and more insulting all at the same time (who are you calling stupid?) But generally speaking, the first part of that phrase describes the best way to accomplish most of the things we do in life. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but for the most part the simplest option is usually the best one.
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What’s the difference between a snapshot and a photograph? It’s all in the meaning you add to your photos.
Here’s a great example. This image is of a sad woman. That’s obvious from her facial expression and body posture.
But this photograph is powerful because it conveys ‘sadness’ in many ways other than the main subject:
- There is an empty ocean in the background, which conveys loneliness or sadness.
- The sea is choppy indicating turbulence, or unsafe. Both are emotions we feel when we’re sad.
- It’s a cloudy day – no sunshine (sunshine usually indicates happiness).
The dog is barking. The phone is ringing. Something in the oven is burning. There’s some really fast-action, colorful stuff happening on an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants on your big-screen TV, and your kids have the volume turned up all the way.
This is called sensory overload, and if you have kids you’re probably intimately familiar with it. But did you know that sensory overload can also plague your photographs?
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Yes, clutter. It’s the bane of most modern people – unless you’re Martha Stewart. Most people’s homes contain some version of clutter, whether you call it that or not. It could be that you have an extensive collection of knickknacks. Or it could be that you just aren’t very good at picking up the dishes after every meal. Whatever the case may be, the clutter that is so pervasive inside your home it is not very good background for your photographs. So apart from hiring Martha Stewart to organize your home for you, what can you do to avoid clutter in your photos?
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When I was a beginner photographer, I distinctly remember going out one weekend to shoot an outdoor event. I thought I had the whole aperture thing figured out. In order to get a sharp subject and a blurry background, all I needed to do was select the widest available aperture (smallest f-number), or use Portrait Mode. I selected Aperture Priority and I shot the whole event at f/4.
When I looked at my photographs after the event, I was really disappointed. Despite those large apertures, the images all featured backgrounds that were either just as sharp as the subject, or only very slightly blurred. I got the focus right, I got the exposure right, but for some reason I wasn’t able to get that background blur that I wanted. And it was actually sometime before I figured out why. Today I’m going to share that secret with you, so you don’t have to figure it out for yourself the way I did.
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There are two types of photos in this world. No, I don’t mean black and white vs. color. I don’t mean digital vs. film. I mean snapshots vs. works of art.
You have probably taken your share of snapshots. We all have. Snapshots are what happen when we whip out our iPhones to grab a picture of Kid A or Kid B holding that preschool graduation diploma or smearing spaghetti sauce all over his face. And don’t get me wrong, a snapshot of something you want to remember is better than no photo at all. But why settle for a mere snapshot when you can have a work of art instead?
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You finally did it. Goodbye point and shoot cameras with fixed lenses, bogus “digital zoom” and little idiot-proof icons in place of real settings. Goodbye sub-par images and limited functionality. You’ve finally entered the world of DSLR photography.
If you’re like a lot of people, the euphoria wore off as soon as you picked up your DSLR’s manual. That thing is like a brick with pages. Flipping through it is an exercise in uselessness and sitting down to read it is something you might have time to do after retirement.
So, maybe you put the manual away and sheepishly set your camera to “Auto.” And maybe that’s where it’s been ever since.
Today, I’ll show you what the most common settings on your camera do, and how to use them effectively.
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