Photography is a challenging hobby, which is one of the things that makes it so rewarding. But there are a lot of crutches you can rely on that will make it harder to improve your skills. Using automated filters, like those provided by Instagram, is one of those crutches (as is using the “Auto Enhance” feature in your preferred photo editor).
Instead of applying your favorite filter next time, why not trying applying these basic principles of photography first?
In my own photography, this has been by far the most valuable skill that I’ve learned. If you see a photo and you’re not sure why it looks as amazing as it does, there’s a good chance that the composition is spot on. When you know the principles of composition, your photos will really start to stand out.
While there are a number of schools of thought on composition, there are a few generally agreed-upon principles that I’ll share here.
The Rule of Thirds
When you start taking photos, there’s a good chance that you’re putting things right in the middle of your pictures; it could be the horizon, a portrait subject, or a notable feature in the landscape. But that’s not a great way to go; when something splits the photo in half, your viewer has trouble deciding what to look at first. There’s no focus.
Instead, divide your photo into thirds, both vertically, and horizontally, like this:
Now, align the part of your photo that you’d like the viewer to focus on with one of those lines. It’s really that simple. If there are multiple objects or natural splits in the photo, you can make an effort to align more than one (the edge of the grass in the photo above, for example, is near the bottom-third line).
It’s not easy to create a sense of depth in your photos, but leading lines can help a lot. This isn’t always an option, but if it is, be sure to take advantage of it! A leading line is something that draws your viewer’s eyes from one point in the photo to another, and creates the sense of depth. Here’s an example:
As you can see, the staircase travels from the bottom of the shot to the top, drawing your eye through the photo and emphasizing the three-dimensional nature of the scene, even though you’re only seeing it in two. Once you start looking for leading lines, you’ll see them everywhere, and be able to include them in lots of photos.
By including a natural “frame” in your photo, you again draw the viewer’s attention to the subject that you want to focus on. Much like leading lines, adding a frame within the picture adds depth by emphasizing the difference between objects that are near and those that are far.
Almost anything can serve as a frame; tree branches, mountain ranges, window frames, doors, concrete barriers… be creative! If there are objects around you, there’s a way to make a cool frame in your photos.
Understanding lighting is one of the most crucial parts of developing a photographer’s eye; light is complicated, and the way it behaves and affects your photos isn’t always predictable. But once you start looking at lighting in a photographic manner, you’ll learn quickly.
Use Diffuse Light When Available
First, let’s talk about diffuse light. By using a diffuse light source (like the sun on an overcast day or a window not receiving direct sunlight), you’ll get softer textures, less harsh shadows, and more even lighting. It can make a big difference (the photo below was taken shortly before sunset, which is a great time for diffuse light).
You can even buy (or make) a diffuser for your camera’s flash to soften its effects, which can be very harsh in low light. Of course, using harsh light can result in some cool artistic effects too, but in general, diffuse light will give you better results.
Shadow Is Just as Important as Light
The other thing to keep in mind when looking at the light in a scene is that shadow can be just as important; it can add depth, alter the overall feeling of the scene, or highlight specific areas of your photo. Learning to play with both light and shadow is a lot of fun, and can result in some very striking images.
Learning about light and shadow are best done with practice; go out and photograph the same scene or object in different lighting conditions and see what happens. You might be surprised at just how different it can look!
With how easy it is to apply an Instagram filter to your photos, you might wonder why editing is a necessary skill to learn. And while filters are cool, applying a preset group of changes really limits your ability to bring out what’s special in your photos. While entire books have been written about specific facets of photo editing, there are a couple things that will make a big difference in your photos.
Learn to Use Curves
The Curves dialog in your photo editor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make your photos stand out. Using it to make an S-curve, as you can see in the photo below, can significantly improve the colors in your photo (the curve shown is applied to the right half of the picture, while the left half remains unedited).
A full tutorial on using curves would take a long time, so grab your photo editor and try it out. Start with a basic S-curve and experiment from there.
Learn to Use Levels
As Curves can improve the colors in your photo, the Levels dialog can provide a boost to the highlights, shadows, and any other whites and blacks in the scene (again, only the right half in the image below has been edited).
By moving the black and white sliders a bit toward the middle, and the gray slider a little toward the white side, the image above is given richer colors by creating more contrast.
There are a lot more controls that you can learn to use, but if you start with Curves and Levels, you’ll go a long way toward mastering the basics of photo editing. It takes a lot of trial and error, but the key is to get just get started and play around.
No Need for Filters
With the mind-blowing number of photos shared each day, it’s not always easy to make yours stand out. But by learning a few basic principles of photography, you can drastically increase the quality of your photos — whether you share them or not. Try your hand at improving your composition, lighting, and editing, and you might be very impressed with what you find!
What basic photography principles have helped you improve your photos? Share your tips and thoughts below!