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Photography theory

The secret ingredients of a good image Part 1

Use the light

Of course we are talking photography here, hence light has to be the most important and fundamental ingredient that makes a photo attractive. The word photography itself from its Greek etymology could be translated as “drawing with light”. For a photograph to be visible it has to be properly exposed, that is, it has to have the proper balance and amount of light. Maybe we don’t think to much about this nowadays, accustomed as we are to press the shutter knowing that our camera will take care of all the little measurements (specially so in this age, where the vast majority of photographs are taken with our smartphones). If you are into photography a little bit, you’ll quickly realise that some circumstances help to get results that are pleasing to the eye. I’m referring to the “golden hours”, those hours where the light is gentle and warm like at sunrise or sunset, which makes your photo pleasing to see.

Sidi Ifni beach, late afternoon – [ X-Pro2 – 1/1600sec – ISO-200 – Lens : 35mm at f/7.1 ]

But as photographers we will find many different conditions of light throughout the day, so it is far more important that we learn how to take advantage of it and use it to our own benefit in the sake of our artistic expression.

With light comes contrast.

We seek contrast so as to make our photo more dynamic, less flat (boring ?) We achieve contrast when we play with light and shadow inside the same picture.

Essaouira (SOC) [ X-Pro2 – 1/160sec – ISO-500 – Lens : 35mm at f/1.4 ]

Above it’s an example of a fairly “flat” image with little contrast. It’s still pleasing to the eye because it was taken at golden hour which gave it a special colour tone due to the slight mist that is present many afternoons over the old city. Although there’s no harsh light to make for a strong contrast there’s enough different light variations to give it a certain “depth” (squint your eyes when looking at the picture, you’ll see that the foreground is quite dark compared to background)

Essaouira late at night [ X-Pro2 – 1/60sec – ISO-1600 – Lens : 35mm at f/1.4 ]

But not only during daytime can we achieve contrasty images. In the above example even though there’s not any sunlight we use the contrast from artificial light and shadows to create contrast in the image.

Working with harsh direct sunlight can be quite tricky but yet again we can take advantage of this difficult lighting situation to create some special mood to our shot like the ones below.

Essaouira winter afternoon looking south west [ X-Pro2 – 1/1250sec – ISO-200 – Lens : 35mm at f/7.1 ]
Sidi Ifni near the light house at noon[ X-Pro2 – 1/4000sec – ISO-200 – Lens : 23mm at f/2.8 ]

Use the framing

The viewing angle

Seek for one that serves your purpose. Taking shots at eye level might be the natural way of doing it, but looking for an appropriate angle makes the picture more interesting.

Valencia city center [ X-Pro2 – 1/640sec – ISO-200 – Lens : 35mm at f/2.8 ]
[ X-Pro2 – 1/80sec – ISO-400 – Lens : 35mm at f/4 ]
Fill up the space

Get closer whenever you can, specially with portraits, try to keep only necessary items in your frame

[ X-T30 – 1/60sec – ISO-320 – Lens : 23mm at f/2.8 ]
[ X-Pro2 – 1/3200sec – ISO-200 – Lens : 35mm at f/1.4 ]
[ X-Pro2 – 1/160sec – ISO-800 – Lens : 23mm at f/2.8 ]
Essaouira sea front [ X-Pro2 – 1/1000sec – ISO-200 – Lens : 23mm at f/5.6 ]

Use the geometry

By geometry I mean the space and distribution of the various elements inside your frame. These elements can be shapes and light. Try to balance things so they go well together. This is called composition. It would be like cooking a good recipe, you put a little bit of this and that, till you achieve something that tastes well and makes for a good dish. We already saw in the first article of this series that you can follow certain rules to achieve a better composition, particularly if you are quite new to photography and not yet very comfortable with the concept of composing itself. As you progress and get more experienced you will develop a sense for balance and brake certain orthodox rules. Nothing wrong with that.

On the road to Guelmim [ X-Pro2 – 1/100sec – ISO-200 – Lens : 35mm at f/2.8 ]

In the above image, even if the subject of the picture is quite off to the left, it doesn’t feel unbalanced for two main reasons.

  • The position of the subject contributes to the story. The driver is looking at the road and somehow we, the viewers, are looking too. Because of the composition of the photo we have plenty of space to the right and out eyes naturally follow the direction from where the light is coming
  • The total amount of bright and dark light in the picture is quite similar, which contributes to a sense of balance.
Merzouga [ X-Pro2 – 1/800sec – ISO-400 – Lens : 23mm at f/3.6 ]

We could say that the above image “breaks” several rules:

  • the horizon line is not even
  • one of the subjects is almost cut in half
  • the subjects are out of focus

Even though the image doesn’t feel unbalanced to me.

  • Even though the horizon falls to the right and our eyes naturally want to take the same direction, the black shape of the passenger and specially the intense white light on his face, compensates the movement and contributes to the dynamics
  • Even if the passenger to the right is cut, he is not the main subject and contributes to the overall sensation of speed and dynamics.
  • the focus is on the background, partially on the trail of dust that contributes to the overall story. We understand that the shot was taken from a moving vehicle probably a pickup. Again it gives a feel of speed and movement that tells a story.

I don’t want this post to be too long, so in part 2 of this series we will examine some other ingredients to a great photograph

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