Well who doesn’t want to capture nice photos? Afterall, that’s the main reason why you purchased that new DSLR, right? You had to upgrade from your crappy point-and-shoot to an expensive camera hoping that you can capture professional-looking shots. So you post to “photography” forums humbly introducing yourself as a newbie and asking the question, “how do I learn to make fantastic photographs?”
The newbie is then bombarded by different answers by forum “experts”. The most common replies are worth mentioning:
1. Learn how to shoot in manual mode.
2. Learn about the exposure triangle (with a special mention of the book “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson).
3. Shoot using only prime lenses. Throw away your kit zoom because they will only make you lazy.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. No wonder why only a few n00bs survive their first year. Those who do survive continue collecting lenses, buying new cameras while making crappy photos.
Crappy photos are not caused by imperfect exposure, or by shooting in full auto mode or by cheap kit lenses. Crappy photos are caused by not knowing where to aim your camera. Plain and simple. It’s common sense…and that’s why forum “experts” ignore it.
A perfectly exposed shot made by an expensive fast prime lens is still crap if you do not know where to aim your camera. Sorry but that is how it is. It’s not your gear. It’s not the technical foo. It’s where you aim it.
Your camera is expensive because it is smart. In most cases it will nail the correct exposure. Those “experts” who pretend to know how to shoot in manual mode are most likely just fiddling with the exposure sliders, following what the camera is telling them. They are no better than monkeys doing exactly what the zoo keeper is telling them what to do. Years of research have been done by real experts so that your camera can figure out the correct settings in just about any situation you throw at it.
Yes, a fast prime lens is nice to have. It will guarantee that every shot you take is very sharp and crappy. There is nothing worse than a very crisp and sharp but crappy shot. It spells rich but dumb.
Having said those harsh words, let me give you a solid advice: learn where to aim your camera. Learn proper composition. A good way to start is to google for the following topics in composition:
1. rule of thirds
2. lead-in lines
3. patterns, repetition, rhythm
4. light and shadow
You do not even need to use your DSLR to learn how to compose. Your mobile phone camera is more than good enough. I would even go further to say that your phone camera is the best way to learn composition because it only has one button. No other technical foolishness will distract you from the task at hand. You basically learn to POINT and shoot.
Let me give you a very important tip in composition:
Before you even attempt to take a photo of something, consider WHY you even wanted to take a photo of that something. Surely there must be something in it that attracted you to it. Something that made you make a second look. Concentrate on that something. If you can’t find that something then don’t shoot. It means that the idea is not clear in your mind and that will reflect in your shot as well. If you force it, your shot will only look cluttered.
For example, if you happen to visit the Sydney Opera House then you can’t help but notice that the thing that attracts you most to the structure is it’s unusual shape. Your task is to find a way to make that shape stand out. You don’t just aim at it and shoot. Consider what might be in the background or foreground that could potentially merge with the structure and ruin the shot. A typical n00b shot would include their friend or family member in the foreground. Now why is this bad? Because that will divert the attention to the human figure instead of the Opera House. I’m not saying you should not include family members in your travel photos but do not expect fantastic shots with them in the frame either. If you do happen to capture nice shots with your friends it will be a portrait shot of them but not a shot of the Opera House.
Let’s move further. Grand it may be, you don’t just shoot the Opera House and expect a masterpiece. The Opera House dead center in the frame is boring. That’s what every tourist does. To shoot the Opera House, you have to forget that it’s the Opera House. Let me explain:
When composing a shot, you have to spot your main subject and then forget about the subject. What I’m saying is, forget that it’s the Opera House. It’s just a bunch of “curvy triangles”. Now you want to make those curvy triangles stand out inside a rectangular frame. Position it in such a way that the viewer will not stray away from the rectangular frame. Consider which side or corner of the frame you want the viewer to start looking and where you want them to end. You want them to end at the Opera House. It means there should be no other lines or shapes or colours that would divert them away from those curvy triangles.
Here is an example of the use of rhythm, repetition and contrast:
When capturing this shot, you will have to forget that these are rock formations (the famous Three Sisters). In this composition, I used the pointy shapes as if they are “stepping stones” that will force the viewer to “hop” from the lower left hand corner of the frame going into the frame. What makes this composition even better is that the constant “rhythm” of the “hopping” movement is suddenly interrupted by the shorter rock formation. The viewer has nowhere else to go but to go back. But then going back, the natural slope of these “stepping stones” forces the viewer to move forward into the frame again following the same hopping pattern. The viewer is “trapped” inside the frame. Another thing that made this shot effective is the contrast of warm light hitting the mountains and the cold colours of the background valley. This makes the mountains pop out of the frame. It’s a very simple shot. There are no distractions.
So again, composition is about breaking down everything into lines, shapes, colours and contrast and then neatly organizing them inside the frame. Those are not rock formations, they are pointy triangles. That’s not afternoon sunlight, that’s orange. That’s not rain in the valley, that’s blue.
To end this post, let me repeat the most important thing about photography: Knowing where to aim your camera is what makes good photographs. It’s not your camera or perfect exposure or fast lenses. It’s all about composition.