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The Photography Exercise Book: Training Your Eye to Shoot Like a Pro (250+ color photographs make it come to life)

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• Use simple exercises to learn to see and shoot like a pro rather than painfully following strict rules.
• This book covers a wide variety of genres (street documentary, photojournalism, nature, landscape, sports, and still-life photography).
• The Author has helped 1,000’s of photographers to date. In this revised edition, he includes over 250 beautiful color photographs to make his exercises come to life.
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Copyright © 2016 by Bert P. Krages II

This is a revised edition of a book previously published under the title Photography: The Art of Composition.

All rights reserved. Copyright under Berne Copyright Convention, Universal Copyright Convention, and Pan American Copyright Convention. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Allworth Press, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

Allworth Press books may be purchased in bulk at special discounts for sales promotion, corporate gifts, fund-raising, or educational purposes. Special editions can also be created to specifications. For details, contact the Special Sales Department, Allworth Press, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018 or

20 19 18 17 16 5 4 3 2 1

Published by Allworth Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

Allworth Press® is a registered trademark of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.®, a Delaware corporation.

Cover and interior design by Mary Belibasakis

Cover photo credit Bert P. Krages II

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

Print ISBN: 978-1-62153-537-9

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62153-540-9

Printed in China

To Martina, Meredith, and Jennifer

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Foundations for Learning to See

The Importance of Seeing • The Importance of Composition • The Importance of Evaluating Your Work

Chapter 2 Proficiency with Your Camera

The Camera as Tool • The Camera as Object • Mastering the Controls • Holding the Camera • Exercise 1: Holding Your Camera Steady • Using the Viewfinder • Exercise 2: Photographing without a Viewfinder • Exercise 3: Camera Posit; ion • Focusing • Exposure • Exercise 4: Evaluating a Camera’s Meter • Technical Knowledge • Exercise 5: Test Something on Your Own

Chapter 3 Preparing to Do the Exercises

Perception and Abstraction • Knowledge Opens Up Possibilities • Experimenting with Genres Is Beneficial • Practical Considerations • Evaluating Your Images

Chapter 4 Seeing Light

Intensity and Range • Exercise 1: Shooting the Moon • Exercise 2: Isolating Light • Hard and Soft Light • Exercise 3: Magic Hour Progression • Exercise 4: Blue Hour Photography • Exercise 5: The Midday Sun • Direction • Exercise 6: Photographing Eggs • Reflected Light • Exercise 7: Reflections on Water • Exercise 8: Bouncing Light onto an Egg • Color Temperature • Changing Light • Exercise 9: Passing Clouds

Chapter 5 Approaches to Composition

Working with Points • Exercise 1: Eyes • Exercise 2: Signs • Exercise 3: Birds • Exercise 4: Conjunctions • Exercise 5: Bowling • Working with Lines • Exercise 6: Floral Lines • Exercise 7: Trees • Exercise 8: Horizons • Exercise 9: Rivers • Exercise 10: People on the Move • Working with Shapes • Exercise 11: The Shape of Eggs • Exercise 12: Gerberas • Exercise 13: Static Frames • Exercise 14: Steam and Water Vapor • Exercise 15: Dynamic Frames

Chapter 6 Seeing the World around You

Photographic Style • Inspiration • Exercise 1: Utility Lines • Exercise 2: Revisiting a Scene • Exercise 3: Depicting a Subject in Different Ways • Exercise 4: Take a Miniature Photo Safari • Exercise 5: Documenting Something • Exercise 6: Cobbling Something Together

Chapter 7 Thinking Like an Artist

History for the Artist • Work Ethic • Knowing Your Goals • The Artist’s Vision


About the Author


One of the best ways to improve at almost any activity is to deliberately work at improvement. Rather than approach photographic composition as a collection of rules, principles, or design elements, the book uses exercises designed to enhance and make connections between perception and the final image. The book also addresses the fundamental skills of camera handling.

This book takes a primarily inductive approach in which knowledge and improvement come about by a process of discovery. If you learn best by doing things, you will probably like this book. I would add that this book is particularly suited for persons who are willing to try things irrespective of whether they initially see any value in doing them. If you believe that you can improve skills by passive learning and without having to put forth some serious effort, this book is probably not for you. There may be parts of the book that you think are unnecessary or involve subject matter you find uninteresting. I strongly encourage the reader to reserve judgment about the exercises and the genres they encompass, and simply do the exercises. As with many areas of learning, sometimes it is impossible to understand the value of having done something until long after its completion.

Lots of books have been written on how to improve photographic skills. Many of these books take a deductive teaching approach in which the basic principles of composition are presented in a mechanical and isolated way. Generally speaking, these books adopt a framework of discussing a principle and then illustrating the principle with example photographs. Looking at images is valuable but you are not going to improve your skills merely by looking at pretty pictures. One reason for this is that the actual scene as perceived by a photographer can vary substantially from what appears in the image because of factors such as the context of the setting, the light available to the photographer, and the transient nature of the scene. Similarly, camera skills are sometimes the determining factor in whether an image is satisfactorily captured or disappointingly lost.

Of course, inspiration and a knowledge of basic principles are crucial elements in photography because they give you ideas regarding the scope of possibilities and the means to act on them. However, much like merely looking at images of muscular bodies in a fitness book will not make you stronger, merely looking at photographs is not going to take you very far in becoming the best you can be. Substantial improvement in photography generally comes from a lot of repetitions, in a variety of ways, and over a substantial period of time.

Another premise of this book is that the ability to take strong photographs is not an inherent gift that one is either born with or without. Although photographic style is an individual characteristic that will eventually show through irrespective of a person’s attempt to change it, almost anyone can master their own form of photography provided they work at it hard enough. Therefore, we will be approaching this issue with the view that the ability to take photographs can always be improved, and sometimes dramatically. We will consider the fact that the processes that are effective at developing an eye for taking photographs can vary among individuals, and thus it is important to experiment with different types of photography. Likewise, we recognize that some of the aspects of achieving proficiency in photography vary by genre. The factors that are important to a landscape photographer may be almost inconsequential to a studio photographer and vice versa. Nonetheless, all forms of photography depend on the ability of photographers to perceive what is before them.

Finally, the purpose of the book is not to dictate what makes a photograph good or bad, because this is, and always should be, a personal and subjective decision. Likewise, it is not intended to be a physics or engineering textbook. Instead, the book is based on the premise that by enhancing their perceptual skills, photographers will be better able to carry out their art and craft in a way that comports with their personal philosophies and goals.


Foundations for Learning to See

The fundamental perceptual skills associated with photography are seeing, composition, and evaluation. Some photographers seem to possess a natural gift for these skills, but for others they can be baffling. There are many reasons why the ability to see a scene as it objectively appears varies among people. However, the most notable is that the eye and brain work together much differently than a lens and camera do. Likewise, although most people can recognize good composition when they see it, some photographers find it difficult to achieve a well-composed image without resorting to the rote application of the guidelines known as the rules of composition. In a similar vein, some photographers recognize that their images are somehow lacking, but find it difficult to discern why. The good news is that these skills are not especially mysterious and can be improved by understanding and developing them.

In some ways, photography is similar to physical fitness—if you really want to improve, you need to work at it. Another aspect these two things have in common is that success is far more dependent on effort and discipline than on equipment. The mere act of engaging in activity will help anyone get better, but working with a consistent plan is the best approach. Improvement will come by being deliberate in what you do and working especially hard at the things that are causing you to fall short.

A good part of photographing is simply getting out with a camera and exploring places and ideas. The more you work at being observant and finding opportunities, the more you will improve.

Recognize that nothing will give you a better feel for photographic skills than actually taking photographs. Doing this will make it clear what is not working and where your weaknesses are. Once you have identified an area in which you want to improve, you can concentrate on improving that specific area. Furthermore, it is easier to push yourself to make your images even better when you recognize what “even better” looks like. Good photographers are good because they have mastered the fundamentals and put themselves in situations where they can make good images. However, don’t expect that every photograph you take has to be a work of art, or that every session has to result in a good image. You can practice taking photographs in almost any setting, and even taking mundane photographs can help you improve your skills so that you are better able to take advantage of more meaningful opportunities.

Expect to spend a lot of time taking photographs before you can consistently produce images that meet your goals and expectations. Developing strong perceptual skills requires putting mental effort into making images. When you are trying to master a particular skill, just going through the motions will not be very effective, nor will doing something a couple of times and then moving on. You need to concentrate on the task at hand and try to work for some form of sustained achievement.

The Importance of Seeing

Seeing is the ability to observe what is in a scene and to recognize the potential ways a scene can be depicted in a photograph. It is the most fundamental of the basic skills because it not only determines which visual elements will appear in an image, but it also influences the decision to make the image. Some people believe that seeing is a mysterious gift, the so-called artist’s eye. The reality is that almost anyone can learn the skill of seeing, particularly when they understand how the brain receives and processes visual information. For many people, the difficulty in seeing arises from the left hemisphere of the brain interpreting the information from the eyes by abstracting and symbolizing. This enables a person to efficiently register the most important objects in their line of vision and is a way of controlling information overload. However, this process also causes people to perceive objects differently than how they actually appear. For example, most people believe that telephone poles are always vertical even when they are often slightly tilted. In the same way, because people understand that the rails of railroad tracks are parallel, they do not notice that the rails appear to converge as they recede into the distance. When viewed in a left-brain frame of mind, a scene will often register differently from its actual appearance. For example, parallel lines will seem parallel, vertical objects seem vertical, and foregrounds and backgrounds are free of distracting content. However, cameras lack the ability to do this kind of mental filtering, and thus only record the scene as it appears in front of them. It is thus the difference between a filtered perception and unfiltered reality that causes many photographs to fall short of what they intended to record.

Seeing is relatively easy to improve but ironically presents a major challenge to many photographers. The reason that seeing is easy to improve is that it generally only requires the photographer to shift into the cognitive form of visualization that is primarily controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain. Conversely, the reason that seeing can be a challenge is that it entails bringing together diverse elements such as shapes, emotions, and motions into a unitary, static whole. However, pursuing this challenge is a large part of what makes photography interesting.

Photographers can learn a lot about seeing and composition from artists who work in other two-dimensional media. One of first areas to examine is the learning process itself. Visual artists, when learning to draw and paint, immediately recognize the need to improve their perceptual abilities because they work in media in which pigments are placed by hand onto a blank surface. Unless they learn to perceive what their subjects actually look like, it is nearly impossible to depict objects realistically. Photographers are less likely to recognize problems with perception because cameras automatically address visual issues such as contour, perspective, and value. By subsuming many of the mental tasks associated with rendering scenes, the camera can mask areas where improvement of visual skills is needed.

The camera’s ability to record visual features without human cognition of the scene has affected how photographic composition has been taught. Since the end of the nineteenth century, when photography became feasible for the masses, photographic composition has generally been taught as the application of design principles from the graphic arts to two-dimensional images. These concepts range from the very basic such as the “rule of thirds” and “s-curves” to the more esoteric such as “notan,” which is a term from Japanese art that pertains to the balance of dark and light masses. Traditional art skills such as discerning edges, determining proportions, and judging perspective have not been taught to photographers because they are largely unnecessary to the process of fixing a photographic image. However, it is through learning these skills that most artists have learned how to see.

A good way to appreciate the difference between photography and other fine arts such as painting is try to do something that has been previously done in a different medium. Although the camera enables the photographer to capture details and render perspective automatically, painting provides much more control over what to put in and what to leave out. Copying the works of master artists is a time-honored learning technique in the traditional fine arts. As can be seen in this comparison with Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Pitcher and Apples (1919), the way content is rendered by various media very much affects what is communicated.

A major difference between the graphic arts and fine arts is that graphic artists are taught how to express concepts visually. Graphic design principles are particularly useful for communicating abstract concepts such as calm, unease, and velocity. These principles can be and often are applied to photographs. They are likewise used in abstract fine art. However, achieving the sense of realism associated with traditional forms of fine art requires cognitive skills that differ from those required for graphic design. The “something more” aspect is the ability to perceive the elements in a scene and depict them on a two-dimensional surface.

The problem that many people have with perception has been explained by research in the field of psychobiology. This research has shown that the model of the eye as a “camera” that sends images to the brain is largely false. Instead, the eye and brain work together in a way that provides the brain with the information it needs to handle the tasks before it. Much of the time, the eye-brain combination disregards most of the visual information encompassed by the lens of the eye. For example, when you are reading a book, you probably are not conscious of the gutter where the pages connect, the margins surrounding the text, your hands, or the table on which the book is resting. Reading is an analytical skill in which the brain assembles the visual elements produced by letters and abstracts them into conscious thought. What you perceive when reading are the thoughts abstracted from the words. The extraneous elements are suppressed from conscious thought. On the other hand, if you are looking at what features distinguish one typeface from another, you are unlikely to be conscious of the thoughts expressed by words formed by the letters of the typeface. Instead, you become cognizant of features such as the serifs, weight, and descenders associated with the typeface.

Most people who have not studied arts such as drawing and painting believe the eyes are located higher than they actually are. If you look at this image, you can see that eyes are almost always located at the midlevel of the skull.

Most of the time, limiting conscious perception to the elements that are relevant to the task at hand is a good thing. Otherwise, you would suffer from information overload. However, the brain’s propensity to process information analytically can present a problem to photographers. Analytical tasks such as reading and mathematics rely extensively on symbols and the discretionary elimination of sensory clutter. Since this kind of thinking actually suppresses visual perception, it can present a barrier to acquiring proficiency in the visual arts. People who have become conditioned to rely on symbols in discerning their environment are prone to disregard details and misconstrue spatial relationships. For example, most people when asked to sketch a human face will place the eyes at the upper third of the skull, although they are usually located at the midlevel. If you want to test your ability to disregard the brain’s tendency to rely on symbols instead of reality, try sketching a face working from a real person or a photograph and see how well you do.

The inability to shift readily into a cognitive perception mode can present problems during photography. One problem is that perception is needed to ascertain visual opportunities for taking photographs. For example, photographers who want to photograph insects will not do very well if they are unable to find any insects to photograph. Ironically, insects are extremely abundant, although many people can go days without noticing any. For some people, the problem is that they do not know where to look for insects. But for many, the problem is not knowing how to look for insects. Unless the brain is cognitively attuned to insects, it will often fail to consciously register information that insects are within the field of vision.

Another problem many people have with perception is the failure to notice important detail. In this aspect, photography is more difficult than visual arts such as drawing and painting because the camera records the objects in front of the lens irrespective of whether or not the photographer sees them. For example, if an artist who is drawing a flower fails to notice the lint between the petals and on the stem, it will not show up in the drawing. Photographers do not have the luxury of unconscious omission. This is the reason why some photographers, when taking photographs, fail to notice objects in backgrounds and foregrounds that detract from their images.

Although Western education traditionally has emphasized analytical skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, it is fairly easy to develop one’s perceptual skills. The landmark work in this area is the popular art education book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Professor Betty Edwards. Her book lays out the neuroscience of how the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for analytic thought and processing symbols, whereas the right hemisphere is responsible for spatial cognition and intuitive functioning. By integrating the principles of neuroscience into art education, she found that almost anyone could be taught to make realistic drawings through a series of exercises that are designed to cause a shift from the left hemisphere mode of thinking to the right hemisphere. These exercises progress through the five component skills needed to draw realistically:

• The perception of edges

• The perception of spaces

• The perception of relationships

• The perception of lights and shadows

• The perception of the whole

By working through the exercises, students necessarily acquire the ability to perceive a scene in the actual manner it appears. In other words, they learn the skill of seeing.

Photographers also need to acquire these skills, although the reasons differ somewhat from those associated with drawing. In photography, the camera handles the delineation of edges without inviting mental effort on the part of the photographer. Nonetheless, skill at perceiving edges is important to photography because it is needed to recognize details that will augment or detract from the image and to discern how shapes will relate to each other after the camera makes the translation from three dimensions to two. The perception of edges is also one of the skills in which the abstracting and symbol-imposing abilities of the left hemisphere of the brain are most apt to interfere. When this happens with drawing, it typically results in a work that markedly departs from what the artist was trying to achieve. However, artists are free to erase the incorrectly drawn area or observe the subject more carefully and redraw. Unfortunately, the intrusion of the left brain into the process of photography is more difficult to detect and repair.

The ability to perceive spaces is of equal importance in drawing and photography. Many photographers are not even aware that there are two kinds of spaces to perceive. Positive space is the space taken up by a tangible object, and negative space is the space that surrounds it. Proficient artists are constantly making use of negative space because depicting the negative spaces often results in more accurate depictions of objects and their relationships to each other. Developing the ability to perceive negative spaces in photography is just as important, even though the camera automatically takes care of the accuracy issue. The reason is that the size, shape, and distribution of negative spaces frequently dominate compositions. When adequate attention is given to the negative spaces, the basic composition will usually take care of itself. Negative spaces can be used to accomplish many things such as evaluating the composition of moving objects, heightening the awareness of extraneous objects in the foreground and background, and discerning the existence of mergers where a background object appears in the image to be a part of a superimposed object.

The perception of relationships is as critical in photography as in drawing, possibly even more so. When drawing, artists invariably move their heads around a little bit, which results in minor variations to the viewpoint and perspective. When working from real subjects this can cause artists to vary their seeing and allows for some refinement as they proceed with the drawing. Similarly, artists can resort to erasure when they need to correct poorly depicted relationships. Because the camera mechanically records relationships as they exist at the time of exposure, adjustments afterward are impossible.

Negative space is an important aspect of composition and seeing. The negative space around the bird in this image is visually complicated—it is defined not only by the bird but also by the foliage, the shoreline, and the trees that are reflected by the water. The image would be different if those elements defined the space differently.

The perception of light and shadow presents something of a dichotomy in photography. In one sense, the camera is extraordinarily effective at recording tonality. The variety of tonal values in simple photographs will usually exceed those found in complex drawings and paintings. On the other hand, cameras record a much narrower range of light and shadow than humans can perceive. For example, the human eye can discern much more detail in shadows and highlights than cameras can record. Although these limitations can sometimes be exploited or mitigated by techniques such as the zone system of exposure in film photography and high-dynamic-range imaging in digital photography, photographers still need to understand how the limited ability of cameras to handle range affects the ability to record what is seen.

Perception of the whole is of equal importance to drawing and photography although its influence on each media differs. When drawing, the general process begins by putting down the arrangement of edges in conjunction with their relationships to each other. The remainder of the process involves working on details while occasionally stepping back and looking at the drawing as a whole. By using this process, the artist creates a framework in which the drawing matures over time. With photography, the whole is captured when the shutter is tripped and can only be modified to a limited extent afterwards. Recognition of the whole frequently requires quick judgment and photography often provides little opportunity for progressive feedback.

One area where photography tends to put an additional burden on visual perception is the perception of dynamic scenes. With photography, the scene is recorded as it exists when the image is captured. Since things are constantly changing in most environments, the ability of photography to record a scene instantly is a major advantage over drawing and painting. For example, the pattern of footfalls by galloping horses was not accurately known until Eadweard Muybridge made sequences of photographs that showed the progression of movement. Prior to that time, as eighteenth-century paintings of English hunt scenes show, galloping horses were depicted with their forelegs and hind legs extended opposite each other.

Another aspect of the shifting of mental processing from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere is that it feels different. Although photography does not necessarily invite this situation, the exercises in the book are intended to facilitate it. When the shift occurs, people experience enhanced attention to the lines and shapes associated with forms and the spaces between them. As the brain increasingly shifts into right-hemisphere functioning, the sense of understanding is dominated by a spatial awareness that is nonverbal. The person will know the things that he or she is seeing but often be unable to describe them with words. During the mental shift, the awareness of the passage of time will also diminish.

Photography has a major advantage over other media in its ability to record dynamically changing scenes. However, successful use of this ability requires that the photographer be able to anticipate how the composition is developing and to time the shot accordingly.

For some people, this state does not come easy at first. Learning to shift to the right-hemisphere mode of perception is sometimes accompanied by feelings of agitation and even anxiety. Some photographers experience this feeling the first few times they use a view camera. Faced with an inverted backwards image on the ground glass, they become uncomfortable, squirm, look away, and sometimes hurry the process to get it over with. This is a classic left-hemisphere reaction to a situation that it is ill equipped to handle. Presented with an unfamiliar orientation, it has difficulty coming up with symbols and registers discomfort. The best thing to do should this happen is to persist. Don’t worry about time, allow yourself to breathe, and relax your muscles. Try to look at the objects in the viewfinder as abstractions and let go of conscious identification in verbal terms. Eventually, you will start seeing detail and complexity that previously went largely unnoticed. The viewfinder will become a two-dimensional surface that you look at rather than an aiming device that ensures the subject is encompassed by the image area. With experience, the shift from left- to right-hemisphere processing can be made painlessly and at will.

The Importance of Composition

Composition is important because it acts as the visual equivalent of what grammar is to verbal expression. Its overall effect is to make visual communication easier to comprehend. Composition is analogous to grammar in several ways:

• Both can be analyzed in terms of rules.

• Both are acquired naturally by children without formal study.

• Both can be exercised fluently without conscious thought.

However, there are significant differences between composition and grammar. While children retain their grammatical abilities as they mature, they usually lose their natural abilities to compose an image. In addition, while grammatical skills are almost always practiced unconsciously in adulthood, many adults who relearn compositional skills consciously rely on compositional guidelines when engaged in visual expression. However, the most significant difference between composition and grammar is that grammar is mostly a left-hemisphere function, whereas composition is mostly a right-hemisphere function. This is why photographs are often felt intuitively and are difficult to articulate verbally.

Composition at its most fundamental is about balance and distribution. Although there are multiple guidelines and rules that can be used to criticize a photograph to death, with sufficient experience most photographers can learn to make compositions intuitively.

Composition basically comes down to determining how objects should be distributed and balanced within the boundaries of the image. As a general rule, any image that succeeds in communicating its subject efficiently can be said to have good composition, even if it departs from a compositional guideline. This is not to say that the composition of any particular image cannot be improved. However, it is important to understand that an image’s composition should be judged by how well it works and not by whether the elements of an image conform to a preconceived standards and principles.

Composition can be studied and learned in different ways. Psychologists tend to look at how composition affects the ability to perceive the content and meaning of images. Graphic artists use compositional principles as devices to attract attention and express concepts. Fine artists also use compositional principles but typically place far less emphasis on them than do graphic artists. Photographers vary substantially in their approaches to composition. Some rigidly apply the principles adopted from graphic design as if departing will result in images that are inherently bad. At the other extreme, there are photographers who give no thought to composition and operate in the classic point and shoot mode. Most serious photographers fall somewhere in between.

Research into visual cognition by psychologists and neuroscientists has revealed a lot about how people process visual information. With regard to the perception of images, the most prominent contribution has been Gestalt theory. Developed during the first part of the twentieth century in Germany, Gestalt theory maintains that the mind perceives the whole image without having to first analyze the parts. In other words, the larger picture will be perceived before its components. According to Gestalt theory, perception will generally follow the following principles:

Figure and Ground: People tend to perceive by distinguishing between a figure and a background.

Proximity: Objects that are close together are likely to be seen as a group.

Similarity: Objects that are similar are more likely to be seen as a group.

Closure: People tend to see complete figures even when part of the information is missing.

Continuity: There is a preference for perceiving subjects as continuous figures.

All the tulips in this image have similar tonality and color, yet it is still possible to discern the flower in the foreground. Part of the reason is that the edges of that flower are preserved by a combination of careful positioning in the image and the shallow depth of field that softens the edges of the flowers in the background.

Although Gestalt theory provides little direct guidance on how to compose photographs, becoming familiar with Gestalt principles can help photographers better appreciate how their compositional choices will affect how viewers perceive an image. Gestalt theory is also useful to photographers because it explains why the way people perceive scenes can be so different from the way they record photographically. In visual perception, factors such as the distance of the subject from background provide important visual clues. In photographs, the dominant clues that separate the subject from the background are edges, contrast, and color. When making images, photographers need to consider those factors that are relevant to photographs and not rely solely on initial visual perceptions.

Gestalt theory and other research into visual perception also show that people recognize subjects by evaluating images in their entirety. In other words, the process of perceiving a subject does not involve a sequential mental process of analyzing the individual elements. Although there is a tradition of explaining composition in terms of “leading lines” and other visual devices that supposedly direct the eye to the subject, science does not support it. This does not mean that the relationships between elements are unimportant but instead emphasizes that good composition is founded on how images are perceived as wholes and not as a sequence or the parts.

The traditional principles of composition, most of which are graphic design principles, are basically a catalog of elements that tend to create favorable impressions on viewers. They are not inviolate rules. There is no reason to avoid using them if you find them useful, but do not let these principles become an obstacle to becoming more proficient at composition, because they do not apply to every situation. In any case, after enough experience, most photographers rely on their intuitive sense of composition and generally stop using guidelines at the conscious level.

The best-known compositional guideline is the rule of thirds. According to this guideline, you should divide the image into thirds horizontally and vertically and place the important compositional elements where the lines intersect. A significant strength of this guideline is that it encourages beginning photographers to move away from the natural tendency to place dominant elements at the center of the image. Placing the subject off-center generally results in images that have a more pleasing balance. It also helps photographers avoid discordant effects such as the “cutting the picture in half” effect that occurs when the horizon is placed at the center of a photograph. However, it is important to remember that the “rule” is only a guideline that is useful when it improves an image but should be freely disregarded when it does not.

Another compositional principle regarding the placement of elements is the rule that mergers should be avoided. Mergers occur when an object in the foreground overlaps an object in the background. According to traditional theory, viewers will perceive such objects as joined together. The classic example is the lamppost or tree growing out of a person’s head. However, even a cursory look at a few photographs will show that this principle is poorly founded. As Gestalt theory explains, people instinctively distinguish between a figure and its background and are not confused by most superimpositions. Mergers really only interfere with the perception of images when the contrast, tonality, and color of the subject and background are sufficiently similar to mask the clues needed to distinguish them. Sometimes it is good to avoid superimpositions because isolating the primary subject from the foreground or background will strengthen an image. In such cases, when the superimposition detracts from the image, it is usually because it creates a distracting background rather than causing confusion.

Another set of traditional principles pertains to the positioning of linear elements in a composition. Lines are important because they, along with points and shapes, are fundamental geometric elements. Under traditional theory, it is the lines in a composition that direct the viewer’s eyes to attention spots. Lines are also supposed to be important because they contribute to the sense of mood in a photograph. According to tradition, horizontal lines are associated with serenity, vertical lines are associated with strength, and diagonal lines tend to be associated with dynamism. When considered in terms of graphic design, these principles may hold up for illustrations with a few simple elements. However, most photographs have lines running at multiple angles and obtain their sense of mood or expression from factors other than the orientation of their lines. In general, the mood of a photograph will be determined by factors other than angles.

The rule of thirds may be the best known of the compositional guidelines and works well for many compositions. However, rigidly applying the rule can result in compositions that appear a little too staid or contrived. In the image where the horse is near the center, the shoreline of the pond is positioned about one-third from the top but the position of the horse is nowhere close to one of the thirds. The other two images show both the horse positioned on one of the thirds and the shoreline positioned on other thirds. These images are balanced differently than the first and have different feels. The rote location of dominant elements on thirds does not always result in the most pleasing or effective composition.

Curves are another category of lines for which principles of composition have been developed. In general, curves are supposed to contribute grace and dignity to an image. The s-curve tends to be the most commonly discussed, but it has also been expressed that converging lines give a strong sense of three-dimensional depth and that curved lines can lead viewers on a journey that takes them toward the main subject. However, it is best to not assume that curved lines have some special compositional power in and of themselves. Most images have multiple curves that have little influence on the overall mood or points of emphasis.

Mergers are generally not problematic in the sense that they create illusions that foreground and background objects are joined together. For example, in the image on the left, no viewer is going to think that the boat in the background is stabbing into the sailor of the boat in front. However, mergers can cause distractions that detract from the core of the image.

Compositional guidelines exist in many other forms. Examples include the incorporation of patterns, vertical and horizontal orientations, angle of view, and use of background. None of these guidelines are inherently bad, and many photographers find them useful. However, placing too much emphasis on guidelines can limit the ability to perceive a scene by shifting the cognitive processing away from holistic perception to analytical processing. It is notable that the formal study of composition receives much less emphasis in the traditional fine arts than it does in photography. While there are books on drawing and painting that refer to compositional guidelines, most discuss composition using terms such as balance, movement, emphasis, and unity. The unstated assumption seems to be that once the skill of seeing is acquired, composition will take care of itself. Thus, while composition is important in photography, compositional skills can evolve to where they are applied intuitively and automatically.

Contrary to the oft-given advice that the lines in a composition direct the viewer’s attention and establish mood, there is very little scientific support for these propositions. According to Gestalt theory, people perceive the whole image without having to first analyze the components. Furthermore, mood is an emotional state established by how the viewer feels about aspects of an image such as the subject matter and the lighting.

The Importance of Evaluating Your Work

Being able to objectively evaluate your work is a necessary skill if you want to improve. Objective evaluation is most productive when done with the intention of discerning how you can improve future images, but it is important as well not to let it become discouraging. Some photographers find it difficult to honestly appraise the quality of their images because it threatens the core of who they think they are or want to be. In this regard, it is helpful to understand that criticism of an image is not the same as criticizing the photographer. Anyone who has been able to view the contact sheets of iconic photographers can see that even renowned photographers are capable of taking badly flawed photographs. Furthermore, keep in mind that photography is supposed to be fun.

One of the valuable aspects of taking a stern approach to evaluating your work is that it can keep you from falling into the trap of making excuses for your images. Often, it is easy to blame conditions that could not be avoided or discounting flaws that could have been easily remedied had a little more attention been given to detail. While it is true that photographers cannot always control conditions and that things often go awry when taking photographs, it is equally true that being persistent will often result in good images even if the initial approach was not working well. Making excuses may make someone feel better in the short term, but relying on excuses will not result in future improvement. Furthermore, long-term reliance on excuses is usually destined to reduce motivation and performance.

When evaluating your work, avoid focusing on whether you are a good or bad photographer and simply evaluate what are the strengths and weaknesses of each image and what, if anything, could have been done to make it better. One the nice aspects of photography is that there will be other opportunities to make images. Furthermore, almost every master photographer has missed opportunities to make an excellent image, gone to great lengths to make an image that was ultimately disappointing, and had otherwise great images ruined by a technical oversight. Conversely, almost every master photographer has produced some of the best images in large part by virtue of luck. Many of history’s most iconic images have flaws, and these flaws do not negate the importance of those images. A flaw, or even a combination of flaws, does not necessarily render an image bad. The reason you want to honestly evaluate your images is not to catalog their flaws but simply to be able to recognize in the future how flaws can be minimized.

Perhaps the easiest aspect of evaluating your images with the goal of improvement is that most photographers have a wealth of images to work from. The initial impression of this scene was that of a person standing alone in front of a train station. However, the vehicles create a busy background that almost completely eliminates the sense of isolation of the head from the background. The pedestrians walking out of the scene also suggest a lost opportunity. To have any chance of creating a photograph of this scene that worked, both the camera position and timing should have been changed.

When you go over your images, try to remember what the scene looked liked when you saw it and how the composition appeared in the viewfinder. This process will help you manage visualization issues such as relationships between elements, depth of field, and exposure. If the image did not turn out as you expected, try to assess why. The deliberate comparison of results with the visualized perception is a sure way to improve your ability to visualize. However, remember that surprise is an element in all visual art and that perfection in visualization is not always attainable or even desirable. Sometimes the most interesting images are the ones that turn out completely differently than planned.

Sometimes you get interesting results by accident. This was intended to be a straightforward shot of the couple dancing at a wedding reception, but it was mistakenly taken with a shutter speed of 1/3 second with flash. The result was not what was planned but turned out to be more expressive than intended.

It can also be productive to evaluate images that you admire that have been taken by other photographers. Among the best images to review are the ones that have been selected to represent the best work of a photographer such as those found in books, galleries, or museums. Try not to be judgmental about these images. Instead, try to discern what elements (or absence thereof) make the image work. Much of what initially stands out in an image is the primary element or elements and the composition. But surprisingly, what makes many photos work is the absence of elements that would otherwise be distracting or the qualities of the space that separate the elements. In addition, try to put yourself in the shoes of the photographer at the time the photograph was taken, because doing so can go a long way toward giving you a perspective into how to go about making a strong image. For example, envision what the light was like and what options existed regarding the exposure, focal length, and distance from the subject matter. In addition, do not limit your imagination solely to the photograph, but consider what might have lain outside the borders of the photograph and how the scene may have looked a second before and after the exposure was made.

Viewing your photography in isolation can sometimes make it difficult to be objective. Therefore, it can be useful to compare your photos to images taken by other photographers. Sometimes it is possible to fall too much in love with your own work and perhaps believe it is better than it really is. So, in part, comparing your images to other images can be a form of ego control. Nonetheless, the primary reason you want to do this is to get a feel for how well you are doing in the various areas important to good photography such as exposure, processing, and composition. One easy way to do this is to gather your favorite images in a genre and then compare them to the photographs in an art book or similar work that is specific to that genre. Another approach is to place your images in a setting such as a group exhibition that contains works by other photographers. Such exhibitions need not be rarified exhibits in prominent museums. For example, many county fairs have exhibitions that are open to all entrants. Finally, it is important to remember that your style has its own merit and that comparisons with other works should not be done in a judgmental sense based on whether your work is similar, better, or worse than the work of others.


Proficiency with Your Camera

One of the interesting dichotomies between photography and other visual arts is that photographers tend to show a disproportionately high level of interest in equipment and a disproportionately low level of attention toward the fundamentals of using it. For example, none of the major artist’s magazines concentrate on new models of materials, which is something that cannot be said of the most widely subscribed photography magazines. In fact, some camera companies offer a larger selection of lenses than most art supply manufacturers offer for pencils and brushes. While equipment is important to photography, and many fine artists take more than a little interest in their tools, photographers seem to more readily succumb to the lure of technology. For example, an artist who buys a $500 watercolor brush (such things exist) is more likely to show others the work done with the brush than the brush itself. The opposite is often true of photographers.

While there is nothing wrong with appreciating photographic equipment for its own sake or having equipment that is more sophisticated and expensive than what you actually need, it is important to understand that expensive gear does not necessarily make for better images. Many of the features that add expense to photographic equipment tend to address issues such as reliability and durability and have relatively small effects on the quality of the images produced. In most situations, the skill at using the equipment has far more influence on the final image than the quality of the equipment.

Considering the level of interest in equipment among photographers, it is ironic that achieving proficiency in the mechanical and technical aspects of using photographic equipment does not receive more emphasis. This might be due to the fact that many photographers are able to become proficient at using their gear with little conscious effort. Nonetheless, paying conscious attention to perfecting skills such as focusing and holding the camera steady can markedly improve the ability to make images of high quality. As is the case with the other visual arts, practicing the fundamentals of your craft will pay off in the long run with better images.

The Camera as Tool

To get the most from a camera, you need to understand its capabilities and become proficient at operating it. Most cameras are adequately designed for their intended purposes and are assembled with enough precision to serve as good photographic instruments. Although some cameras can perform better than others, most cameras can make excellent images when they are used properly within their limitations. At the technical level, the two aspects of using a camera as a tool are understanding the tool’s abilities and becoming proficient at using the tool. When selecting a camera, it is important to consider both how well you can work the controls and whether the camera is suitable for your intended applications.

The capabilities and performance of cameras and lenses are largely determined by their design. Every design has strengths and weaknesses, and there is no camera that is ideal for every purpose or every photographer. As is the case with any tool, it is important to select an appropriate tool for the job. Some designs excel at specific applications because their manner of operation is better suited than other designs. For example, monorail view cameras are excellent for studio photography but not for sports photography. Some cameras are better suited for particular applications because they perform better with respect to a particular technical parameter. Many digital cameras with older or smaller sensors create noisy images when long exposures are made and do not perform as well as digital cameras with newer sensors for night photography. Lenses are likewise designed with various compromises in their performance to achieve certain capabilities. A lens that is optimized for macro photography may not perform as well as a more conventional design when focused at infinity, but a lens designed for general use will not have the ability to focus as close as a macro lens. However, a macro lens will generally focus well enough at infinity to produce a suitably sharp image.

Keep in mind that there is a degree of overlap when it comes to specific applications and the type of equipment needed. For example, although many photographers would assume that a medium-format film camera such as a Hasselblad would not be suitable for sports photography, such cameras can actually work quite well for many sports. Granted, a Hasselblad will not have the same versatility of a digital or 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR), but it does have substantial capabilities depending on the sport.

Similarly, better technical performance does not necessarily correlate to better images, because there are times when such performance does not contribute to the quality of the image. In reality, the kinds of defects or aberrations that some photographers obsess over rarely have discernible adverse effects on most images. Furthermore, even when aspects such as aberrations make themselves evident, there are often ways to work around or ameliorate the problem. For example, most lenses will show noticeable levels of coma when used to photograph true points of light such as stars (i.e., they cause the stars at the edges of the frame to look like obloid blobs). However, coma can generally be reduced to tolerable levels by stopping the lens down by one or two stops from wide open. Although fewer stars will be captured when a lens is stopped down, the image will generally look better with less coma. Coma exists in the vast majority of lenses, even those with stellar reputations (pardon the pun). However, it only shows up as a fault under the most demanding conditions.

Technical performance notwithstanding, you should give due consideration to how well your equipment handles for you because ease of use is important to being able to use equipment well. What works best is a personal decision, but it can be extremely frustrating to use equipment whose controls do not mesh well with how you are inclined to handle the equipment. Specific aspects that you should consider when evaluating equipment are the focusing mechanism, external controls, menu interfaces, ease of viewing, and how well the camera carries. For example, if you frequently change the ISO setting when using a digital camera, it will be less pleasant to use a camera for which you have to push buttons twelve times to change a setting than it will be to use one in which you push one button and turn a wheel.

The degree to which a camera relies on manual operation or automation is another factor to consider. A case in point is autofocus. For someone who has issues with near vision, autofocus can be a genuine help. On the other hand, the inability to control the point of autofocus, which is common on point-and-shoot cameras, can result in images in which the subject is completely out of focus because the camera focused on something else. Even when an automated feature can be overridden, it can still be a problem when the camera does not retain the override when it is turned off. I can speak from experience that a camera which by default automatically engages its flash in dim light will be a pain to use if you frequently take photos in settings where using flash is not appreciated.

Aberrations can be found in almost any lens but frequently will not noticeably manifest themselves except under highly demanding conditions. As can be seen in the magnified insets, the stars exhibit a discernible level of coma when shot one stop down from wide open. This aberration would scarcely be noticed under more typical conditions, and many viewers would not be bothered by the coma shown in this image.

The Camera as Object

Once you become familiar with what particular cameras are able to do, you generally come to understand that you do not necessarily need the newest, fanciest, or even highest-quality equipment available. Although you may not need the most technologically advanced equipment to take excellent photographs, it is not necessarily foolish to obtain something that is more capable and durable than you need. There is research that indicates that objects that appeal to a user’s emotions may in fact be used more effectively than equally capable but less appealing objects. Thus, it is possible that using a camera or other gear for which you feel an affinity may result in your using them better.

Another factor to consider is the issue of how doubt will affect your ability to take photographs. Doubt can be good or bad depending on the circumstances, but when it causes a person to think they probably cannot get the results they desire, it can lead to discouragement and failure. This can be a problem for the kind of photographer who obsesses over which lenses have the highest resolution or which digital cameras have the most megapixels. If the fact that a particular model has tested better at some parameter than your model is going to make you doubt that you can make decent images, then this might affect your photography.

Some photographers are more comfortable with buying brands of equipment that are used by celebrity photographers. If you are more comfortable using a camera that so-and-so uses, there is nothing particularly wrong in that. However, choices in gear are determined by many factors, and the reason that a particular photographer uses a particular system may be completely irrelevant to or even at odds with your needs. For all you know, he or she may hate how it performs or operates. Also, marketing is a huge factor in affecting opinions, and sometimes marketing tends to extol factors that are not especially important and ignores factors that are the most relevant to making quality images (e.g., the number of megapixels instead of how the sensor performs with respect to noise).

For the most part, camera brands may show some differences but generally perform at the same level given the same price range. Considering the competitive nature of the market, a company that produces significantly inferior products will not be able to stay in business over the long run. In the end, the choice of equipment tends to be highly subjective so determining your personal preference should be the dominant consideration. Many photographers justifiably base their decisions on their intuitive feelings about a particular camera or system. If you feel better owning a particular brand or type of camera, you might be able to take better photographs because of those feelings. However, desirability does not necessarily equate to efficacy when it comes to camera gear.

Mastering the Controls

Learning to use a camera as a tool is more important than the quality of the camera itself because more can be accomplished by using a mediocre tool well than by using an excellent tool in a mediocre fashion. In addition to understanding technical aspects such as exposure and depth of field, you should strive to operate your equipment as proficiently as possible. Proficient operation means that you should be able to perform the fundamental tasks such as setting apertures and shutter speeds without having to look at the controls and know exactly how to make common adjustments such as ISO and exposure compensation. Spending some time practicing at operating a particular camera can significantly improve proficiency. Ideally, you want to master your equipment so that near-perfect operation is unconsciously embedded into your everyday technique. This includes knowing all the functions and how to change or engage them. Taking the time to practice operating a particular camera can significantly improve proficiency in short order.

Ironically, more adroit camera handling is sometimes needed with cameras that are highly automated. For example, the Nikon EM is a base-model 35mm (SLR) camera introduced in 1979 as Nikon’s entry-level camera. By today’s standards, it is quite basic. It needs to be focused manually and has a center-weighted light meter. The aperture is controlled by turning the ring on the lens, and shutter speed is controlled by twisting a knob to one of three settings: aperture priority, 1/90 of a second, and bulb. The only other controls are the self-timer and the knob to set the film speed. Despite its apparent simplicity, a knowledgeable photographer can make adjustments for exposure compensation or shutter speed by changing the film speed setting, adjust for flash exposure by making calculations based on the guide number of the flash, and obtain a degree of control over photo qualities such as saturation, contrast, and color balance through the selection of film and filters. The camera also accepts a wide range of lenses. Despite the simplicity of the camera, a photographer can do a lot with it provided he or she knows how to extract the most from it.

Conversely, Nikon’s digital SLRs have dedicated controls that allow the user to select the exposure compensation, speed, type of file, type of metering, autofocus points, autofocus mode, and so on. These controls are useful but also require that the photographer knows how to set and use them. In addition, it is not uncommon to inadvertently activate a control or forget to reset one if you are not sufficiently familiar with operating the camera. In one sense, it requires at least as much or more knowledge to use a camera with sophisticated automation than it does for a fully manual camera. However, it is a different kind of knowledge, and such cameras have a different feel than manual cameras. Although there is something to be said for simplicity, there is much to be said for more complex systems when the photographer is committed to using them proficiently.

The Nikon EM was introduced as an entry-level camera in 1979. The controls are fairly basic, but the camera is well designed and easy to use.

Holding the Camera

A good starting point in enhancing proficiency is to maximize your ability to hold the camera steady. Any kind of camera movement during the exposure will degrade image sharpness. Camera movement comes mostly from the natural shaking that occurs when the camera is supported by hand and also from movement induced by the act of pressing the shutter release. The best way to avoid this problem is to use a tripod, but this is not always feasible. For example, tripods are prohibited in some places and do not work when used on unsteady platforms such as boats. In such cases, you need to know how to hold your camera steady.

The ability to handhold a camera depends on skill but is also influenced by equipment. The weight and general shape of the camera affects how easily and steady a camera can be held. For example, one cannot hold a tablet computer in the same manner as an SLR camera. Design also affects camera movement. For example, it is certainly possible to take very sharp photographs with SLR cameras, although the movement of their mirrors can sometimes reduce sharpness. In addition, the placement of the shutter button on a camera can affect camera movement. The buttons on most cameras are placed so that the force used to depress the button tends to rotate the camera a little bit, and this kind of movement can seriously affect the sharpness of images at slower shutter speeds. Although rarely discussed in reviews and such, the extent to which a camera can be held steady should be considered when selecting one.

Several positions and techniques have been recommended for holding cameras steady, but it has been my experience that holding a camera steady requires that each photographer find the personal technique that works best for him or her. I am not sure why this is the case, but it might have to do with variations in body proportions and which eye the photographer uses to look through the viewfinder. In general, the closer a camera is held to a person’s center of gravity, the easier it is to hold it steady. For traditional cameras that are held to the eye, what works best for most people is the classic method of tucking both elbows into the torso and using both hands to support the camera and lens from underneath. Some photographers recommend looping the camera strap around a wrist or across the elbows as a way of bracing the camera. My experience is that such bracing actually increases camera movement. Another way of holding a camera that is sometimes recommended is resting the camera on a shoulder or upper arm, although I have found neither position to be as effective as the classic method.

In any case, the best way to determine how you hold your camera steady is to simply practice at it. By doing so, you will likely find that the best way to support a camera comes naturally when you concentrate on keeping it steady. An easy way to practice is to look through the viewfinder and hold a mark in the viewfinder such as a metering circle or focus point on an object in the scene. By concentrating on the alignment of the mark with the object, you should be able to find how best hold the camera so as to minimize camera shake.

Many photographers exacerbate camera shake by sharply pressing the button when making an image. The best way to eliminate or minimize shutter button torque is to press the shutter button lightly with an easy squeezing motion. To get a general idea of how much your camera moves when you push the shutter button, try experimenting with the camera turned off if it is a digital camera or when there is no film in the camera for a film camera. Concentrate on a horizontal line in the scene and judge how much it shifts when you push the shutter button. With practice, you should be able to practically eliminate the shift. If you are using an SLR film camera where the mirror interrupts the view at the moment of exposure, you can try pushing next to the shutter button to approximate the effect.

Although camera phones have become very popular and are capable of taking good images, they are not particularly well designed for steady shooting.

There are other ways to enhance the way you support a camera when not using a tripod. One of them is to brace yourself and the camera by leaning against a support such as a wall. Others include sitting, kneeling, or placing the camera on a surface such as a table or against a wall or a post. Experimenting with various kinds of alternative support can help to inculcate an attitude of looking for and using such support when it is available.

Exercise 1

Holding Your Camera Steady

The standard guideline states that the lowest shutter speed at which a camera can be used without a tripod is the reciprocal of the focal length. Like many guidelines, it does not really reflect how shutter speeds affect sharpness. Experimentation is the best way to determine how well you can handhold a camera to minimize camera shake. Furthermore, if you practice holding the camera steady and consciously do so when exposing images, you should be able to train yourself to hold the camera steady at lower shutter speeds. Keep in mind that as you shoot with slower speeds, the probability of getting a sharp image decreases. For example, a photographer who consistently gets sharp images at a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second might get one image out of three with good sharpness when shooting at 1/15 of a second. Nonetheless, the ability to shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds is a useful skill, and knowing your limits is valuable.

Assessing your personal limit for handheld exposures can be done by comparing photographs taken with a tripod to those made at various shutter speeds while the camera is being held. The first step is to make a target to photograph. Text is good and works just as well for this purpose as commercially available lens testing charts. It may be helpful to include a table of shutter speeds and apertures so that you can record your settings in the photographs. The next step is to mount the target on a wall or other support. Once the target is made, tape it to a wall and make a series of photographs using a range of shutter speeds starting at 1 second and then faster. Finally, take an image with the camera mounted on a tripod. If you wish, you can take multiple images at each handheld exposure. Concentrate on holding the camera steady. When you finish, enlarge the images and assess how well you can hold the camera at various shutter speeds.

Tripod mounted, 1/60 second at f/1.8.

Handheld, 1/60 second at f/1.8.

Handheld, 1/30 second at f/2.5.

Handheld, 1/15 second at f/3.5.

Handheld, 1/8 second at f/5.

Handheld, 1/4 second at f/7.1.

Handheld, 1/2 second at f/10.

Handheld, 1 second at f/14.

The images below were shot in a sequence beginning at 1 second and going up to 1/60 of a second using a digital camera with an APS-C sensor and 35mm lens. The results show substantial deterioration in sharpness once the shutter speeds drop below 1/15 of a second. When you start shooting handheld at low shutter speeds, chance begins to factor into whether you can hold the camera sufficiently steady. Note that the exposure at 1/4 second is sharper than the one at 1/15 second.

Using the Viewfinder

A common tendency is to use the viewfinder more like an aiming device than as a composition device. Instead of ascertaining what the image will look like, the image is composed by placing the subject more or less in the center of the viewfinder and pushing the shutter button. Common signs that a photographer may be emphasizing aiming at the subject at the expense of composing the image are tilted horizons, people and animals with their feet unintentionally cut out of the picture, and distracting elements in the foreground and background that could have been avoided by photographing from a different angle. While these kinds of problems are often caused by insufficiently developed seeing skills, a tendency to use the viewfinder to aim at the subject rather than to compose a particular image adds to the problem.

Viewfinders vary significantly among and within the various formats and types of cameras. The common forms are rangefinders, pentaprisms, waist-level finders, electronic panels, and view camera backs. The type of viewfinder can affect how images are composed. For example, view cameras present an inverted and reversed image on the camera back that can be disorienting to persons not accustomed to using them. On the other hand, a view camera back allows a photographer to see with precision what an image will look like because they allow for viewing when stopped down to very small apertures and fine-tuning the point of focus with a loupe. Ironically, the initial sense of disorientation requires the photographer to carefully examine what is on the screen in order to interpret how the final image will appear in a normal orientation, and the contemplative approach this requires can result in highly refined compositions. Waist-level viewfinders are somewhat similar in that they reverse the image from left to right, and thus also require some degree of interpretation on the part of the photographer. Although rangefinder and pentaprism viewfinders present their views in their normal orientation, they have a different feel when using them.

The key to maximizing your ability to use any form of viewfinder is to be able to visualize what you see as a complete composition rather than seeing a target and its surroundings. An archer’s arrow can hit its target irrespective of whether it is shot from above, below, to the left, or to the right, provided that it is sufficiently aimed. It is different with photographs. The composition of an image will vary depending on where the camera is located relative to the subject at the moment the image is created. Try to keep in mind that the brain tends to interpret a scene upon first perception differently than how a camera will record it. Over time, a good photographer will begin to visualize scenes in terms of how they will appear in the form of an image. One way to become more adept at this is to practice looking at scenes and imagining how they will appear in a photograph. When doing this, consider where you would position the frame lines and also how you would position the camera to make the most desirable images. With sufficient practice, one can gain enough experience with a particular camera so that seeing the composition when looking through the viewfinder becomes second nature.

Exercise 2

Photographing without a Viewfinder

Ironically, one way to gain a better appreciation for how a viewfinder serves as a composing device is to take photographs without using one at all. This can also be a useful skill when you don’t want to call attention to yourself and when the camera cannot be positioned where you can see through the viewfinder. One example is Walker Evans’s well-known series of photographs of people on subway trains that were made with a camera partially concealed under his jacket.

The three dominant considerations when composing without a viewfinder are the angle of view of the lens, the amount of tilt off horizontal, and the mental estimation of how the composition will be rendered from the point of view of the camera. A good sense of the appropriate angle of view can be developed with practice. When first starting out, most people tend to angle their cameras a little too high, but this will improve with a little practice. Working at visualizing what the composition will look like from the camera’s perspective requires photographers to engage their seeing abilities, and this exercise can be very beneficial in that regard.

To do the exercise, select subjects that are not easily accessible from normal positions and visual what they look like from atypical positions. Experiment with making images while holding your camera near ground level, at waist level, and over your head. Concentrate on the horizontal and vertical orientation of the camera, try to avoid tilted horizons, and compose consciously to obtain the best composition you can under the circumstances.

With practice, it becomes a relatively straightforward matter to visualize what an image will look like without looking through the viewfinder. This photograph was taken with the camera placed about one inch from ground level.

Placing a camera on a tabletop has the advantage of providing a stable platform and viewpoint that is slightly below waist level. However, for most cameras, it is difficult to use a viewfinder when the camera is placed like this.

Camera position is an important aspect of composition and can greatly affect the feel of the image. The representation of spatial relationships on a two-dimensional plane is known as perspective. In photography, perspective may be considered in the forms of true perspective and apparent perspective. True perspective depicts the relative sizes of near and far objects to each other and is governed solely by the position of the camera relative to those objects. Apparent perspective is a sort of illusion or distortion caused by the angle of view used to capture the image being different from the angle of view at which the image is viewed. Although changing the angle of view by using a wide-angle or telephoto lens may appear to expand or compress the distances between near and far objects, it does not change the true perspective.

This image was taken with an inexpensive key fob camera that doesn’t even have a viewfinder.

Sometimes the effect of camera position is subtle but important. This can often be seen in street photographs taken by twin-lens reflex cameras with waist-level viewfinders, such as those used by Diane Arbus and Vivian Meier. Given the fact that many photographs are taken with cameras having viewfinders used at eye level and when the photographer is standing, there is a common tendency to photograph from eye level. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with photographs taken at this height, eye level is frequently not the best. One way to resist this tendency is to develop the habit of crouching down to evaluate the view from a lower perspective.

Tripods pose a similar issue. Most tripods have legs consisting of multiple sections that can be extended to adjust the camera height. Although such tripods are capable of supporting a camera over a range of heights, many photographers routinely set the height by pulling the legs out to their farthest stops and using that level without considering the possibility that a lower height might result in a better composition. A better approach is to assess the scene at different heights and then set up the tripod according to the height that works best.

Exercise 3

Camera Position

Don’t underestimate the effect that even small changes in camera position can have on the composition of an image. This exercise is intended to give you a sense of the effect of even a minor change of position on an image. Hopefully, it will also help to induce the habit of consciously observing how camera position affects what you see in the viewfinder.

To do the basic exercise, find any subject situated about twenty-five feet away in a setting having a fairly simple foreground and background and select your starting point. Take one image of the subject while standing at the starting point and then take images at one step forward, one step back, one step to the right, and one step to the left. Compare the images and look for differences between the size of the subject and how the subject is oriented with respect to the foreground and background. You should find that these relatively small changes in position have a noticeable effect on the composition.

This image is taken at the starting position on a slight slope.

This image is taken one step forward from the starting position.

This image is taken one step back from the starting position.

This image is taken one step to the right of the starting position.

This image is taken one step to the left of the starting position.

You can also do variations on the exercise. For example, relatively small changes in height can have an ever greater effect on composition, especially with respect to the position of the foreground and background relative to the subject. You can also experiment with using change of position as a means of using the subject to block out unwanted background elements.


Focusing is a fundamental skill that warrants more consideration than it is sometimes given. Obviously, it is crucial that a camera be able to focus accurately. Less obvious, but nonetheless important for many shots, is the speed at which a camera can be focused. Some cameras are so automated that the photographer has very little control over focus. However, most cameras enable at least some degree of control over focus. Most newer cameras use autofocus by default. The sophistication of these systems varies, but the more you about how to achieve fast and optimal performance, the better you will be able to use the camera to its full potential. Becoming proficient at using autofocus entails knowing where the autofocusing sensors are located in the viewfinder and how the camera’s autofocusing mechanism behaves under specific conditions. In addition, some cameras have autofocus modes for moving subjects that require experience to use well. With conscious practice, you can become more aware of the qualities and quirks of your particular system and adjust your practices accordingly.

Not all cameras have autofocus, and even those that do cannot handle every situation. Proficiency at manual focusing, if not always essential, is valuable. There are several ways to focus a camera manually. The most common is to move the focusing control back and forth until you settle onto the point of optimal focus. This approach is effective at achieving good focus because you judge the best point by making incremental adjustments until the focus can no longer be improved. However, this is not the fastest way to focus and is poorly suited to photographing dynamic subjects.

A faster method for cameras that focus on viewscreens, such as reflex and view cameras, is to develop an intuitive feel for what the best point of focus looks like and to stop focusing once you reach it. This can take some practice since the viewscreens on most cameras do not show the optimum focus as a tack-sharp rendition. This makes focusing a process of deciding on the “least worst” point of focus. However, achieving this skill is well worth the effort because it substantially reduces the time and effort required to focus the camera and allows you to keep moving objects continually in focus. With practice, you can achieve the same perfection in focus as you can with the back-and-forth method.

There is a related method that works well for cameras with rangefinder focusing. Such cameras have a small window in the center of the viewfinder that produces split images when out of focus. The key to fast focusing with such cameras is to be able to discern instantly where the window is placed and to recognize the unsplit image without having to hunt back and forth. It also helps to reset the focusing ring to infinity after each shot so that the ring need only be moved in one direction when focusing.

Zone focusing, also known as hyperfocal focusing, is another approach that can work well when photographing subjects that change their distance from the camera rapidly or when you will not have time to acquire focus. It is commonly used in genres such as street photography. Zone focusing is done by setting the point of focus and the aperture of the lens such that a range of distances will be in acceptably sharp focus. This range will depend on the aperture setting, with the range increasing as the aperture is stopped down. For example, setting the f-stop at f/16 will produce significantly more depth of field than setting it at f/4. Some lenses have depth-of-field indicators to indicate the distances between which the subject matter should be in a reasonable degree of focus. If your lenses do not have such a scale, you will have to guess at what works best for that lens. Wide-angle lenses have larger zones of focus than telephoto lenses. Also note that the point of best focus will be positioned somewhere about one-third back from the front of the zone of focus. For example, if you know that the subject is likely to be photographed at a distance between ten and forty feet, the point of optimal focus should be preset at about twenty feet, and not at twenty-five feet.


Because all photographic media, whether film or sensors, vary in their response to light, being able to control exposure is a fundamental skill that should be perfected. A few photographers are actually fairly adroit at estimating exposure by evaluating a scene, but most rely on light meters. The majority of cameras have light meters, and in the case of newer film cameras and almost all digital cameras, the metering system can automatically set the exposure controls. However, no meter is infallible, and proficiency requires that you be able to recognize and address the situations where meters are subject to error.

There are two basic ways of metering light to determine exposure. The most accurate way is incident metering, which uses a handheld meter to measure the amount of light falling on the subject. The primary advantage of incident metering is that it consistently renders a correct exposure regardless of the tonality or reflectance of the subject or background. They generally do not require special considerations when using, except in situations when the subject is against a strong backlight. The downside to incident metering is that it requires you to place the meter near the subject, which is time consuming and impractical in situations where the subject is far away.

The other form of metering is reflective metering, which measures the amount of light that is reflected by the scene or subject. The advantage of reflective metering is that it can be built into cameras and allows for readings to be taken at a distance from the subject. The downside to reflective metering is that it determines an exposure value that assumes that the luminance of the scene is equivalent to a middle gray value. Although the middle gray reference works well for scenes having a mix of bright and dark areas, reflective metering can be highly inaccurate when used to meter scenes that are not average. Because the meter is calibrated to determine the exposure based on middle gray, scenes that are mostly white will be underexposed, and scenes that are mostly black will be overexposed. The end result in either scenario is that although the scene should be rendered as either mostly white or mostly black, it will come out as middle gray. Examples of scenes that can be difficult for reflective meters are white sand beaches, snow, fog, objects against dark backgrounds, and scenes having extreme contrast.

Complicating the problem is that not all reflective meters are the same. The simplest meters are very basic and essentially perform a direct measurement of the light against the middle gray reference. Some cameras have complex metering systems that evaluate multiple segments of the scene and use algorithms that factor in contrast, brightness, distance, and color to determine exposure. In any case, it is a fundamental skill to recognize when a camera is unlikely to meter accurately and to adjust the exposure accordingly. If you routinely pay close attention to the exposure values (i.e., shutter speed and f-stop) when you are photographing, you may get a sense over time that the exposure seems off in particular settings. In any case, it is good to become familiar with how your camera handles extreme situations by actually seeing how it meters under specific conditions.

Some cameras allow the photographer to choose between multizone, center-weighted average and spot meter modes. If your camera has more than one mode of metering, you should experiment with them so that you develop an intuitive feel for how they perform under different conditions. Similarly, if your camera has only one mode, you should experiment with how the meter works under difficult situations such as backlit subjects, black on white, black on black, and white on white. Although there are various guidelines on how to adjust exposure when photographing such scenes, nothing is better than actually taking photographs and seeing how your camera performs under such conditions.

When the default exposure determined by the meter does not result in the correct exposure, then the exposure settings need to be adjusted to obtain the correct settings. This is called exposure compensation. Some cameras have exposure compensation controls that allow you to adjust the amount of exposure that is determined by the camera. If your camera has such controls, you should familiarize yourself with them so that you are able to operate them by feel while looking through the viewfinder. If you camera does not have these controls, exposure compensation can be done by changing the ISO speed setting. For example, if the camera is determining an exposure that is one stop underexposed, you can increase the exposure by one stop by reducing the ISO speed to one-half of the current setting. So if the camera is set at ISO 400 and you want to increase the exposure by one stop, simply reset the ISO speed to 200. Similarly, if want to reduce the exposure by two stops, you could increase the ISO by a factor of four. In other words, if the camera is set to ISO 400, you would increase the speed to 1600 to reduce the exposure by two stops.

Exercise 4

Evaluating a Camera’s Meter

This exercise consists of two parts and is intended to show how your camera’s meter behaves under difficult exposure situations and to give you a sense of when you need to compensate for the camera’s indicated exposure. The exercise is done in two parts, with the first part consisting of photographing white and black sheets of paper at different exposures and the second part consisting of photographing a white object on a white background and a black object on a black background.

To do the first part of the exercise, photograph separately a white sheet of paper, a black sheet of paper, and then a white sheet and black sheet placed side by side so that they split the frame. Set the sheets so that they are illuminated by diffuse light, such as next to a window that is not receiving direct sun. If you are using a film camera, it is recommended that you use slide film. Take three photographs of each setup, using the following exposures:

White sheet: The exposure as metered by the camera

One stop over the metered exposure

Two stops over the metered exposure

Black sheet: The exposure as metered by the camera

One stop under the metered exposure

Two stops under the metered exposure

Both sheets: The exposure as metered by the camera

One stop under the metered exposure

One stop over the metered exposure

Compare the results and observe which meter settings gave the best exposure for the respective setups. If your camera can display histograms, look at the histogram for each exposure and observe what it looks like for proper and improper exposures for the three setups. Typically, you should expect the histogram values for the white and black sheets to be roughly centered for the uncompensated exposure and then shift appropriately to the right or left as the exposure is compensated. For the images taken of the two sheets side by side, there should be two peaks at either end of the histogram with possibly some clipping of the right peak at one stop under the metered exposure and clipping of the left peak at one stop over the metered exposure.

The next part of the exercise is to give you a better sense of how your camera performs under difficult but more common circumstances. Set up a white object on the white sheet of paper and photograph it using the exposure indicated by the camera’s meter, and at one, two, and three stops above that exposure. Compare the results and observe the degree of detail preserved at the various exposures. If you are using a digital camera, pull each image up on the screen and compare them to the actual scene in front of you in order to determine which exposure most accurately depicts the scene. In general, the best representation for this type of scene will most likely be the exposure about two stops above the one initially indicated by the camera’s meter.

Finally, set up a black object on the black sheet of paper and photograph it using the exposure indicated by the camera’s meter, and at one, two, and three stops below that exposure. Compare the results and observe the degree of detail preserved at the various exposures. If you are using a digital camera, pull each image up on the screen and compare them to the actual scene in front of you in order to determine which exposure most accurately depicts the scene. In general, the best representation for this type of scene will most likely be the exposure about two stops below the one initially indicated by the meter.

This test was done using a white PVC tee fitting on a white background and a black ABS tee fitting on a black background. These are real-world objects that have curved surfaces that are a little glossy. The images are shown below without color correction or brightness or curve adjustments. The histograms are shown as well.

White on white at metered exposure.

White on white at one stop under.

White on white at two stops under.

Black on black at metered exposure.

Black on black at one stop over.

Black on black at two stops over.

One of the things you might have noticed while doing the exercises is that in the real world, few white objects are pure white and few black objects are pure black. As stated previously, there will be other situations in which the camera’s meter will not determine an accurate exposure. Feel free to experiment with these situations to assess how your camera responds. The more you practice at evaluating exposures under difficult circumstances, the more adept you should become at recognizing situations in which some form of exposure compensation is desirable.

Flash is another area where understanding how to control and use it can make a huge difference in the quality of the image. It is well known that flash photography is widely used in genres frequently practiced in a studio, such as product, portrait, and fashion photography. It is lesser known that flash can be useful in other genres typically associated with available light such as street photography and nature photography. Many cameras have highly automated flash exposure systems that determine the basic exposure without requiring adjustments or calculations by the photographer. However, obtaining the best exposure when using flash depends on numerous factors including shutter speed, aperture, flash duration, flash power, and whether the flash is the primary or secondary source of light. Mastering flash photography requires a solid knowledge of the technical aspects as well as a lot of practice and experience. Furthermore, the necessary equipment varies depending on the genre and the camera systems. If you do significant work in a genre where flash photography is important, it may be to your benefit to make the effort to learn the full extent of how the system handles flash photography and not just rely on the basic menu functions or flash automation.

Technical Knowledge

From its inception photography has been a combination of mechanics, physics, and chemistry, so its advancement and practice certainly depended on understanding its technical aspects. On the other hand, the popularization of photography was made possible by advancements that allowed casual users to take photographs with very little knowledge of those aspects. Although you have to have sufficient technical knowledge and skill to be able to create the kind of images you want, it is important to concentrate on the creative aspects because no amount of acumen regarding the technology is going to make up for a lack of perception and vision.

One of the reasons why you will want to become proficient at using your equipment is that such proficiency allows you to concentrate on creative aspects such as observing a scene and composing images. It is very difficult to take excellent images when most of your attention is given to the technical matters and little is paid to the subject.

There are certainly examples of photographers who had extraordinary technical understanding who likewise produced extraordinary images. Ansel Adams was a master craftsman when it came to extracting the most from the films and papers of his era. He was particularly renowned for his work developing the zone system, in which every variable from exposure to the darkroom was calibrated and controlled. On the other hand, there are master photographers who have taken a far less technical approach to photography. Edward Weston, a colleague of Adams, took a far more intuitive approach to matters of craft that were based on observation, practice, and experience in the field and in the darkroom. Rather than measuring the densities of negatives and evaluating characteristic curves of films, he based his judgments on obtaining an intuitive feel for the light surrounding his subjects and an inherent sense of how to expose and process his film.

The amount of technical knowledge you need will depend on the kind of photography you do and how you approach it. However, there is little to be gained by learning photographic theory that will not be put to practical use. If you learn the technical knowledge that you need and are able to operate your camera without substantial fiddling with the controls, you can concentrate on creative aspects rather than technical. Furthermore, for many people, prolonged experience and observation is a more effective approach to grasping the craft of photography than the study of technical principles.

None of this is to say that there is no benefit to learning more about the craft, science, and technology associated with photography. There has been a lot of advice and wisdom written about photography, and it would be foolish to disregard it. To the extent that you have questions about particular aspects of photography, it is usually possible to find answers somewhere in the literature about photography. However, the fact that this knowledge is available does not mean that you should forgo exploring the craft on your own. Frankly, it can be extremely valuable to use your own equipment and find the answers to your questions by experimentation. For example, it is one thing to be told that photographers cannot take sharp photographs with a handheld camera when the shutter speed has a denominator that is smaller than the focal length of the lens (e.g., when using a 50mm lens, don’t shoot any slower than 1/60th of a second). However, it is another thing to actually set up a target and see what you can do.

Exercise 5

Test Something on Your Own

There is a lot of photographic wisdom that gets passed around, and most of it is valid. However, there is also a fair amount of conflicting advice, and occasionally someone will question or challenge something that most photographers accept as incontrovertible fact. Rather than consulting with books or scouring the Internet for information, a better approach is to test things for yourself. For this exercise, select any premise you wish to challenge or verify and then figure out how you could test it. Afterwards, do the testing and form your own conclusions.

Feel free to test any premise that you wish, but here are some suggestions that you might consider:

• Lens filters degrade sharpness.

• Certain brands of cameras take better photos than other brands.

• Third-party lenses produce poorer images than brand-name lenses.

• Heavy tripods produce sharper images than light tripods.

• f/8 is sharper than f/16.

• Zoom lenses are not as sharp as prime lenses.

• Shooting with a lens hood increases contrast.

The specifics of any test will depend on what you are trying to test, but, in general, most testing requires that you create a reproducible setup and take multiple images of a static subject. For many experiments, this entails mounting the camera on a tripod.

As an example, I decided to test whether ultraviolet (UV) filters would degrade the quality of images because the general consensus of the literature is that such filters are good for lens protection but do cause some degradation. I was able to find four UV filters and one skylight filter in my collection, most of which had been attached to used lenses that I have purchased over the years. The filters were clean and without scratches. Some of them date back to the 1960s.

The test consisted of photographing a target chart in accordance with the following setups:

No filter

Hoya HMC UV(c)

Quantaray Digital UV

Kenko SL 39-3 UV

Tiffen UV Protector

Nikkor L1A (skylight filter from the 1960s)

All five filters stacked together

The photographs were taken with a digital camera using a Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX lens. The test chart was printed on ordinary bond paper by an ordinary inkjet printer, so some of the texture of the paper shows and the upper edges of the black lines printed with a light purple border. The camera was set up on a tripod and the target was photographed at f/5.6 at about fifty centimeters from the focal plane. The images were shot in RAW format with the white balance set at “auto.” To evaluate the effect, the images were cropped to enlarge the elements in the lower left corner, and the cropped images were given identical adjustments for color and brightness. None of the images were sharpened. The test chart and the images for each filter are shown below. Based on the images, can you determine which filter is associated with each image? The answers are shown upside down at the bottom of the page.

The test target photographed without a filter.

Test A.

Test B.

Test C.

Test D.

Test E.

Test F.

Test G.

I did not see anything markedly different in terms of resolution. There were some differences with respect to color cast, but this is something that could ordinarily be corrected during postprocessing. I had expected to see a substantial effect on resolution when all five filters were stacked together, and perhaps the biggest surprise was that the difference, if any, was very small.

Test A: Nikkor L1A; Test B: Tiffen UV Protector; Test C: No filter; Test D: Hoya HMC UV(c); Test E: All the filters; Test F: Kenko SL 39-3 UV; Test G: Quantaray Digital UV


Preparing to Do the Exercises

The chapters that follow present exercises that address aspects of seeing and visualization. Whereas the exercises in the preceding chapter were intended to enhance camera-handling skills, the remaining exercises will address the perception of light, spatial relationships, and exploration. The exercises are intended to provide sufficient structure to accomplish their intended end yet at the same time be flexible enough to accommodate individual creativity and style. They are also structured in a way that will encourage you to draw upon the multiple facets that influence inspiration, creativity, and execution. In this regard, many of the exercises will explain something about the subject matter and discuss the genre, in addition to explaining how to set up and do the exercise.

Perception and Abstraction

To get the most out of the exercises, is helpful to understand the difference between the brain’s perception mode and the abstraction mode, and how this factors into the framework of the exer