Sunday, July 6, 2008

Unleashing Your Inner Ansel (Or Leibovitz. Or Geddes If You're Into Creepy Vegetable-Babies.)

First of all: I am not an expert. At anything. I am the very epitome of a dilettante, a Jill of all trades, master of none. I'm a dabbler. And when it comes to photography, I am a rank amateur, actually, and have only been shooting with my SLR for just under a year.

That said, I've had quite a few reader questions about taking photographs, so I wanted to sum up my best advice into a series of posts. The most important point I want to drive home is this: anyone can take a good picture. Though most of us don't have thousands (or hundreds) of dollars worth of camera equipment and photo editing software, we can take good pictures. Most people are rocking a simple point and shoot instead of a professional-grade dSLR, and they can take good pictures. Anyone can take a good picture.

I say this mostly because fahncy photos taken with fahncy cameras and edited with fahncy software are all over the Internet, particularly the big blogs, and sometimes I worry that the average guy (or gal) can feel a bit intimidated by or alienated from all that flash (pun kind of intended) instead of feeling inspired.

But I am a big believer in the democratic joy that is picture-taking, that simple reward of capturing life's big moments and beautiful little nothings alike, so my advice is for everyone, anywhere, with a camera, however humble. (Except for a few of you photography super-talents who read this blog. There's nothing I can teach you, and I think Nicole Kidman just had a baby named Thursday or something, so why don't you go read about that, OK?)

Part I: Composition

Before you touch any of those dials, think about any settings, I would suggest first rethinking how you compose photos. The natural picture-taking impulse is to center the subject in your viewfinder, which is certainly appropriate and fine for many occasions. But if you'd like to add a little energy, interest, and tension to your pics, try thinking about the rule of thirds. Anyone who has taken an art class is likely familiar with the rule of thirds, which I will now explain, clumsily. (Dilettante!)

Rule of Thirds: Point-And-Shoot Tutorial

Imagine a grid on any image. The grid divides the picture into thirds horizontally and vertically. Now, see those four points where the lines intersect? The rule of thirds (though I wish it were called something like "the helpful suggestion of thirds") states that those points are places of visual power and that aligning your subject with regards to these points, rather than dead center, will create a better photo.

Rule of Thirds: Point-And-Shoot Tutorial

By moving your focal point off of center, you can create more interesting, dynamic vignettes that draw the eye into and through a picture. Some more rules of thirds examples, this time without the grid:

Morning on the dock
Here, components of the umbrella, boat, and tree line are aligned with both intersection points and lines on the (imaginary) grid, creating some interesting movement in a completely still landscape photo. The expanse of lake at the right draws the eye out giving a sense of openness, vastness, and calm. Or perhaps deep boredom. (Note to self: consider including vegetable-babies next time.)

long shadows
Here is James, taking some of his first stand-alone steps almost a year ago. Since he's in the upper corner of the photograph, you can see the long shadow he's casting across the grass in the late summer sun. And, as he steadies himself for another step, the framing gives him momentum and a visual space in which to walk. (Note to self: why doesn't baby have cabbage on head? More cabbage!)

Open Window
These are some chive blossoms in three vases. Nothing too exciting here, but they've got some hot rule of thirds action going on.

Day 2: Tiny Safari
This giraffe knows a thing our two about the rule of thirds.

Duck, Dad, and Daughter
This is that same dock three Octobers ago and that is Byron and Ellie looking at a duck. As a happy accident, both the duck and Byron are right on a grid point. Viva la grid! And one more thing: this picture was taken with a plain old digital point and shoot. Nothing fancy. Point. Shoot. See? Viva la point and shoot!

As you can probably tell, this whole rule of thirds business is just a guideline and certainly nothing worth digging out a meter stick and level and graph paper over. It is imprecise and largely instinctual and the more you shoot, the quicker things like composition become second nature. Like anything artistic, there really are no rules. This is simply a place to start, an invitation to loosen up a little, think creatively, give your subjects room inside the frame to see, move, walk, dance, shout, or simply exist.

And really, if all else fails, get yourself a tiny baby and a hollowed-out gourd. And put them on a calendar and sell eleventy million copies. PHOTOGRAPHY GOLD, people.

Stay tuned for Part Two: The Part Where I Come Over There And Physically Make You Turn Off That Flash, Young Lady.


Sherri E. said...

Bracketing my thanks for the helpful photo advice,

THANK YOU for validating my creeped-outedness at Anne Geddes pictures.

She makes babies look like food.



Jennifer said...

I always like photos that are "off-center" but didn't know why. You explained the "helpful suggestion of thirds" so that even I can understand it - thanks!

princessofsomething said...

I for one would like to thank you for not including any cabbages or babies in hollowed-out gourds.

The world has much to offer besides vegetable babies.

hippyhappyhay said...

Okay. New Zealand is a small enough country, that when you bash one of us, you bash us all...enough with the cabbage bashing people!. I mean really, who even eats cabbage?!Babies, yes, cabbage, ick!

Oooo, I can't wait for installment two! Down with Flash...2,4,6,8, who don't we appreciate?...Flaaaaaaaash!"

Nicole Kidman had a baby? I thought she couldn't have kids? *Trots off too google*

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

Sherri e.: Babies are so food. Yeah-huh. They are delicious. I loved nibbling mine when they were little! ;-)

Melanie: Wow! Thank you for this. I feel humbled by your photos and there you are making the ability to take them accessible.

bluemountainsmary said...

Oh this is good - very very good - I am going to enjoy this. Even though I know alot of this stuff I always love to have these things reinforced. Because my mind is mush!

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

What you have, darling, is known as "the eye." You're amazing.

Nancy said...

I agree with takes more than some clever fractions and, we will soon learn, no flash, to take a good photo.

Srsly, what's this nonsense about no flash??? This is going to take some getting used to...glad you started now!

MamaBird said...

Yup, your photos rock and not just cause of the thirds rule altho that was sure interesting to learn. Totes agree about the creepy veggie babies... I am much more of a Wegman lover if you're going to get all posey. Dogs as humans much better than babies as hors d'oeuvres.

a Tonggu Momma said...

Am I the only person who thinks "Cabbage Patch doll" when I see an Anne Geddes photo???

Excellent photog advice as well.

J. said...

Wow, just WoW. You are a photography goddess. No really. You should enter the Smithsonian's photo contest. Now.

jennie said...

I had forgotten all about the rule of thirds. I guess I lost it when I tossed aside all rules learned in school. Maybe I should have been more selective. Your photos look great - can't wait for the next tip!

Karla said...

A dingo ate my bay-bee! I blame Anne Geddes.

The Girl Next Door said...

OH AWESOME! Thank you for sharing. I have been admiring your photos and will be returning often to read b/c I can't keep anything in my just saved me $1000 on a new digital SLR that I don't need to spend nor can I afford, but after playing with my brother's new digital SLR this weekend, I thought maybe mine had to go. You've convinced me to keep it a while longer!

I'm Julie said...

Oh I'm loving the advice! I am brand new to the SLR world and so far overwhelmed by all the books and how-to manuals. I need simple, visual how-tos.

Gorgeous pictures, as always. You are a dilletante with a great deal of talent!!

bluemountainsmary said...

Just been over at Mrs G's.

You are not only a wonderful photographer but also very funny!

Tootsie Farklepants said...

Super advice! Can I also borrow your eye for photography? said...

I'm a crappy photographer...mostly because I'm surrounded by clutter. LOL

stephanie (bad mom) said...

You are a goddess.

Thank you for taking the time to try to teach us a thing or two...I feel pretty adept much of the time, but occasionally I get crop-happy and ruin things.

Rose said...

I, too, thought I was the only one who thought "ewww" when I saw those pictures. Not yours, Geddes. Thanks for the easy to read, entertaining advice. I'll try it out ASAP!

mdwest said...

Oh! A tutorial! With simple words and everything. Thank yew.

This will save me the time I would've spent reading that photography book that I got for my birthday..because that will so never get done anytime in the next year or 10.


myra said...

rock solid tips here. you make it look seriously easy.

Jennifer said...

wondered over from Derfwad Manor. I loved your post! And thanks for this one. I edited some photos following using your notes and they came out great. Thanks!

Jackie Tx said...

Reminded me of its a site where a man finds pictures at antique stores, resale, gragesale, ya get it and posts them on the site. they have some intresting grouping although i still havent figured out what NSFW means. not safe for wanda? i have no clue!

Magpie said...

good advice.

Marilyn said...

Brilliant! I've got a good eye for cookies and dressed-up eggs, but in all other areas I'm really a point-and-shoot-and-pray kinda girl.

Don't sell yourself short - your images are absolutely gorgeous, no babies on peapods necessary.

Minnesota Matron said...

Wow. This was great!!!!

LaRue said...

My husband thinks Anne Geddes is a child abuser.

That is all.

MsPrufrock said...

Yeah, why I don't I wait three weeks to comment?

Anyway, a great post, thanks. I am a bit obsessed with photographing people or items in the left or right third. I really like the look of it, and I can't tell you why.

Anyway, with the flash - I have an ok digital camera, but need the flash on so that every friggin' photo I take isn't blurred. I hate it, but I MUST DO IT. I should buy a new camera, I know, but the husband ain't having it...

Ashley said...

Uh *cough* totally flattered here Melanie. Wow. The thirds rule is a must, it adds power to any image (or container gardening, 3 plants people!). I don't call it thirds myself, I call it weighting a photo which you can also do post process. I think that is important because I know some people have a hard time not centering subject matter while actually holding a camera for whatever reason, but once they sit in front of the picture at their computer they see the shot for what it really holds....whoa long winded here. Great post! Also, for what it's worth, I am consistently in awe of your photography.

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