Guest Blogger: Shelley Gammon
As the district’s Web Specialist, one of my duties is to take photos of events happening at our 39 campuses. It’s one of those “other duties as assigned” responsibilities I really enjoy, but I cannot be everywhere at once. We gladly take photo submissions from parents, teachers, staff and other students – especially when it’s an event no one in my department can attend. Over the years, I’ve noticed common mistakes nearly everyone makes when taking photos that are very easy to make, but thankfully – super easy to correct.
When I first learned photography at Hillcrest High School, our school’s yearbook advisor and art teacher, Ms. Margaret P. Hudson, managed to convert an unused closet in the back of a chemistry classroom into a darkroom. It was a lot of fun, but photography was a complicated hobby back in 1985 when I took my first photography class. My camera was heavy. I took a notepad everywhere I went to document what my focal length was, my F-stop, my shutter speed and what frame I was on in case I needed to switch to a different roll of film for different lighting conditions. I had to wait until I had developed my film to see if my photos had even come out like I had hoped. The age of digital photography has changed everything in how we document our lives today.
Your Smartphone may be the only camera you’ll ever need
Today, nearly every adult in America has a sophisticated camera in their pocket that takes nearly all the work out of photography. Even the original iPhone, which came out in 2007, sports a very decent digital camera. The lenses and megapixels have improved with each new year – whether you’re using a phone made by Apple, Samsung, Nokia, you name it – you can take really good photos with minimal effort. The trick is to understand composition and lighting. That is heart of photography – you are literally drawing with light when you take a photo – and today’s cameras take away the need to take notes like I used to do back in high school and in college.
Some of you have probably seen me at your children’s campus, taking photos at some events – I often get people walking up to me saying, “Oh, I really like your camera!” It is fancy. I often bring 2 cameras so I don’t have to switch lenses and the set-up I carry with me stands out. When one of the lenses is fully extended, the end of the lens to the back of the camera is literally a foot long… but you do NOT have to have fancy, expensive equipment to take awesome family photos of your children and to document their accomplishments through school. For my demo photos here, I used an older iPhone 4S that I got in 2011 and I used the standard Camera app that shipped with the phone, with the flash turned off.
Turn that phone before you shoot
When you go to a museum, nearly all of the paintings are in a horizontal format. This is for a reason. Even vertical portraits like the famous Mona Lisa, are closer to being square than the super-long vertical portraits we end up taking with our smartphones. When we humans have two working eyes, we see in the horizontal plane. While our eyes tend to focus in the center and/or to the eyes of the subject in a photo, horizontally shot photos are more relaxing to look at. Things look more natural because that’s how we see the world. Even when you’re taking photos of one person standing up, the composition simply looks more natural when you’ve tilted your camera 90° and you shoot horizontally.
Even shade from a building or a covered porch makes for great lighting by the sun
I had the opportunity to work with two students from Carrollton Elementary, Hannah and Heidyn, who volunteered to be my models for the example photos I’m using below.
In these demo photos, we’ve got a lot of different dynamics going on in turning a so-so picture into a great photo. Check out the picture on the left – there’s a lot going on that’s good:
- Shooting in even shade with lots of ambient sunlight makes the exposure look awesome.
- The girls aren’t squinting because the sun isn’t in their eyes. 🙂
- The photographer (that’s me!) isn’t squinting because the sun isn’t at the girls’ back and there’s no harsh light or lens flare going on in the photo.
- When you can’t find covered shading like a covered overhang, try using the angled shadow of a building before running to a tree – leaves and branches give mottled light and shadow that you don’t notice when you’re taking the photo, but you’ll notice later!
The only thing ‘wrong’ with the photo above is the composition. With the exception of people’s smartphone’s wallpaper, most folks end up cropping vertical photos on their phones or computers to cut out the extraneous noise – all pixels that could have been of the subject, not the distracting background.
In this horizontal shot, the photo is more relaxed. I did step forward a couple of steps to get closer to the subject, but otherwise, the setting is the same. Great, even shade and abundant ambient (not direct) sun gives great lighting to photos and ends up looking great on any smartphone or point-and-shoot camera. The composition here looks more natural. The background is less of a distraction. Horizontally composed photos look better.
So – we’ve lightly covered composition. Turning your smartphone sideways is half the battle when it comes to great composition, so you’re already on the road to taking better photos.
Avoid digital zooming at all costs
Occasionally, a photo is so awesome, we actually want to get it printed. I’ve used an app on my phone called Mosaic to order actual printed books from photos on my phone – it will even give me the opportunity to pull photos from my Facebook albums. If you want the print quality of your photos to look great, you want to avoid your impulse to zoom on your smartphone with your fingers. Such zooming is done digitally and the results are always bad. It’s hard to tell with this montage – because you’re viewing this blog either on your smartphone or on a computer screen – and even a digitally zoomed photo will look ‘Ok’ up to a point. The proof will be in the pudding with a print, however.
To drive this point home, here is another photo montage on the right. On the left is that same #1 photo from up above. I zoomed in via Photoshop so you can see all the pixels. The photo on the right is the same one from #2 photo from above where I digitally zoomed in with my fingers on the smartphone screen. I didn’t even zoom in that much, otherwise the difference would be far more dramatic. See how the photo on the left is sharper, where the one on the right begins to lose contrast? Resist the urge to zoom in with your fingers. Resist at all costs. Your image quality will greatly suffer when you do this and the print quality will be poor if you digitally zoom. It is hard to break the habit to do what you’ve been doing for years, but you can do this.
Check back soon for Lesson 2 – where I will cover light and shadow and how to use it to your advantage.