Paying attention: better digital shots, healthier digits
This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
I’ll admit I was a little stuck on a subject for this article. I had mapped out a few ideas, a few pithy phrases to build on but nothing much more. I opted for manual labor to clear my head. As I sat in the gutter chiseling away fresh asphalt trying to free the grate that covers the gutter, it hit me. Or more precisely I hit it. My finger. With the hammer. I managed to contain my rage to a low whisper since there were likely children somewhere in the 3km radius that my cursing would have carried if it were proportional to the pain (and yes, it does hurt to type).
The accident served to remind me that much like chiseling, photography requires paying attention. If you want to take full advantage of your trip to (or around) Costa Rica then a little bit of attention can go a long way.
I broke out my film camera a few weeks ago and found myself suddenly paying attention to a number of the “rules” of photography that are so easy to ignore (and I readily do) when you shoot digital. If you blow a shot in digital you know right away, you compensate and re-shoot. With film there is no do-over. But just because you can take it again, doesn’t mean you should have to, so I will help you a bit. More experienced photographers may want to skip the text and go straight to critiquing my shots and photoshop skills, you know you want to.
Most of you are likely working with a compact digital camera while you wander around Costa Rica taking pictures of everything and probably a ton of landscapes. Landscapes make me instantly think of the best known rule of photography: the “rule of thirds.” If you can imagine dividing what you see in the camera into three vertical and three vertical sections those are the guides for rule of thirds. It’s such a standard that most compact cameras have an option somewhere in the menu that will display the grid for you to use. Use it. Especially at sunset on the Pacific. Most of us tend to put the horizon right smack in the middle of the frame, but I’m betting you will be happier with your shots if you move that line up or down a bit and bring in a bit more sky or sand. Try both—it’s digital and doesn’t cost any more, plus you’re shots will look just a bit more pro. Also could you all do me a solid and turn off the flash at sunset, it’s not doing anything, just like it’s useless at the rock concert or the sporting event, thanks. A notable exception to the rule of thirds applies when you are shooting reflections, then you may want to center the reflection line, play with it.
Once you’ve got your rough framing in place, check your edges. I like to think of it like checking your blind-spot when you merge—or if you live in Costa Rica–swerve to avoid a pothole. You just never know when something is going to be out of place and ruin your shot (or your taillight). Check the edges and the corners of your image for things that don’t belong. I admit that I am terrible at this and have had to toss or crop any number of images because of it. This dovetails into the rule about checking your background for weirdness. There are a bunch of technical reasons that I can’t explain well that cause your compact digital to have most of the image in focus. It’s nearly impossible to get a blurry background in a portrait shot. I use background blur a lot to isolate my subjects in portrait shoots, but you can’t so you will have to be extra vigilant about what’s behind your boyfriend when he is posing. Think telephone poles, trashcans, tree limbs and UFOs. Actually if you happen have a UFO in frame (perhaps while visiting the Arenal Volcano) then tell your boyfriend to move out of the way and upload that shot ASAP. I have an example of not checking my corners or my background here:
The last thing that you really really really need to pay attention to is blur. Not the good background blur that you can’t get, but the bad motion blur that you get all the time. This is where digital is your friend. If you are shooting in low light, digital cameras tend to warn you when the shutter speed drops to point where you are likely to get camera shake (the icon usually looks something like a camera between two parentheses). Listen to your camera. It was made by smart people who know stuff about cameras. Your camera won’t warn you when your subject is moving too fast, and so you need to look at your monitor and immediately delete those shots.
Do not under any circumstances upload blurry pictures to Facebook. These blurry streaks of color are my pet-peeve update pictures. “Look, I’m at the Raging Death Kittens concert, I am so coool.–Sent from my fancy phone.” Those usually look more like their kitten chewed on the phone and uploaded by accident. Please be better photographers than that. I’m giving you the knowledge, use it.
That last bit actually brings me to my last observation about paying attention, it’s about editing and sharing. If you want people to think you are a good photo maker (vs a photo taker), then only share your best pictures. Edit carefully, only a small percentage of shots are really great, most are average or bad. That’s ok, I won’t tell on you.
Well after all those rules I’m feeling a little rebellious so I will leave you with a rule-breaker that folks seem to like: