Photo advice is everywhere, but it usually touches on the extremes — simple things for beginners and advanced techniques for pros. The truth is, the large majority of all your photos will be somewhere in between those poles. This set of techniques are for that majority of your images. The normal, walking around life of a photographer that you just want to yield great, normal results from. These are my ten go-to techniques that you can use anytime and nearly anywhere.
Finding elements that appose, or are in juxtaposition to, each other, is one of those things that seems hard, but isn’t. It just takes a little patience and a honed eye. But it’s the very nature of life that things will cross each others’ paths. As a photographer, being attuned to it — and even seeking it out — is a great technique for getting unique and interesting photos.
These kinds of shots often look impossible, but when you start to learn the techniques for it, you will find you can get many of them, as often as you like. My preferred method is to find one thing that isn’t moving fast and then being in a place where something that is moving more quickly will find itself in relationship to the relatively stationary one. In this image with the sailboats, for example, the people were actually the more stationary objects, as they were playing in the ocean for quite some time. The boats sailing by were the things I had to wait patiently for. It’s almost always like that — one thing moving slow, the other more quickly.
Why It Works: There’s millions of photographs being taken every day. Finding these kinds of juxtapositions offers something worth stopping for. It gets the viewer to ponder how it happened and perhaps even reflect on the beauty of life that can go unnoticed if you don’t really pay attention — like you do.
There are many photography genres that necessitate a great deal of pre-planning and concrete objectives. But when a shoot is less dictated, one of the ways I ensure myself of getting things that nobody expected, is to find creative ways to rotate my camera, or image, in order to create something different. I will do this while I’m shooting — actually rotating my camera on playback. When I see something that looks interesting in a rotated view, I will play in that space for a while and get options, always trying to add purposefulness to the composition.
The key is in somehow divining that a shot might look good if seen upside down or rotated. Look specifically for things that are expressions of gravity or direction. But also when there’s a reflection you can switch around. The greatest effect of this technique happens when turning the image reveals something — it’s hard to pre-plan that, but you can certainly have an open mind to it and that will definitely help you discover the kinds of images that look entirely different than anything else.
Why It Works: this is literally a different view, so rotating an image can be entirely unique and mind-expanding. It often has the effect of confusion, which can be used for effect, but it also connotes a photographer who sees the world in different ways.
This is the best trick in the book. The window shot is my favorite easy way to nail a shot every time and is the easiest of all set-ups. If someone randomly asks you to do a portrait or you’re sitting around the house and want to get a nice shot of someone, move your organization over to the nearest window and voila, instant beauty.
Sometimes a window shot may seem like it might not be an option because the environment either inside or outside of it doesn’t seem great. But you can still use this spot for great light, simply by coming in a little closer, cropping out what you don’t like and really filling up the frame with your subject and that great light.
Why It Works: A good photograph is almost always two or more things working together. With the window shot, there’s a nice diffused single-source light that creates a nice natural look, but there’s also a window. This offers a hint at a story that adds to the mood and brings the whole thing together.
The hardest thing about creating a great photo is that a photograph is one moment in time, usually devoid of context to the viewer. And context helps with emotion. So, the pressure is on you, as an image-creator, to get people to feel the story around the moment you’re shooting, but quickly and often without much to work with.
When you’re struggling for how to get quick emotion into a shot without having to try too hard, I suggest heading toward a place that already has context built into it. It doesn’t have to be a major landmark — it can be a church or a diner, too. Even just a desert road. There are many places in the world that hold iconic and emotional value, all by themselves. Use this built-in context to create immediate connectivity to your image.
Why It Works: These kinds of shots use a shorthand of shared vocabulary with your audience. An empty road already feels lonely. A mountain top, a symbol of achievement. With iconic environments, you’ve already chosen an emotional territory to create in.
Here’s a technique that you can do anywhere that will always add uniqueness to an image. It entails getting the camera on, or nearly on, the ground and angling up. It can be tricky, as often you’re not able to get your eye on the viewfinder in this situation. It helps to have an articulated screen so you can see your composition Or you can do as I do and not worry about it that much. Click off a few shots and move on. If it worked, it worked.
Best to keep your camera on a smaller aperture (more things in focus), as focusing is also tough at this angle. Or, for you advanced photogs out there, a good time to do a little zone focusing.
Why It Works: In cinematography, this is often called the “hero angle,” as it tends to make people look larger than life. But beyond simply hero-izing people, this angle adds drama by accentuating perspective and offering some beautiful foreground elements to work that can be very appealing to look at. Also, when shooting straight at someone, they may get lost in the background — this is a great way to isolate a person against the sky.
Cameras have been offering the ability to create double exposures since the beginning of cameras, yet most people never use it. In the earlier days, it took a bit of effort to make sure you exposed correctly and on the same piece of film, but today most cameras will do a double exposure and handle all the processing of it in-camera for you. Not only that, these days you can tell the camera to keep your original images, too. A double exposure looks different and adds an artistic edge to your work.
Why It Works: A double exposure has an element of experimentation to it that adds creativity, but it is also two or more frames, giving the viewer a sense of movement or storytelling. There’s something to interpret and that makes it interesting to view.
When I lead street photography workshops, this is one of the first things I point out. Reflected light is everywhere. It bounces off of buildings and shop windows, cars, busses, water and mirrors. The best is when light reflects into an otherwise shadowed area. It’s like finding your own little studio light set up, as it allows you to pop your subject off the background in ways that normally require off-camera lighting or a reflector. It takes a little bit to start to recognize this bounce light, but once you train yourself to see it, you’ll be able take advantage of this lighting nearly everywhere you go.
Why It Works: You’ve heard it a hundred times — photography is all about lighting. Well, this is why. Special light has the effect of making a scene look dynamic and beautiful. It illuminates your subject in a way that feels purposeful and draws attention to it. And when used for portraits, it has the effect of filling in shadows, which is also a beautifying technique.
Open The Aperture
Photography is a lot about separation — separating out your subject from everything else around him/her. But that doesn’t mean that you want to lose the environment, you just want your subject to stand out from it. And there’s one sure-fire way to make sure that happens every time: open up that aperture.
The larger your aperture is (or “shooting wide open,” as they say), the shallower the depth-of-field gets, blurring out everything except that which is in focus, which can be quite beautifying.
Why It Works: This technique creates a painterly, atmospheric look to an otherwise potentially-distracting environment. It’s a very fast way to isolate a subject and turn everything other than the subject into something that supports the hero, rather than distracts.
It’s easy to think that putting on a wide angle lens will, by itself, give the viewer a sense of the expansive landscape you are witnessing. But it’s not always the case. Sometimes what you’re looking at is a near 180 degree experience and even the widest of lenses won’t do it justice. In these scenarios, I will create a panorama. This is multiple images stitched into one. Some cameras (including the iPhone) will do it for you, but there’s also plenty of software that can take multiple photos and put them together for you, pretty nicely. This image above of the March For Our Lives in Los Angeles, in 2018 was achieved with the latter method, using Lightroom’s panorama capabilities. It’s as easy as selecting the shots and telling it to go.
What I like about taking separate shots and putting them together is that you have much more control, with the ability to stitch not just left-to-right or top-to-bottom panos, but squares as well. This can be especially attractive when combined with the wide open shutter technique. Here, you’re essentially recreating a medium format camera look — quite popular among wedding photographers, but completely available to you to try out and experiment with, too.
Why It Works: panoramic images, done well, don’t necessarily need to look like panoramas. when you crop them right, they look like normal photographs with more information somehow crammed into them. It can be very satisfying to the viewer in images where environment is a key component of your moment, as it provides more of a beautiful thing and feels more like how one experiences beauty — in its totality.
This is a technique that only a small percentage of photographers use, but it is one of my most-preferred looks. It entails putting your shutter speed at around 1/15 or 1/30 of a second. Just fast enough for a lot of your image to look sharp, if you’ve held the camera still, but any movement will have a slight blur to it.
This shooting style entails letting go of the desire for crisp, high-detail imagery in favor of something much more raw and filmic. It works particularly well in imagery where movement is featured and the slight blur helps the viewer feel the movement. It can be very subtle and have a dramatic difference in how a photo is interpreted.
Why It Works: cameras are machines but people are bundles of feelings and emotions. We are not perfect. When you slow the shutter down, you are making your image less perfect, more human. And our brains quickly make the connection that this is an image about real people, shot by a real person.
That’s the list. If it helps, I’ve organized it so that the first letters of each technique spells out: A TWIG DROPS. I like to have something like this in my head as I’m out shooting as I can quickly run through the concepts and see if any of them might work for the scene I’m in.