The way you see is often more important than what you photograph.
When we look at photos of extraordinary subjects we oooh and ahhh because we are amazed at images of things outside our realm of experience.
But often the beauty in an image isn’t in what it’s about. For example, Van Gogh’s Starry Night is an ordinary scene—a city and a sky with stars. But it’s the kind of painting that we can stare at for a long, long time. It’s enjoyable to look at. The studied way that painters like Van Gogh created pictures is something that people who coax beauty out of pixels instead of paint, can learn.
1. Get to know color.
Color is one of the basic elements of any composition. Deciding whether to limit the colors of an image or to let it burst into a kaleidoscope is a choice that could change the impact of the photograph. Using a limited color palette can serve to accentuate shape in a photo, and give it atmosphere.
Similarly, controlling the color palette can give the image story. The above photo, if you look at it as a whole, is broken into two complementary colors—orange-red and green. The simplicity of these two blocks of color help the image bind the composition together, even though there are lots and lots of smaller shapes that could potentially be distracting. It’s the colors that help give it balance.
2. Get to know texture.
Texture is another element that make up the ‘bare bones’ of an image. Texture helps to give depth; when light falls on a texture, the shadows and highlights help to define the object’s shape.
3. Get to know contrast.
Contrast is useful because it is what gives our world edges. Our eyes perceive shape because things around us have edges. Contrast, which happens when something light is next to something dark, can help to define shapes through their edges.
4. Get to know shape.
Texture and contrast both give things shape. Shape, whether it is solid or implied through lines, help us to recognize patterns in a composition.
Shapes also help us to judge scale and depth in an image. Shapes that appear larger give us the sense of being closer; smaller shapes might make us think they are farther.
5. Get to know balance.
Balance often suggests equal weight, as in the balance in a weighing scale happens when two objects, one on each side, are equal in weight and do not tip the scale one way or the other.
But in artistic composition, balance is something that doesn’t necessarily happen between two symmetrical shapes. You could make a composition that is totally symmetrical; but unfortunately this is something the brain finds totally boring. So we have to find balance in asymmetry. Asymmetry, apparently, is super exciting for the human brain.
6. Get to know light.
Finally, light—that element our camera craves most—is definitely something you need to pay attention to. Light gives us tones. If we only paid attention to values of light and dark, we would see differently.
If we spent a lot of time looking at paintings and effective photographs, we would begin to see a few really important things that painters and photographers do. In the journey to improving your photography, focusing on basic artistic skill can help change the way you see. Changing the way you visualize an image can help you refine your photographic vision.
For our good friend Van Gogh, art was not an accident but a series of well-thought out choices.
What choices will you learn to make this week?
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