There are so many reasons why I love photography. It’s a way of seeing that’s totally different from your natural view of the world. It freezes time and preserves memories. It can be incredibly technical and expressive, yet you can just point and click and still get great results.
These days almost everyone is a photographer. With high-quality camera’s embedded in our smartphones it’s more accessible that ever and for many of us it’s become a part of our daily lives.
In the context of church, photography becomes a window through which people who’ve never been can look in. Many people’s first contact will be through photos shared or tagged on social media. And great photos can travel far.
In this post we’ll deconstruct some of the creative components of photography. Drawing up a list of ideas, almost like a recipe chart, we’ll look at ten initial concepts and expand on these in future posts.
To begin, here’s possibly the best rule of photography I’ve ever heard:
If you enjoy the photos that come out of your camera, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them
Photography for me is really about pleasure. Probably the most important factor on getting proficient in any sphere is that you just enjoy it. Enjoyment is what fuels practice and experimentation. Most of the photos I take never go on Instagram, Facebook, or any public sphere. And they don’t need to. They’re just for me and my family to enjoy.
So in no a particular order, let’s dive in…
Just point and click
…and every-so-often something magical happens. Here’s a few shots where I’ve done just this, on very basic cameras, with no particular thought or preparation:
One of my all time favourite photos. It’s not going to win any awards, but for me, I love it. If you were to deconstruct it, there are a number of elements that make it interesting. It’s shot on a fisheye lens, on film, from a high perspective. I love the way the light falls and creates two long shadows. The scene is uncluttered and natural. And on a personal level, it was shot when my wife and I were engaged, so it has great sentimental value as well. But none of that was going through my mind at the time. Without thinking I just held the camera up and clicked.
About two weeks back I stepped outside my front door and saw an awesome sunrise, so had to get my phone out and snap it. To deconstruct, the striking elements are the richness and warmth of the colour, the flare of the sun and the two contrasting shapes of the tree silhouettes. The tree on the left is the most interesting and dynamic with sharp lines flying in all directions. Again, no real thought at the time, but a result that I really enjoy.
A few of my favourite analogue photos. None of these were planned, but having a camera on me meant I could capture the scene. Using film with cheap plastic cameras has it’s own dynamic. You get lots of happy accidents with things like light leaks and double exposures. You also get a different treatment of your image: film grain, heavy vignetting, rough frames, sprocket holes and cross-processing (more on this in an upcoming post).
The great thing about smartphones is that they’re always on you. Humorous moments can arise unexpectedly, such as coming home to find the body parts of a toy baby laid out in the kitchen (I had to took twice to check it was a toy!) and coming back from a holiday in Menorca, only to find the kids enjoyed two buckets just as much as the swimming pools. These shots aren’t about technical execution or expression, just capturing a moment as it happens. A lot of content that goes viral on Facebook is a bit like this: quick shots of light-hearted humour, a bit of escapism through dancing cats and the like. Often badly shot, but it doesn’t matter.
Basic gear, but a good idea
Concept number two: you can take good shots on any camera. You just have to know what it’s good at. You could go out and spend £10k on gear and still take average pictures. But combine a smartphone with a creative eye and you can produce some stunning results.
From top-left: Circling the drain by Skip; Surf photo by Dirk Dallas; meep meep by Roland Brunner; Flightscape 118 by Daily Sublime; Over Venice by Dirk Dallas; Meet me in the woods by Michał Koralewski; Portrait reflection by Dirk Dallas; and Floating leaf by Ed Brownson. All photos used under the Creative Commons license.
They illustrate the point that the camera is just one of a hundred elements that make up a good shot. When you maximise the others, a fairly basic camera can still produce impressive results.
The frame itself is a device to be used: to include and exclude. You don’t have to capture the whole scene. The frame is something you can use to direct focus, to simplify an image and highlight detail or a subject that is often overlooked.
This is Beth captured on her due date — still inside her mother’s tummy. By cropping out my wife’s head the focus is thrown onto the baby. If I went for a wider shot and included her face, the photograph would be more about the mother than the child. (Which obviously isn’t a bad thing, just different!)
Reaching for the bubble. Again, it’s tempting to shoot a wider shot and get the child in. But the tight crop accentuates the stretch, throwing focus onto the reaching arm and the eyes locked on to the bubble. The tighter frame also excludes a lot of the clutter in the bathroom that I would have captured if I took a step back, making the image cleaner.
This example creates a sense of isolation and scale. The cliff edge feels small and lonely, while the ocean seems vast. A different framing would produce a different feel.
This is a poster displaying one of our six cultures at Kings. Cropping out the heads of the two individuals makes them feel anonymous — the idea that we’re protecting their identity in a moment of honesty.
Two examples of how excluding things from your frame focuses your eye on specifics from a scene. These elements, tying the shoelace and the taxi sign, would both be secondary elements in a more typical photo. But here they are pushed to the foreground by the nature of the framing.
And finally, selective crop can create an abstract feel. Here the photographer has focused on architectural detail and minimised any other content or sense of scale.
When you bring your camera up to your eye and click, it doesn’t always produce the most creative results.
One of the things I love about photography is that it changes the way you see the world. Shooting from different angles and perspectives is one way of doing this. Getting low down creates a totally different perspective, and one that’s really easy to do — most of the time you have the ground with you.
In kids photography it helps you get down on their level and see the world from their perspective. Get even lower and you make them feel heroic…
Shallow Depth of Field
Shallow depth of field creates one of the most iconic elements of DLSR photography. The term refers to the ability of the camera and lens to throw the background (or foreground) out of focus. It creates a sense of depth in the image, isolates the subject, and helps reduce any distractions or clutter from the scene.
In both these examples, if they were shot on a smartphone the background would be in sharp focus and we would lose our subjects into them. Shallow depth of field is more than a nice effect — it provides a useful function too.
It’s also great for directing focus quite specifically within the frame:
(My son’s newborn toes. Too cute!)
In this last shot, the only part of the image which is in focus is the hair. Normally in portraiture you want the eyes to be in focus (as they are the main connecting point with a person), but I liked this one as my daughter is having to look through her hair to see me. It’s almost like a layer between her and me — an example where the depth of field is extremely shallow.
In the following video Vincent Laforet (a well known director and photographer) introduces the concept of depth of field in more detail:
Layers and depth
You can take this a further step, using a shallow depth of field to create a layered image. This is more than just popping a subject out of the background. Here there are multiple plains within the image, and it amplifies the sense of depth.
Here you can see three distinct layers: the water which is right up close to the lens; the diver’s arm and surrounding bubbles; and the sky in the background.
Again, three distinct layers in this shot as my nephew Edward invaded the frame. I’m glad he did, as it put more depth in the image and actually balanced the composition.
This last picture is interesting as there’s a lot of clutter in the image, which actually serves to provide multiple layers of focus. Your eyes are naturally drawn to the brightest part of the image, which in this case is the laptop in the bottom left. I find with this one it takes my eyes a while to find the area of focus, scanning inwards until I see the man holding the book. Not my favourite photo I’ve ever taken, but I still quite like the effect.
Rim lighting is where you have a strong light source behind, or to the side of your subject. People often observe that you should shoot with the light source behind you, but that’s not always the most creative way.
The three examples above were all shot with natural light, the sun highlighting the outline of the subject, injecting more contrast into the scene and adding a certain character to the image.
In our video ’27 Stories’ a similar effect was achieved using two light boxes, one positioned diagonally in front and one to the side. The results create a high contrast and moody image:
This last example uses a single light source to create a very minimal image, outlining the subject with just a few highlights:
A fast shutter speed allows you to freeze a scene, seeing a level of detail that your eyes can’t naturally observe. The most obvious application is in sports photography, but it can be great whenever the action is unfolding.
In this first shot of my daughter you see the shape of the bubbles warping as they come out the gun.
Burst mode helps you capture the exact shot as your camera fires off one frame after the other. The image above was one of 21 shots fired over three seconds.
Here the shutter is fast enough to suspend all the water droplets in mid air. As you know the speed of the waves and the water are naturally quite rapid, it adds to the sense that the scene is frozen in time. Also love the way this image is almost a silhouette and composed naturally out of shades of blue.
Instead of freezing a precise moment, you’re capturing time as it unfolds.
It’s easily done at night when your camera naturally requires a longer exposure. Here the cars shoot buy as the camera is gathering enough light.
It can also be done during the day using a neutral density filter. It’s basically a darkened glass disc which you screw over the top of your lens to reduce the light and require longer exposure. Here the motion of the waves are smoothed out over a 25 second exposure. Naturally you need a tripod for these shots.
A 1.6 second exposure. Just about quick enough to capture the pedestrian without completely losing him to motion blur. Incidentally I shot the following photo in Brighton a number of years back with 60-80 people in the scene. I used a pinhole camera that needed a 7 second exposure, and lost all but two people to motion blur — as if they were never there. It shows that there’s are art to capturing motion without erasing your subjects.
Go super-slow and you can capture star trails. This particular image stacked multiple 30 second exposures using Photoshop (although there’s many examples on Flickr that do it in a single exposure). Even slower, and you can track the motion of the sun:
So far in this post we’ve introduced nine different ideas for creative photography. When you get familiar with these concepts and what they express, they eventually become part of your visual vocabulary.
On one level, shooting video is just photography with a timeline. The following video illustrates a story I shot inside 24 hours. Having these ideas up your sleeve allows you to shoot a lot of creative footage in a short space of time, and help you create something interesting and hopefully compelling.
I’ve tagged each idea as the video plays. In addition to the nine ideas above, there’s an extra 12 in the story:
This article was written up from content delivered at our Kings Media Group. If you’re local to Eastbourne, you’re more than welcome to join us.