Making Photos "Pop!"
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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!