Recently, Kevin, Thor, and I took a drive to Borrego Springs, a small town located about two hours east of San Diego in the Southern California desert. The town is a haven for snowbirds due to its warm winter weather and access to popular Anza Borrego Desert State Park, but what really intrigued us was a series of 130 metal sculptures, created by artist Ricardo Breceda, which are scattered throughout the desert surrounding the town. We had seen photos of the sculptures, but wanted to check them out ourselves. So, on a warm, sunny day, we piled in the car and headed east.
After several hours tracking down various figures, we headed over to the very popular “serpent” sculpture, a 350 foot long snake with a dragon-like head. When we drove up, I noticed 3 elderly people – a man and two women – sitting in lawn chairs about 50 feet from the sculpture. They were facing west and it looked as if they’d met up to watch the desert sunset.
As I was moving around the head of the Serpent and taking photos, I heard the man – we’ll call him “Stanley” – say to the others “Why is she taking so many photos?” followed by “Oh my god, is she gonna take a picture of every angle?” One of the women said something which I couldn’t make out, to which Stanley responded, “I just don’t understand why anyone would need to take so many pictures of the same thing!”
Ignoring the unsolicited comments from the geriatric chapter of the Mean Girls club, I continued taking my photos. But as we drove away, I got to thinking about why it was I took all those pictures.
And the simple reason is this: because I took a photography class years ago where one of the lessons was – and I quote – “Take lots of pictures.”
The instructor, a professional studio photographer, explained to the class that it can be hard to tell what’s going to look best as a finished product and small changes in lighting, shadows, or angle can have a huge impact on the final result. It’s why when you watch a press event you hear what sounds like a thousands clicks from the bank of photographers, and why professional photographers click away as their fashion model subjects strike numerous poses. A newspaper or magazine may only publish one photo on the cover of their publication, but you can rest assured, the photographer took hundreds of photos of “the same” thing.
OK, Stanley? Can I take my pictures now? Ya jerk.
Anyway, this whole encounter got me thinking about the things I learned in that class and I thought it might be helpful to share some of those tips and tricks. And to be clear, I took exactly one six-session beginner’s class on digital photography and don’t actually know what I’m talking about. I just like taking photos and I try to follow some of the lessons I learned in the class. So, take all of this for what it’s worth.
Tip #1: Take Lots of Pictures
What Stanley and the girls didn’t appreciate was that minor changes in perspective can have enormous impact on the final product.
It’s because this photo:
is totally different than this photo:
So, Tip Number 1: Ignore the Stanleys of the world and take as many photos as you want. Try different angles, different perspectives, even different times of day. Unlike the days of film processing, it costs nothing to take photos on your phone and digital storage is cheap. There is no downside, so get creative, experiment, and click away!
Tip #2: Time of Day is Crucial
The truth is, I’m not a big fan of the photos I took in Borrego Springs. I’m using a couple of them here to demonstrate some points, but the pictures themselves aren’t that great. And one of the reasons for that is I violated a cardinal rule of photography: I was taking photos in the middle of the afternoon. Because we had a 2 hour drive from San Diego, and we didn’t want to be driving over unfamiliar mountain roads in the dark, we arrived in Borrego Springs around 12:30 and left around 3:30 p.m. That means the majority of my photos were taken in the early afternoon, and any decent photography website will tell you to avoid that whenever possible
Midday light is extremely harsh. Photos appear with sharp shadows, they are washed out, and the sky has minimal color. As the sun goes down, the colors soften, the light warms, and shadows elongate.
Photographers refer to the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset as “golden hours” because they offer the best light for photography. However, depending on your exact location and the time of year, you can often stretch that into the several hours after sunrise and the several hours before sunset. Just try to avoid taking photos in the middle of the day, if possible.
Tip #3: Keep the Light Behind You
On a related note, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been at a tourist spot and watched someone taking photos and thought, “that’s not going to come out the way they think it’s going to come out.” The biggest mistake: Shooting into the sun. While your eyes can adjust for bright sunlight, your camera cannot (absent specialized camera filters which we’re not talking about here). Additionally, it can be hard to tell what the final product will look like when you’re standing in the bright light looking at your phone screen. The easiest solution is to make sure you don’t shoot into the sun in the first place. This can be done by moving your body, shading your camera, or changing the time you arrive at a particular location.
Here’s an example from Borrego Springs. With the sun hitting my lens, the photo is washed out, there’s visible lens flare, and there’s no detail in the sculptures:
By taking about 3 steps to my left, I was able to get the sun off my lens which resulted in a bit more contrast and more of a silhouette:
But by walking around to the other side, so the sun was now over my shoulder, the lens flare is gone, the colors are richer, and you can see detail in the sculptures.
Depending on what you’re trying to photograph, it’s often easiest just to plan your outing at a time when the sun will be where you need it to be. If you only have one opportunity, though, you can try using your hand or a piece of paper to shade the lens of your camera to keep some of the light out.
Tip #4: Use the Rule Of Thirds
THE go-to rule of photography composition is called the “Rule of Thirds.” You basically imagine a tic tac toe board drawn across your photo, and place objects of interest (“focal points”) along the lines or where the lines intersect. The theory is that placing objects off center makes photos more interesting/balanced/appealing.
Here are a couple examples of the rule of thirds. Notice where the objects of interest (e.g., the lighthouse, the sculpture, the dock) are located in the pictures. Not dead center:
Of course, like most rules, this one is meant to be broken. There are plenty of times an object looks best when it’s centered in the middle of the picture. The idea is really to be intentional about where you place your focal point, rather than just defaulting to dead center.
The Rule of Thirds is also applicable to horizons. One way to make a photo more interesting is to put the horizon on the 1/3rd line or the 2/3rd line of your tic tac toe board. The idea is to either have 2/3 of the picture be sky or 2/3 be ocean/desert/grass, rather than splitting them 50/50. Again, it doesn’t always make sense to do this. It’s just something to consider when framing or cropping your photo.
Additionally, as a general reminder, make sure your horizon is straight. It is such an easy way to improve your finished product and it can quickly and easily be edited right on your phone.
Tip #5: Use Leading Lines
Another standard rule of photography composition is to use leading lines. Find natural lines and photograph them in a way that leads the viewers eyes into the photo/toward your focal point. This will help to give your 2 dimensional photograph a more 3 dimensional feel and draw the viewer’s eye into the scene.
Straight lines, like roads and walking paths, are everywhere, and can make for cool pictures:
But also look for curved lines that may grab the viewer’s interest:
Tip # 6 Compose the Photo to Create Depth
Another way to lead the viewer’s eyes into the photo is to place items in the background or foreground. Again, the goal is to make your 2 dimensional photo feel 3 dimensional.
Here, the lighthouse at the back of the photo is the focal point, but the rocks at the front create depth:
And here’s an example of the opposite: the focal point is the individual chair at the front, but the chairs in the background create depth.
Tip #7 Be on the Lookout for Patterns and Symmetry
Human brains like patterns and symmetry, so anytime you can find them, whether natural or manmade, they make good material for photographs:
Historic buildings, bridges, and churches often provide stunning examples of man-made symmetry.
And, of course, nature provides the best of everything.
Tip #8: Include a Person or Other Object for Scale
When you’re photographing a really big landscape, it can help to include a human or some other familiar object in the photo to provide scale. The goal is to communicate what it feels like to be standing in a given place, and sometimes the most effective way to accomplish that is by, well, including a person standing in that given place.
Other familiar objects can also help create context for a scene.
I stood in this spot for about 5 minutes trying to get a photo of this rock without any cars or people in the way, but in the end, I actually liked this one because I thought it provided helpful context. (Once again showing the value of taking multiple versions of ‘the same’ photograph. Sorry, Stanley.)
Tip #9: Get Close/Fill the Frame/Change Your Perspective
Most people walk up to an object, click the camera, and walk away. That’s fine if you’re just trying to capture a memory of what something looked like, but if you’re trying to create a more engaging photo, oftentimes, it’s better to get close to the object, lose the negative space, and/or shoot the object from a different perspective. And don’t be afraid to crop part of the subject matter out. Some photos are more powerful because of what they don’t show.
Typical snapshot – from in front, eye level, lots of empty space that doesn’t really add anything:
I thought getting closer, focusing on the top half of the sculpture, and shifting the perspective upwards, was a bit more interesting.
The same holds true for the photo I used at the top of this post. Here’s a snapshot from a couple feet away:
And here’s the up close and personal version:
As for perspective, not only can it make for more interesting photos, but it can also be used to create the feeling of movement. For this photo, rather than taking it from the side or eye level, I crouched down in front to make it seem like he was coming toward me:
And for this dinosaur, getting up close and photographing it from underneath made it a bit more intimidating, which is the whole point of the sculpture. Look at those chompers!!
Tip #10: Let the Grammers Inspire You!
Whenever you visit a popular tourist spot, you will encounters the Grammers. They will be younger than you, fitter than you, better looking than you, and they will, without question, be wearing yoga clothes.
They will arrive at sunset (they understand lighting), they will take their positions (they understand photo composition), and they will deploy their boyfriends to capture their well-practiced “Insta-gaze”:
Sometimes they’ll even show up with props. In the case of Borrego Springs, a shiny Jeep Wrangler positioned just in front of the serpent sculpture:
The Jeep, after all, is one of the world’s most iconic brands and a mainstay among outdoor enthusiasts and RVers. In fact, the Jeep is so popular, so recognizable, and so timeless, Ricardo Breceda built a sculpture of one to memorialize it for all time:
Were we intimidated by this professional Instagrammer’s high impact prop?
Hell no. We were inspired!!
That’s right, Jeep owners, you may possess the quintessential symbol of rugged capability and go-anywhere freedom, complete with an attractive blonde hanging out the window, but we’ve got a hella sexy 2014 Honda CR-V made even cooler by a middle aged engineer rockin a Captain America T-Shirt… and we’re. in. your. house.
The lesson? There is no lesson. We’re just easily entertained.
Ok, obviously the ‘helpful’ part of this blog post has now concluded. If you’re interested in reading more about this stuff, there are hundreds of websites dedicated to improving photography composition. They are worth a look, and the the more you read, the more you’ll realize there really is no one right answer. These things are completely subjective because people are completely subjective.
Except Stanley. He’s just wrong.
Next up…spending the winter in sunny San Diego!