Developing Your Photographic Design Skills

Riomaggiore Photograph by Nat CoalsonSome photographers believe great shots happen mostly by luck – just keep making lots of pictures and you’re bound to get some good ones. It’s true that when you shoot frequently you increase the possibility of a happy accident; a “grab shot” that works, and regularly practicing your craft as a photographer is the key to improving your skills and the quality of your images.

However, it’s also important to understand that successful photographs most often express clear intentions of the maker. Like other forms of visual art, good photography is fundamentally based on effective design. Composition is part of the photographic design process, but it doesn’t end there. You can learn how to make better photographs using long-established principles of design.

When you’re preparing to make a picture, the first, most important question to ask yourself is “what is this a picture of?”. Clearly identifying the main subject or theme of a photo is key to its success.

Next, you need to eliminate everything from the frame that doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way to the main subject. In photography, usually less is more.

Nat_Coalson_Design_Fig_2Many photos fail to engage viewers because the photographer tried to get too much into the picture. When possible, provide some opportunities for the viewer’s imagination to interpret the meaning of the scene; this engages the viewer in a personal way.

TIP: Always be sure to scan the edges and corners of the frame for distracting or unwanted objects!

Once you’ve decided what it’s a picture of and gotten rid of all distracting elements, the next step is to apply your own sense of visual design and aesthetic style to create the strongest composition possible.

Your choices will be based on the position of the camera relative to the subject matter and how you place the frame edges in the optimal spot to create the best photographic design for the objects in the scene. The frame itself is the most important tool in designing a photograph.

You should also understand how the viewer’s eye will travel throughout the picture and make conscious decisions for how you want this to happen. Where does the eye go first? Where does it come to rest? Do the graphic elements in the picture work well together?

TIP: Generally speaking, you need to make sure that there are no elements in the picture that compete for attention with the main subject matter.

Use the fundamental elements of photographic design to create your composition. The following elements are the basic “building blocks” that combine to create a picture.

Points: places where the viewer’s eye changes direction while traversing the image
Lines: created by points; can be visible or invisible
Shapes: created by connected lines; shapes are flat without depth and dimension
Forms: shapes with shading applied; show depth and dimension with light and shadow
Patterns: repeating, geometric shapes
Textures: random, organic features that communicate a tactile sensation

One way to begin seeing the basic elements in any composition is to draw lines to identify shapes and arrows to indicate direction. This technique will help you understand how the viewer’s eye travels around the frame and can help you identify elements in the picture that may be distracting from the main subject.

These outlines can be real or imagined: you can print the photo and use a pen to trace the shapes or bring the image into Photoshop and use the brush tool to paint the outlines as shown in the example figures. After you’ve physically drawn lines on pictures for a while, you’ll begin to readily see photographic elements and their interactions without needing to actually trace their outlines.

Photographic Design Example

Note: though my examples are scenic images, you can use this technique for any kind of photograph.

In future articles you’ll learn specific techniques to use the photographic elements to their greatest potential. For now, start learning how to see what’s really making up the picture, simply in terms of basic graphics.

More about Creative Photography

I believe that taking control over the creative process as well as the technology is very helpful when learning to create better photographs. It’s ironic… once you’ve got everything under control, you can really let loose creatively. The results can be profound.

If you think about the work as its own entity and evaluate it as objectively as possible you will learn from your previous work and your future work will be better for it. Learn to separate yourself from the photograph. Learn more from mistakes than successes.

One way to do this: Do a critique of your image. Take a couple of minutes and write about a photograph. Describe it, as if you were telling someone on the phone about it. Include as much technical information as possible. Describe the photographics. Describe the feelings the photograph conveys to you. Describe what you like and what you don’t like about the image.

For example, here’s a sample description of a photograph:
5 windows with white frames on the side of a blue wooden-sided building
In the closest widow is a reflection of a distant shore with buildings and palm trees

Overall well-balanced, center of interest is well-positioned
Strong converging lines
Picture space divided equally into 3 large triangles
Smaller triangles and trapezoids/distorted squares throughout
Low key image, overall low contrast
One small bright area of high contrast
Soothing blue tones

Nice, calm mood… but geometric boxes like this can create sense of being closed-in, claustrophobia etc.
The long vertical rectangles at frame right and left create a stable, almost “locked in” kind of feeling
The scene in the reflection creates an oasis, a glimmer of hope… the “light at the end of the tunnel”. This comes across as the main subject and theme of the photograph.

Suggestions for improvement:
– Desaturate blues just a bit
– Warm up and add saturation to the reflection scene
– Burn corners of frame slightly
– In the second window, top left, the shape that’s now tan, change to blue and darken that corner overall
– Remove contrails from reflected sky
– Consider retouching to add clouds into the sky (if you don’t consider that “cheating” 😉

While learning if you come away from a shooting session with several photographs that you are pleased with, it was a job well done (unless you’re working for a client!). Having more is, of course, more satisfying but don’t expect every capture to be a winner. Making pictures is an evolving process of learning.

More About Writing

A few days ago I posted an article about the importance of writing about your work in order to improve it and to be able to more easily talk about your work to others.

Another suggestion: look deeper. Closer. Harder. More intensely. And then back off again. Control it, plan it, then let it flow. Create a rapport with your environment.

Try these writing exerciseswhen you’re out in the field making photographs:

1. Get a pen and paper ready. Find a comfortable spot. For 5 minutes sit with your eyes closed. Listen. Feel. Smell. Hear. Do everything but see. Then, open your eyes. Pay attention to your reactions. After a minute or so, jot down a few impressions of the experience.

Then, for 5 minutes, make photographs that reflect your impressions of what you saw when you opened your eyes.

2. No pen and paper necessary for this one. Select a spot (different from #1) that you find photographically intriguing.

For 5 minutes, take as many pictures as you can. Different compositions, different exposures, depth of field, etc. Don’t review anything, just shoot.

In the next 5 minutes, make only one picture. Find a subject and look closer. Then from another angle. From farther away. Consider artistic/creative intentions. Plan your photograph. When you’re ready, make the exposure.

Always keep a pen and paper to jot down ideas, thoughts, notes, impressions. Review your notes periodically and apply what you’ve learned to your photography.

Writing About Your Photography Work

Many of my students as me how they can make their photographs better. Usually, my answer is “put it into words”.

When you write words about your photography it lets a different part of your brain engage in the creative process. Jotting down notes about your creative process, documenting ideas, making sketches, etc. can really solidify a creative concept and help get rid of the clutter, resulting in stronger, more well-conceived photographs. Plus, when asked, you’ll be able to easily describe your work to others.

Language is essential for people conveying complex concepts to one another. A picture is worth a thousand words? Most photographers want to make pictures that people can talk about.

In the same way, when you write about your photography, you are communicating with your self, and the work becomes a third party. (I believe the work needs to have “a life of its own”.)

Writing makes the creative process easier to understand; ideas become more clear and concise. And you may even learn new things about yourself.

Writing while shooting in the field or studio can really energize a session. Writing about your work at other times, such as during editing or after waking from sleep, creates stronger connections in your mind and allows you to more quickly generate ideas.

The real point of writing is to learn to think about your photography more frequently and in ever-expanding ways. Actively participate in the creative process; be the director. Integrate writing into your photography and I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the effects on your photography.

Evaluating Photographs and Making Editing Decisions

Every photograph is unique and each image will require different enhancements to make the photograph look its best. However, there are common criteria to use when evaluating your image to determine what enhancements should be made.

Many of these decisions are subjective and the choices you make should reflect your creative vision of how the image should look. Some enhancements, such as noise reduction and sharpening, are less subjective as there are established standards of technical quality to be considered. For example: in most cases people would agree that digital noise is undesirable. Also, most people would agree that the main subject of the photo should have sharp, crisp edges. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and the creative decisions you make should be guided by your personal preferences.

When evaluating your image and making creative decisions, start with the biggest changes first and work your way to the smaller “fine-tuning” adjustments. Global edits are changes made to the entire image; Local (or selective) edits are changes made only to specific areas of the image.

Think about the editing to be done and make a plan before starting work. Keep in mind that every step of the workflow affects–and is affected by–every other step. For example, sharpening the image may increase noise; adjusting color may affect apparent contrast, etc. So it may be necessary to go back and forth between steps to perfect the image. (more…)

Some great books…

Many of my students ask about additional resources and recommended reading. Below are some books I’ve found very helpful.

Photographing the World Around You – Freeman Patterson
The Tao of Photography – Gross & Shapiro
Learning to See Creatively – Bryan F. Peterson
Creative Nature and Outdoor Photography – Brenda Tharpe
Photography and the Art of Seeing – Freeman Patterson
The A-Z of Creative Photography – Lee Frost

Photoshop Blending Modes

From Photoshop CS2 Help

A layer or painting tool’s blending mode determines how its pixels blend with underlying pixels in the image. You can create a variety of special effects using blending modes. (more…)

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