Making Photos "Pop!"

Steel art in front of a veterinarian's office
Steel art in front of a veterinarian's office | Source

Welcome to the 'third wave' of photographers

Growing up, in my mind there were only two kinds of photographers--professionals and amateurs--and it was obvious that I was in the latter category. I remember trying to develop my first roll of film (probably about age 13) and having my parents convulse with laughter when I came out to show them my finished string of negatives, only to discover that I'd tried to 'develop' the paper backing on the film roll! I also remember getting up at two a.m. and rushing downtown with my folks to see one of the main bank buildings burn down. That day I took my box camera and caught a half-dozen shots that turned out pretty well (I let someone else develop the negatives and print them that time.)


Well, the days of box cameras, flash bulbs, and chemicals that develop and 'fix' negatives are long gone for most of us. Now, it's digital photography and it can be done by anyone, using a wide assortment of instruments: iPhones, digitial tablets, pocket-sized cameras or full-size ones with a wide selection of lenses (I use the usual 18-55 mm lens, along with a prime lens for low light and a 70-300 mm. telephoto lens with image stabilization). But saying that anyone can take pictures and do it using the vast array of camera equipment now available doesn't guarantee that the photos we produce will be good ones.

Some people are still amateurs in photography and may be satisfied with that. Others are true professionals who take and sell photographs and even write detailed technical books on how to emulate what they do. But there is a third category of people (and I'm in this group) who aren't satisfied with shots that look amateurish and long to get better--without putting in the time, effort and possible expense required to become a real pro.

This article is addressed to that 'third wave' of photographers, those who--thanks to digital photography--can afford now to take lots of pictures and enjoy the results instantly via computer. I won't mention here the various photoshop 'programs,' cropping and all the other technical details that can manipulate photos. Those details you can read about elsewhere, and none of the photos that accompany this article have been 'tweaked' or enhanced by myself, using such tools.

What follows are some simple suggestions that, I think, make pictures more interesting and appealing.

Develop a Sense of Perspective

Scene on the Rhine River, facing Switzerland
Scene on the Rhine River, facing Switzerland | Source
New building construction in Germany
New building construction in Germany | Source
Ramp in business building
Ramp in business building | Source

The first photo above shows the importance of framing your subject. In this case, I used the tree trunk, branch and fence to highlight the house and fall foliage across the river. The second photo shows a common element, a construction crane, from a different angle, adding a sense of height and interest. The third photo, of a ramp in a new office building in Germany, gives the viewer a feel for what it would be like to ascend to the next level.

Take Advantage of Lighting and Timing

Contrails at dusk
Contrails at dusk | Source
Sunset at its peak
Sunset at its peak | Source
Rainbow light reflected on a church wall
Rainbow light reflected on a church wall | Source

These three photos all turned out well because of two different intersecting realities. First, I happened to be at the right place at the right time; and second, I was struck by the overall dramatic effects of the available lighting. The plane contrails were shot from the 4th floor entryway of our son's apartment in west central Germany, and the sunset was viewed from that same vantage point a little while later. The rainbow effect came from afternoon light streaming in through one small round window in an evangelische kirke and landing on a white wall. Had I been in those places at a different time or not on the 'lookout' for a dramatic scene, there would have been no pictures worth taking.

Be Alert to the Unexpected

Stickers in a car window in Europe
Stickers in a car window in Europe | Source
Six-foot high watch in Basel, Switzerland hotel lobby
Six-foot high watch in Basel, Switzerland hotel lobby | Source
Fountain display by landscaping business at a fall festival in Rastatt, Germany
Fountain display by landscaping business at a fall festival in Rastatt, Germany | Source
Actual warning sign on two-lane highway in Germany
Actual warning sign on two-lane highway in Germany | Source

These four photos all stress the unexpected. At times something just catches your eye because its so unusual or out-of-place that you just have to capture the image. The "peacemonger" sticker did that for me, as did the oversized watch and the 'green man' watering a pot. As for the road marker, yes--frogs really do cross that road at that spot each Spring (during mating season!), "making for a very slippery drive," as one local resident put it.

Watch for "Whimsy"

3rd floor window in apartment on side street in Germany
3rd floor window in apartment on side street in Germany | Source
Metal sculpture on roof of house in Basel, Switzerland
Metal sculpture on roof of house in Basel, Switzerland | Source
Clever fountain outside shop in Heidelberg, Germany
Clever fountain outside shop in Heidelberg, Germany | Source
Rabbit sculpture outside art museum in Baden Baden, Germany
Rabbit sculpture outside art museum in Baden Baden, Germany | Source
Cat sculpture near bridge in Heidelberg, Germany
Cat sculpture near bridge in Heidelberg, Germany | Source
Poster/Mural that hides door in bookstore - Shopping Mall in Ludwigshafen, Germany
Poster/Mural that hides door in bookstore - Shopping Mall in Ludwigshafen, Germany | Source

Whimsy is a kind of tongue-in-cheek, intelligent humor that catches you off-guard and makes you smile and laugh, all at the same time. Each of the above six photos did that for me. Seeing Donald Duck in the window of a German apartment was unusual enough, but seeing him at the window three floors up as if surveying passersby was more than I could resist. The tightrope walker in Basel looks real enough to be real, even from a short distance. The submerged guy spouting water, the balancing rabbit and the 'odd-ball' cat with ball were all intriguing and the one-of-a-kind sight you couldn't find anywhere else. And as for the little girl on the stack of books reading a book in front of a well-camouplaged door, well, she was just too cute for words.

Capture Children in Action

Little girl in Marktplatz - Heidelberg, Germany
Little girl in Marktplatz - Heidelberg, Germany | Source
LIttle girl and her 'babe' - on a downtown street in Ettlingen, Germany
LIttle girl and her 'babe' - on a downtown street in Ettlingen, Germany | Source
Source
Tots in 'bike race' down driveway - Magden, Switzerland
Tots in 'bike race' down driveway - Magden, Switzerland | Source

For some reason it seems children always make for good pictures. If you can combine kids and action, then it's a double-whammy. Whether the child is playing catch by herself with a giant plastic ball in the marketplace or reading a restaurant's signboard to see if anything on the menu appeals to her and the 'infant' in tow, whirling around on an inventive park ride or 'racing' down the gentle incline of a local driveway--being ready to catch children in action is always worth the wait.

Take Advantage of Color

Display area inside tasting bar - Mall in Ludwigshafen, Germany
Display area inside tasting bar - Mall in Ludwigshafen, Germany | Source
Glass ceiling in street mall - Pforzheim, Germany
Glass ceiling in street mall - Pforzheim, Germany | Source
Door to old building in Strasbourg, France
Door to old building in Strasbourg, France | Source
Snack area in German office building
Snack area in German office building | Source
Church window in Pforzheim, Germany
Church window in Pforzheim, Germany | Source

Color is almost everywhere. Sometimes it's brilliant, sometimes it's subtle--but always eye-catching. Whether it's the orange glow in a wine-tasting cafe or the employee's snack area in a major office complex, a glass-paneled ceiling in a walk-in mall (the color changes in this one, by the way--from green to yellow to red to purple!), the deep blue of old wooden doors or the kaleidoscopic effect of many different colors in a church window, color alone can make a photo memorable.

Take Notice of Unique Local Sights

Worker cleaning drainage ditch in Freiburg, Germany
Worker cleaning drainage ditch in Freiburg, Germany | Source
Bay Front Park marina - Sarasota, FL
Bay Front Park marina - Sarasota, FL | Source
Old beer wagon by brewery - Pforzheim, Germany
Old beer wagon by brewery - Pforzheim, Germany | Source
'Charlie Chaplain' mime - Strasbourg, France
'Charlie Chaplain' mime - Strasbourg, France | Source
Multi-colored car in front of art studio - Ettlingen,Germany
Multi-colored car in front of art studio - Ettlingen,Germany | Source

These five photos all feature local images that are unique, most of which dramatize something about the setting or locale in which they're spotted. The sanitation worker in Freiburg is a sight we'd never see in the U.S., while the large yacht (the second biggest in the U.S.) is used for floating art displays that anchors in marinas up and down the east coast and offers tours of the owner's art collections--for a price; we just happened to drive by it the last evening it was docked. The beer wagon and wonderfully clever mime (is it a man or a woman imitating'Charlie'?) both represent lost eras. As for the car with the unique paint job, can you think of a better mobile ad for an art studio? (Even the steering wheel is multicolored).

Don't Overlook Close-Up Details

Girl with pigtail and colorful outfit
Girl with pigtail and colorful outfit | Source
Dahlia in full bloom - Germany
Dahlia in full bloom - Germany | Source
Dahlias side-by-side - Germany
Dahlias side-by-side - Germany | Source
Yellow flower, complete with bees
Yellow flower, complete with bees | Source
Snails on leaves - Switzerland
Snails on leaves - Switzerland | Source
Beetles on trail in Schwarzwald near Rastatt, Germany
Beetles on trail in Schwarzwald near Rastatt, Germany | Source

Not all pictures have to be taken at a distance, or in cinemascope. As Dorothy discovered in The Wizard of Oz, sometimes the most important things are much closer to home, right under your nose (or feet). I love the flower-bound pigtail on the young girl clinging to her father's shoulders at an impromptu outdoor band concert in France. Just as compelling to me, at least are close-up shots of flowers (all types, all colors). As for the snails and Käfer in the last two photos, if you don't look closely when you walk by, you'll miss some great shots.

A Final Word or Two

In the long run, whatever interests or moves you will make a great picture. If you use decent equipment, spend a little time learning basic photographic terms, sharpen some fundamental skills like 'framing' your subjects and are brave enough to shoot lots of photos (that's where digital photography makes everything so easy and inexpensive) then you too can move out of the 'rank amateur' category and join the 'third wave' of photographers that isn't yet fully professional--but as Robert Redford says at the end of the movie, The Sting -- "It's awfully close."

Have fun imag-ing our world!

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