Five Ways to Hold Your Viewer’s Attention

We are bombarded with photographs every day from our social media feeds to adverts in magazines, holiday photographs by friends and relatives and pictures that relay the news or give us information. Within the context of all of this “image noise” we’ve become very adept at discarding anything that visually doesn’t hold our attention or at least attract our attention very quickly. Think how you almost instantly make a decision on an image when you see it to decide if it’s worth lingering over. It really takes something very special in today’s visually over rich culture to make us stop and pause for a moment.

There are a number of things that might help to hold the viewer’s attention ranging from the combination of colours in the image, a specific moment or subject that resonates with them or the quality of light, through to how much time they have and how creatively receptive they are at that particular moment. The photographer has control of some of these and some s/he doesn’t. However, there is one overriding element that the photographer does have control of in every picture that can have a really strong bearing on whether or not the image holds the viewer’s attention – and that element is composition.

So, here are five compositional tips that, whatever the light, colour, mood or subject of the image will go a long way to helping hold the viewer’s attention and hopefully lead them to experience your images more fully.

 

Shoot through things

Look for ways of framing the main subject of your image by shooting through things. Avoid the obvious cliches like doors and window frames and look for much more interesting ways of adding texture and depth. Maybe shooting through foliage, through a gap between other objects or trying to shoot through something that will put the main subject more fully in context and tell a bit more of a story.

Generally speaking you may well want to use a relatively shallow depth of field for this technique so that whatever you are shooting through is a little out of focus and is more of a suggestion than a clear object competing with the viewer’s attention with the main subject.

Remember that you don’t have to literally “frame” the subject all the way round – you can shoot through something for part of the frame to give the desired effect. It also doesn’t have to be immediately obvious what the frame actually is – a bit of mystery goes a long way to holding the viewer’s attention and shooting through something that simply provided shape and texture is fine.

 

Let the eye explore

In the West we generally read from left to right and we like it if our eyes can have some sort of journey to undertake when looking at a picture. It often works well if there’s an obvious “lead in line” on the left of the image which takes the eye through the image working from left to right and leads naturally to the main subject.

The obvious example is a fence leading to a building or something similar but, we like any sort of picture where the eye is lead to explore. Lines and shapes just beg to be followed  –  the least interesting pictures are ones where the eye just remains static and all there is to look at is the subject.

Try to find ways in your composition where lines, shapes and patterns interact and intersect. Look for strong graphical elements and see if you can get them to fit together to make a logical satisfying flow. Remember, left to right is the most obvious but it can be much more interesting to turn this on it’s head and encourage your viewer to read the picture in any direction!

 

Use complimentary subjects

It’s great to have a good subject in your image but much better of you can have the main subject and also a secondary, complimentary subject in there as well. Visually, it’s just much more interesting and the interplay between the two is much more satisfying!

Often one will be in the foreground and the other in the background. This also gives the image depth and draws the viewer in and again gives context to the main subject. There’s nothing more boring than just having a straight forward picture of your subject set in isolation on it’s own! Having the two things going on at the same time can potentially enable the viewer to imagine the relationship between the two and use their imagination to map out the interplay between the two.

This is a really hard technique and it’s often extremely difficult to engineer a picture like this.

 

Get on the floor

Often the least interesting, most predictable pictures are taken at eye level. It is, after all, how most of us spend most of our day looking at the world! To make things more interesting and to hold your viewer’s attention you need to get down on the floor, stand on a chair, look up at your subject, get super close or super far away.

In some ways it doesn’t really matter where you take the picture from but avoid the obvious viewpoint and avoid taking it at eye level if at all possible. This often needs a “working the scene” approach. Try different angles of the same subject, take several frames, try things out. Many frames won’t work but then you will get a really interesting angle that suddenly does work. This takes time and effort and your persistence will be rewarded by a much more interesting image.

 

Avoid the middle ground

The middle is boring, predictable and static. Try to position your subject almost anywhere in the frame apart from the middle. Our eyes need to be made to work and we enjoy the challeng of the unusual. Often a great picture will take work to appreciate and there will be a sudden “ahhhh – I get it now” moment.

Try focussing on your subject and holding the focus either with the shutter button half pressed or with the back button on your camera. Don’t take the picture but now move the camera so that the subject is in a different part of the frame, move again and reframe and again. You can also change from landscape to portrait format and do the same giving you a huge number of possibilities as to where the subject is in the frame. Remember there isn’t a right or a wrong, you can put your subject wherever you think it works but in the middle is boring!

Many photographs follow what is known as the “rule of thirds”. This basically means that the subject is places on the line of the third if the frame was divided into three both horizontally and vertically. We much prefer this placement visually and a subject placed on the third has a nice balance to it and avoids the static predictability of the middle of the frame.

Mirror less or DSLR Cameras – Which are Best?

If you look very broadly at camera technology over the years the SLR or Single Lens Reflex Camera has been the most popular type of camera for decades. If you pick up an SLR camera from the 19070’s and compare it with a current model they are, essentially the same thing. It’s very much the same basic technology and works in the same way. The light goes into the lens, is reflected via a mirror into the viewfinder and, when the shutter is depressed the mirror flips out of the way and the light hits either the digital sensor or film and the image is recorded.

This is always the way it has been for decades.

There is, of course, a good reason for this. SLR cameras are extremely good at what they do, they are reliable and extremely versatile. As technology has advanced camera manufacturers have improved the basic SLR design with a huge number of modes, metering methods, focus zones etc and have particularly focussed on increasing the light sensitivity and detail rendering of digital sensors. But, there hasn’t really been a significant, fundamental development or breakthrough in camera design since the dawn of digital almost 20 years ago.

That is until the last few years where the supremacy of the DSLR has been challenged by the new kid on the block – the mirror less camera. The mirror less camera is completely different. It works in a completely different way. In some ways it’s similar to the invention of the transverse engined car in the 1960’s. Up until then all cars had the engine pointing backwards and driving the back wheels. In the 19060’s transverse or cross engined cars which drove the front wheels became popular. There are several advantages to the front wheel drive system and today almost every car you buy is front wheel drive.

I think a similar thing will happen over the next few years in camera technology. To a certain extent SLR technology has come as far as it can and I think mirror less will take over. It’s a new fresh technology at the start of it’s development and mirror less cameras will continue getting better and better as the technology develops. To a certain extent the DSLR has come as far as it can.

So, which to buy? What are the new mirror less cameras like in real life use and are there any advantages to still having a DSLR?

I’m going to talk about my own experiences as that’s really all I have to go on! Other people may well have a different point of view and come to different conclusions but hopefully reading this will help you on your way to making the right mirror less/DSLR decision for you.

I started out photographing on Nikon DSLR cameras professionally as a wedding photographer in 2003. Since then I’ve photographed hundreds of weddings on Nikon equipment and never, ever been let down by a piece of Nikon equipment. I’ve dropped Nikon cameras, shot with them in the pouring rain and the freezing cold and never given it a second thought. I’ve always thought of the camera as a tool and the Nikon was like a spade in my hand. A rather dull, predictable tool!

I should probably also say that, prior to my professional photography, I had a long history, going back to my teenage years of photographing on film, processing and printing film myself and shooting with what are now vintage cameras. To my mind this process has a lot more soul and personality than shooting on digital and I spent a number of years really thinking of the Nikon cameras as being a computer rather than a camera in my hand.

So, after shooting Nikon for about 10 years along came the Fuji x100. I bought one as I was attracted by it’s looks, size and the fact that it was essentially silent in operation which is great for my type of documentary photography. I loved it in many ways but found the slow focus unusable. I tried and tried to get it tow work for me but I just couldn’t get along with it. It felt so nearly a great camera but wasn’t really usable for me for shooting weddings.

I kept an eye on the market. Bought an Nikon full frame and waited.

Then the Fuji XT1 came out. Much improved focussing I heard and a large number of wedding photographers made the switch. It sounded as though it still wasn’t as quick as my Nikon and didn’t have dual cards slots which I feel is important so for me it was a “no go”. Then Fuji introduced the X Pro 2 – dual card slots, very fast focus etc etc. This sounded to me like fairly much the perfect camera for me. I didn’t want to commit myself to spending the $1300 for the body plus lenses straight away so I decided to dip my toe in the mirror less water again and try a very reasonably priced XT10. My plan being that if it worked for me I could quickly upgrade to the dual card slot Xpro 2.

It was a revelation. I’m currently shooting with 2 XT10 bodies and using the Nikon DSLR as back up. I will shortly trade the Nikon in for an Xpro 2 or possibly XT2 when it comes out and go fully mirror less.

Why?

Firstly because the XT10 is a magnificent camera. My primary reason is that it feels right, it makes me shoot more creatively, it has soul, it feels like my friend, it works with me rather than for me. In short it’s a pleasure and a joy to work with. It literally gives me pleasure using it – I never felt that for my DSLR. I love having the dials on the top and it is instinctive for me to use in a way that the DSLR isn’t.

There’s also all of the usual things about size and discreetness which are true but, more importantly for me, I can use the electronic shutter and it’s essentially silent. Even the lovely mechanical shutter is very very discreet. In comparison the sound of a DSLR mirror slapping up and down is like a cracking whip every time you depress your finger.

This alone is awesome for me as a documentary wedding photographer.

The auto focus is faster than my Nikon using a Nikon 50mm lens. This is a fact. I have shot them next to each other and the XT10 locks focus in good light faster and more decisively than my Nikon. It’s not as good in poor light though.

Then of course you have the EVF. Other people have waxed lyrical about it and I’m not going to repeat all of that but it is completely revolutionary in most circumstances. It saves me a lot of time. It gives me confidence, it makes me more creative. With the best will in the world weddings are fast moving and chaotic. If I shot in a different way the EVF would be less important but for shooting rapidly changing documentary imagery in a wide and fast moving variety of light it’s amazing.

Amazing…..did I say amazing?

The image quality is better than from my DSLR. The images are sharper more of the time. They are often decisively razor sharp over and over again despite the fact that I can be a bit sloppy with my focussing. The lenses are beautiful, the quality of the final images is amazing, beautiful and consistently surpasses what I can personally achieve with my DSLR.

The colour and files are beautiful. I mean literally straight out of camera beautiful. My post processing time has been reduced, I now just use auto white balance and it’s 99% spot on all of the time. I have always been a RAW shooter – I’m questioning why I need to do that with this camera any more and am seriously considering shooting just Jpeg – the files straight from the camera are simply that good.

There are, however some areas where the Nikon wins. The Fuji isn’t great at focussing in low light and I’ve heard that the flash system isn’t that good. I shoot mostly natural light but often use flash on the wedding dance floor. In fairness I haven’t as yet got a Fuji flash so I am still using the Nikon equipment for this part of the day but my suspicion is that the Fuji may not be quite as good but I am sure that I will create a work around for this. Some people may currently find that there’s just simply more accessories and lens choices for a traditional DSLR but this may well change as things develop and the mirror less camera systems mature over the next few years.

One aspect of the cameras that does lag behind I think is the decisiveness of the shutter action. On my Nikon I can gauge the exposure to a fraction of a second – the shutter is fast and decisive and I don’t get quite the same positive action on the Fuji. This may be partly psychological and to do with not hearing a shutter click/mirror slap and it may be that it’s just different rather than not as good. However my sense is that it’s not quite as decisive.

I have found the focus tracking and focus system generally to be the equal if not, in some ways better than the Nikon. There’s certainly not much to choose between them and I think that the Fuji is more consistent in this area. I don’t personally really shoot fast moving subjects – sports or moving cars for example and my sense is that a traditional SLR would possibly be better at this but I know that the Fuji system is improving all the time. I should emphasise that this is for shooting in extreme conditions where things are moving very quickly. For most moving subjects the Fuji does a great job.

In conclusion, my personal advice for most photographers would be to invest in a mirror less system. I think that they will, in time supersede the traditional DSLR and, as technology develops, out perform them in every way. This is an exciting time to be a photographer as I think we are on the cusp of another technological revolution just as we were when we made the move from film to digital. For me the mirror less cameras put me more in touch with the creative process of making pictures, they have soul and personality at the same time as incorporating cutting edge technology. The DSLR, in comparison feels like a black lump of circuit board with a lens on. It’s utterly reliable, utterly predictable but in the end, to be honest, just a bit boring!

Help! My Photographs Are all Out of Focus (Part 2)

In part one of this post we had a look at some basic ways to help improve the sharpness of your pictures. If you didn’t read that post you can find it here!

So, the big question is – where do you go if you have tried the techniques in part one and you are still struggling?

Do not fear! Part two has a number pf more advanced strategeies that will hopefully help you to nail any remaining focus issues with ease!

Firstly let’s look at technique:

Decide what you want in focus – This might sound obvious but it’s really important that you decide what you want to be in focus before you press the shutter. Don’t let the camera decide for you! You also need to decide how much you want in focus and this is dependant upon your use of aperture and depth of field. There’s more about that in this post here.

Learn how to use your focus points – Next, having decided what you want in focus you need to tell the camera. By default most cameras will focus in the centre of the frame and you will need to make sure that you know how your particular camera tells you what it’s focussing on. Usually there is a box around the focus point as in the image below telling you where the camera is focussing.

You will also notice that there are a number of other squares around the screen and it’s possible also to tell your camera to focus at these points as well. These, logically enough are called “focus points” and, if you look in your camera’s manual you will be able to work out how to change them. This is vitally important and allows you to gain focus in different parts of the frame other than the middle!

This is a great method and can greatly help you compositionally and creatively by encouraging you to move the subject of the image out of the centre of the picture which is often the most boring place to have it! It is, however, a rather slow method as you have to move the focus point before taking the picture each time. A much faster, although possibly less accurate method (until you have practiced it!) is called “focus and re compose”.

Focus and re compose – Keeping the focus point set to the middle. Focus on your subject and hold the camera in focus either with the shutter button half pressed down or, if you have if, via the back button focus. You can then re compose placing the subject anywhere in the frame. Finally shoot by fully depressing the shutter button. As long as the distance between you and the subject doesn’t change the subject will be in focus. This works best where you have a reasonably wide depth of field and is a difficult technique to master at f1.4!!!

Understand your focus modes – For a majority of the time it’s best to get your camera off the default auto focus mode as it will generally auto focus on the object closest and most central in the frame and in doing so take over from your creative control! Usually it’s mush better to go for a single focus mode which allows the technques above to work, or, if your subject is moving continuous focus mode usually works well. This willtrack a moving subject if you hold the shutter half way down and it great for action shots.

If all else fails – If, having worked through the techniques above and in the previous part of this post, your images are still not sharp then we need to dig a little deeper! First of all accept that it takes time and practice to ger consistent and good focus. Also accept that, with the best will in the world zoom lenses, and particularly kit zoom lenses, are not as sharp as high quality prime lenses. This is a generalisation and that’s not to say you can’t get a very sharp image with a kit zoom but a high quality prime is the sharpest you can consistently get. You also need to double check that the lens you are using is compatible with you camera, that it’s clean inside and out and also that it’s calibrated for your camera. Try changing lenses to try to establish if it’s the lens or the camera or the combination of the two of them together that aren’t giving you sharp images.

Finally, post processing – Last but not least remember that RAW files generally need sharpening. Jpegs out of camera will probably be sharper and still need some sharpening but, if you are shooting RAW, you will certainly need to apply some sharpening to every image. You can also sharpen according to where the image will be used (Lightroom’s “export” function allows this) and you can choose the appropriate sharpening for screen, matt or glossy papers.

Lastly remember that photography isn’t about critical focus. It’s about communication, emotion and feeling. You can have a great photograph that’s technically not perfect if it communicates to it’s viewer. No photograph ever worked if the actual subject matter was poor but it was technically perfect! I guess I’m saying don’t spend too much time worrying about perfect focusing! It’s time that would be much better spend developing your photographic vision and studying the works of other great photographers!

 

If you would like to find out more about how your camera works try my course below!!

 

Help! My Photographs are all Out of Focus! (Part 1)

 

The first thing to say is that sharpness, and the desirability of sharpness is a subjective matter! It’s very possible to have a great photograph that communicates it’s message with power and clarity at the same time as being slightly technically imperfect. To a certain extent, no matter what you do, a number of your images will come out with less than perfect focus.

It can be possible to become a bit obsessed by sharpness, particularly if you read a lot of the technical blogs and comments on the internet. There’s a lot of emphasis on critical sharpness and this sort of thing can become a bit wearing to say the least! Some people really do get completely absorbed by the whole technical aspects of photography and become detached from the emotion and communicational aspect of creating images I think.

So, here’s the thing:

For most of us, most of the time, absolute critical sharpness isn’t the be all and end all of everything.

However – you do need your pictures to be essentially in focus and sharp and you need to be able to control what’s sharp and what’s not.

So, what do you do if you are consistently finding that you pictures lack sharpness?

Try these top tips below:

Half press to focus – Firstly make sure that you are half pressing the shutter down to focus before pushing it fully down to take the picture. This is vitally important and you need to think about a distinct two part movement – focus then press – in order to take a picture. This can happen extremely quickly but, if you do it too quickly, or all in one continuous movement, the chances are that the camera won’t have chance to focus properly and the image will be out of focus.

Try back button focussing – Many photographers find it easier to use a technique called “back button focus”. On a lot of cameras you can set the back button, usually where your right thumb naturally rests, to focus the lens. This keeps the shutter free just to actually take the picture and separates the two part “half press and push” technique outlined above over two buttons which can be significantly easier.

Check your shutterspeed – Sometimes it can be easy to confuse camera shake with being out of focus. A slight blur can occur when the camera moves slightly as the shutter is depressed and the resulting picture has a bit of blur around the edges. This can occur even when photographing a static object and is easily be avoided by making sure that your shutterspeed is fast enough to freeze the camera’s slight movement as you push down on the shutter button.

First of all, as a very rough rule of thumb, any shutterspeed lower than around 60th of a second will potentially mean that the picture could suffer from camera shake. If you’re using a telephoto lens then the minimum shutterspeed will need to be faster – generally. If you are using an 85mm lens for example you will need a minimum shutterspeed of 85th of a second. If you are using a 200mm then a minimum shutterspeed of 200th second will be needed to ensure that there isn’t any camera shake recorded in the image.

Obviously, in some circumstances you will need to make other adjustments to make sure that you are able to use a fast enough shutterspeed to avoid camera shake. You might need to open the aperture for example or use a higher ISO. If all else fails then putting the camera on a tripod or resting it somewhere where it really can’t move will allow you to use a lower shutterspeed without it’s associated camera shake.

Hold the camera steady – Of course, even the fastest shutterspeed won’t eliminate camera shake if you are holding the camera insecurely and moving it each time you press the shutter button! Plant your feet firmly on the ground as you are shooting, cradle the camera gently but firmly in your hand and keep your elbows in so that you are as secure and firm as possible. As you press the shutter try to keep the camera as still as possible to eliminate any risk of camera shake.

Check your aperture/depth of field – It can be very difficult to gain accurate focus when you are using a very wide aperture and the depth of field is minimal. Sometimes the actual plane of focus can be only a centimeter or so wide and you are giving yourself an extremely difficult job to get the right bit of the image in focus!

Have a go at using a narrower aperture and so increase the depth of field to give yourself a fighting chance! If the plane of focus is wider then the margin for error is subsequently bigger and you are increasing your chances of focus success!

Of course you might find that, as you reduce the aperture, the shutterspeed decreases to the point where you could get camera shake so you need to find a happy balance!

Hopefully the basic tips above will go some way to improving things and help you to gain sharp and accurate focus. In part two we will have a look at some more advanced techniques and the role of post processing.

If you would like to find out more about how your camera works have a look at my DSLR Cameras Made Simple: Take Pictures With Confidence Course.

5 Must Have Photography Accessories for Beginners

Are you the proud owner of a brand new and shiny new camera? If you are then you may well be feeling the irresistible urge to compliment your fantastic new purchase with any number of accessories that you will have seen available. Some of them are essential, some desirable and some, well not really needed at all!

This post shows you five of the most important “must have” items and will guide you through the photography accessory minefield!

Camera Bag – These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and can be incredibly expensive! The first thing to decide is what sort of size you need to carry your current equipment and also to allow for the fact that your kit will inevitably grow a little as well. It’s worth bearing in mind that you may well want to pack other items in your bag when you go out on a photographic outing so allow space for your sandwiches too!

Firstly, decide on which style of bag will suit your photography. If you often walk in the hills to take landscapes a photo rucksack may well be a good option for example or, if you are a street photographer and need security and speed of access then a top opening messenger style bag may be a better bet.

Whatever style you choose go for a good quality bag where the interior has plenty of padding to protect your equipment. Most good quality bags have a pull over rain cover as well as you really do want your camera bag to be completely water tight – that’s very important!

It’s worth considering security as well. Nothing shouts “photographer” more than a large new looking camera bag slung over your shoulder. Something discreet can be a better bet and is less attractive to thieves – even looking for a good quality and slightly battered second hand bag is less conspicuous and can be a good bet.

Finally you need to consider your own comfort. Remember, you may well have the bag over your shoulder for some considerable time. Does it have good padding and do the straps adjust to create a comfortable fit for you?

Tripod – Even a simple tripod can open up all sorts of creative possibilities and improve your photography immensely. From a compositional point of view using one can improve your photography very quickly as it really slows you down and makes you look very carefully before pressing the shutter. Pressing the shutter on a digital camera doesn’t cost anything and very often we do rush, don’t think what we are doing and the resulting pictures can be a bit haphazard.

Tripods are traditionally used to allow slower shutter speeds to be attained without camera shake. Typically it’s very hard to hand hold a camera below around 30th of a second without some sort of camera shake and blur being present. Using a tripod eliminates movement of the camera and exposures of up to several seconds or more can be made. This is great for night time shots, low light shots and also landscape photography where you might want a very wide depth of field and therefore a very small aperture. If you are wanting to shoot at say F16 and would prefer the quality of shooting at a low ISO of maybe 200 you are going to probably need to use a tripod as the corresponding shutterspeed will be quite slow.

The common wisdom is that the heavier and more expensive the tripod the better. Certainly a good quality heavy tripod will keep the camera more secure and is much easier to use but a less expensive model will still open up a number of creative possibilities and will be easier to carry. Even a simple fold up spider style can be useful and a simple mono pod does the job almost as well.

UV filter – this is a simple clear filter that screws onto the front of your lens. It’s main advantage is that it protects the expensive lens glass from the elements, from getting scratched and keeps the lens clean. It doesn’t really have any effect on the image at all although it does, as it’s name suggests, filter UV and can reduce distant haze on sunny days.

There’s not a lot of point in buying one to protect a cheap kit lens as the cheaper filters are not that great but, if you have a good quality lens, it really is worth investing in a good quality UV filter and leaving it on there. The only time it’s likely to cause a problem is if you shoot into strong light and it might create excessive flare and also if you want to use another filter as well.

Do not buy a cheap UV filter as it will cause more problems than it solves. Check your filter’s compatability with your lens and then put it on and forget about it safe in the knowledge that your lens is protected from the elements!

Card storage holder – This is an easily overlooked piece of kit but, assuming that you will use more than one memory card, you will need something to store them in. There’s nothing worse than scrabbling around in the bottom of your camera bag looking for a card in a hurry!

It’s also worth mentioning that memory cards are relatively physically tough but they can be effected by water and dust in particular and I personally treat them as carefully as I once treated a roll of exposed film many years ago!

Look for a card holder that is tough and easily opened. There are some annoying designs where, as soon as the holder is opened, all the cards fall out so look for a model where this doesn’t happen!

It can be helpful to have separate space in the holder for empty and full cards as well to avoid confusion when you might be doing a quick change.

Cleaning stuff – Finally, it’s really important to keep your camera gear dirt and dust free. There is a whole array of products on the market but essentially you need cleaning cloths for wiping lenses clean and also some means of cleaning your camera’s sensor.

As with most things the more you pay the better the quality and the same is true of cleaning cloths. Get a really good quality one and make sure that you keep the cloth itself clean and replace it frequently.

Some photographers prefer to send their cameras into a camera shop to have the sensor cleaned but it’s not a difficult job providing that you follow instructions carefully and buy a good quality cleaning kit. Make sure that you are working in a well lit clean area and that you camera’s battery is fully charged whilst cleaning and take care. Assuming that you change lenses all sensors will get some dirt on them and it’s good to check and clean them regularly.