How to Shoot a Halfway Decent Photo

There are volumes and volumes of books on how to take pictures.  The best one I ever read can be summed up to a few basic rules, plus a couple of extra that I have picked up along the way.

First off, you are right! (you always are!) The photos above in the blog today don’t look as good as they should (as good as they do when I view them in photoshop).  I suggest you right click, and then view the header on your local PC in a different software program.  Web browsers…they clip the color depth and gamut of photos, and I didn’t optimize these for web; hey, I will do it later, OK? 🙂

Now, here are the rules,  There are only nine. But first, READ this definition:

Definition “Nonant”: One of the nine pieces of an area that is divided into nine sections is called a “nonant.”

These are the rules I follow. I like to think it makes my photography consistent, and knowable. Use these 3 sets of 3 rules as a guideline for creating your own set of rules.

I. Super basic stuff:
  1. It needs to tell a story that is interesting
  2. It needs to be clear, and focused
  3. It needs to be well composed and simple. It should have clean lines, be free of distractions, and should have appeal.
II. Composition:
  1. Objects of interest should be placed on one of the intersections of thirds, and the perceived motion of any objects should be along the diagonal(s) of the photo or of the nonant(s). If there are people and objects in the background that are not part of the story; remove them or circle your prey until the distractions are eliminated or can at least be easily removed in Photoshop.
  2. If the Rule of Thirds can’t be followed , and following them just seems like following them for the sake of following them, and it ruins the story, then consider balancing the weight and size of the interplay of movement, direction, and objects so that they play, or pivot, about and around the interstices.  Literally, think of a set of scales, with an intersection as the fulcrum. Bigger objects should be closer to the fulcrum, smaller objects further. Motion gives items more force and weight than static items.
  3. Love your subject matter. Be passionate about it. If you don’t love it, and aren’t interested in it, don’t shoot it.  If it can’t captivate you, then why would it captivate anyone else?
III. More on Rules of Three:
  1. The rule of thirds can be broken down even further: Within a single nonant, so too should the subject matter fall into thirds, and so on, infinitely (or to pixel resolution), or for as long as each point of interest anchors into its master nonant. This is the closest approximation we have to nature’s golden mean. It’s everywhere. It pervades down into the very structure of many things in nature;  you either see it when it happens and you take the shot, or you need more practice framing.  When you see something visually appealing, it is because it has structure. If you’ve spent a great deal of time drawing and studying geometry and mathematics, this may come completely naturally to you.
  2. Depth: the rule of thirds as it applies to depth of field is non-linear. It is subject matter dependent, too. In other words, a photo of three people at 3 ft, 9 ft, and 12 feet will not appear to be separated by thirds.  The conversion factor of 3 dimensional light to 2 dimensional light will flatten everything and bring more lines and objects to the forefront of a scene.  This ruins most photos.  Bear this in mind in composition and in focusing your depth of field.  If you can’t control depth of field with your camera, use the smart blur tool in Photoshop and feather, a lot! Here is a little tip on how to set the auto-focus (AF) on your camera.  Your camera will be different, but this at least gives you a starting point:
  3. There should only be three, dominant, dynamic ranges. You should be able to pick them out by eye.  This may mean three colors, three light levels, three subjects, three things happening, etc. Color photos that don’t accomplish this are great candidates for black and white. For example, if you have a horrible orange cone in the background of a perfect, three toned photo, get rid of it by getting rid of color.
One final note:  Lighting is easy. As in, it can very easily destroy a photo.  But, it also creates lines and shape and gives dimension to your photo.  In the photography toolbox, lighting is both a precision laser scalpel AND a chainsaw. I was gonna say nuke, there….So, while the photo on the left half in my header graphic may look OK, to me it looks horrible. Lighting is the chainsaw in that photo.  I shot it in full on, noon sun.  I took the shot on the right 2 seconds later with a sun screen.
On that same day, at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, I saw a professional photographer taking wedding party pictures in full blast sun.  I felt sorry for the bride.  A good photographer would have either assisted in planning the time of the wedding party shoot, the time of the wedding, or picked a better location, or refused the job. Note the below photo of my friend taking a picture of a Mallard duck.  This location, where the light was fantastic, would have been a perfect place for a bride and groom shot. Yet, the “professional” blew right past it. To her credit, she probably had a nagging bride insisting on controlling the shoot…if you are a bride, don’t do that. That’s bad.

Photo: “Woman Shooting a Mallard Duck”

Well, that is all I have on shooting halfway decent pictures.  Let me know if you have any questions? You are the best! It is your friends about whom I worry.  Please direct them to this article so that they will stop posting those horrible pictures of you on facebook!
These 9 rules are deliberately broken into groups of three because they relate to one another. All 9 work together, like the nonants, and all may also be further broken down into thirds, ad infinitum. Finally, don’t ever forget that people read from left to right.  Exit, stage left…

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