Almost any photograph can be improved just by moving two or three steps closer to your subject.
When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. How often do you end up cropping an image in Photoshop Elements or Lightroom because the original just didn’t look the way you wanted it to? And have you ever thought about what that means for the overall quality of your photos?
[Watch the bonus advanced video for today about Reducing Blur at the end of this article]
It’s always better to get close to your subject in-camera, either physically (walking closer) or optically (zooming in with your camera's lens). That’s because when you crop in post-processing instead, you get a reduction in file size and resolution — and because you can’t change anything about perspective when you wait until after the fact, you might still not end up with exactly the photo you wanted. So always think in terms of “final image” while you’re standing there holding your camera — that doesn’t mean, of course, that you can never tweak something later on in an image editor — it just means that you shouldn’t have to depend on tweaking for every photo you take.
Your first course of action should always be to simply walk towards your subject. Unless it’s a lion or a swarm of Africanized bees, physical proximity is often the best way to fill the frame.
If you can’t move towards your subject, your camera’s optical zoom feature will also help you get closer. If your camera just has digital zoom (many smartphone cameras, for example, will only zoom digitally) that will do in a pinch—but be aware that the quality might not be as good (I’ll tell you why in the next tip).
Some photos actually benefit from a little zoom, vs. getting physically closer. A great example is a portrait—if you use optical zoom and shoot from a few steps back, you will actually get some mild distortion that can be flattering to certain subjects. Facial features will actually look a bit smaller when shot with zoom, which can be great for subjects who have larger noses or other bigger features they’re not particularly thrilled with.
Get rid of anything that isn’t absolutely necessary
Whenever you’re photographing people, think about what it is that you want to accomplish. If your subject is playing a sport or doing something important with her hands, by all means include her torso or her whole body. But in most situations where your subject’s body is not adding any significant meaning to the photo, you should zoom in. Instead, fill the frame with your subject’s FACE only – particularly if she is smiling, is in a moment of reflection, or has an otherwise interesting or compelling expression on her face, such as in this example. The face is really the most expressive part of a person’s body—it’s where you will capture personality and emotion, and when you include other unnecessary body parts you are limiting the impact of the face.
Other reasons why you should move in closer
Getting close is also an important way to eliminate distractions. When there’s no clutter in your photo, there’s nothing to draw the eye away from the main subject. Most of us like to think that we’re pretty good at looking past all the unimportant stuff, but the truth is that when you look at a photo, you don’t really tune out the distractions, in fact quite the opposite: you fixate on them—especially if it is a bold color, or if it’s hard to identify (what the heck is that thing in the background?) or if there’s just a lot of extra detail in it. And when your eye is drawn away from the subject, the photo as a whole just seems a lot less compelling.
For example, the glasses on the table in the image below don't need to be in the photo. Asking the men in the image to move closer so you can zoom in will improve the image immensely.
Getting in close also has a strong positive impact on depth of field — this term refers to the amount of an image that remains in focus from foreground to background. As a general rule, the closer you get to your subject the shallower your depth of field is, which means that background elements will start to get blurry. This can be a really useful way to turn those background distractions into pleasant blobs of unidentifiable color.
Judgment call: context is sometimes important
I’d say that the “get close” rule applies in about 85 to 90 percent of the photos you take, but one thing to remember is that you don’t always want to exclude everything that’s around your subject. If you take your kids to the park, for example, and you only shoot super-close, face-only photos of them, your set of images may include a lot of beautiful shots but it will lack a certain amount of meaning. Yes, you may have a wonderful photo of your child’s laughing face, but viewers (and that includes you, 10 or 15 years from now) are still going to wonder what he’s laughing at. If he’s just flung himself furiously down that very steep slide on the playground, excluding the slide in its entirety would be a crime against photography.
For this reason, it’s important to ask yourself a question whenever you are on location shooting photographs: Is place important? If it is, then you need to include a few contextual shots. That doesn’t mean zooming out so much that your child is a mere spec at the top of the slide — it’s still important to capture that laughing face. It means zooming out just enough so that the viewer can see the blue plastic she’s sitting on, the angle of the structure—in short, so that he can identify the slide itself and understand why the subject seems to be enjoying herself so much.
What to do if you can’t get close enough to fill the frame
If you can’t get close enough when you’re taking the photo, don’t worry — all is not lost. If you must crop in post-processing instead, you always have that option. And I promise, the photography gods will not come down out of the sky to break your camera as punishment. Photo editing software can still do the job, but make sure that you are taking your photos at the highest quality setting your camera offers (you should be doing this anyway) so that you can limit the impact on file size and resolution. Fortunately, modern cameras offer lots of megapixels, which makes it easy to do crops without too much impact on quality. Just keep in mind that the more you crop, the smaller any prints you make of that image will need to be. When you crop out a large amount of a shot, you may be limiting yourself, for example, to a standard 4x6 print instead of the 8x10 print you may have wanted. (see here for a table of recommended sizes)
God could not be everywhere, so he created mothers. by Flickr user legends2k
And cropping, of course, doesn’t change your depth of field — so if you want that nice, softly blurred background the only way to accomplish it is in camera. That’s another reason why you want to resort to post-production cropping only as a last resort.
So that’s really all there is to it — it’s a very simple change you can make to your photography that can have instant, positive results. Try this: every time you lift your camera, take a couple of steps towards your subject, or zoom in all the way, and then zoom out just enough so that you have all the details you need, and no more. The more you make this a conscious choice, the more it will become second nature to you. And the better your photos will ultimately be.
Today's Bonus Video: Blurry Images
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