A couple weeks ago, I was in the field scouting a site for more in depth photography at a later time. The lighting wasn't great - the sun was a bit harsh but I still took a few photographs. And I must say it felt real good. I've not had a lot of time in the field lately and getting back into the grove of things was nice... really nice!
While there, I spotted some barn swallows feeding their young fledglings. As they weren't overly concerned about my presence(as long as I kept a certain distance), I was able to "work the subject" and slowly improve the photos as I worked on getting back in the groove. While downloading and going through the photos I realized I had a great opportunity to blog about how to improve photos in a couple steps.
I'm guessing most people who picked up a camera(even if it's just a smart phone) probably want to improve their photographs. If you are an aspiring amateur or hoping-one-day-to-turn-pro then it should always be top of your mind. Obviously, there's way more than 3 ways to improve your photographs. But with my little "photo session" I came up with these 3. Enjoy!
1. Watch the edges of your frame.
In this early photograph of the session, all of these branches in the right side of the screen are in focus as well as the subject. The eye finds this kinda distracting and doesn't know where it should be looking... The bird? or the branches? I had a photography professor that used to say "don't press the shutter until you've checked all the edges and corners". So true! If you see branches jutting in on the side try to re-frame to remove the distractions in the field.
These distractions not only make it hard on the eye to focus on the subject but they often lead the eye right out of the frame. I'm sure that you generally don't want to make people stop looking at your photographs... but that is essentially what happens when you have distracting stuff on the edge of the frame going out of the frame. Ways to fix this? Move, get closer, take the photo in portrait orientation, change your angle, etc. But the most important one is to look and think before you press the shutter.
2. Get closer to your subject
Robert Capa is credited with saying, "if you your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough". There is so much truth to this! You've all seen it, someone with a camera, and they are standing way to far away and taking a photograph and wondering why they aren't getting any impact. Simple! You aren't close enough!
You can fix this in three ways.
A. You move your feet. This is the best way. You can reframe and remove distracting clutter, your subject will be larger, and sometimes you can get a more interesting angle. Compare this picture 2 with the first one and you'll see it's improved drastically by getting closer and more on eye level with the subject.
Now, in wildlife photography the subject won't always allow you to get closer. It might fly away, it might get agitated, or even aggressive if you invade it's personal space. As a wildlife photographer you should work on learning body language of animals so you can judge correctly when you are starting to upset your subject.
I've said before, and probably will many more times, no photograph is worth harming an animal. If you are endangering or upsetting the subject, back off and start over or move along and go elsewhere. If you don't care about the animal's welfare than your really shouldn't be a wildlife photographer. Your lack of empathy will show up in your photos. If you want to set your photographs apart from everyone else's the first step is photographing what you love, and you're not doing that if you don't even care about the subject other than "getting the shot". Ok, back off my soapbox now... :)
B. You zoom in. This is part of working the subject. You zoom in, you zoom out, you find what works for the subject. Don't forget that you have this ability!
C. This might be controversial in some circles but if your camera has the spare megapixels, you can always crop the photograph to get "closer" to the subject. Keep in mind how many pixels you need for prints if you intend to print the photograph and don't crop below that, but otherwise cropping can solve problems such as the annoying branch you may not have seen in the field! It's always best to get it right in camera if at all possible, but sometimes... nature and wildlife just don't cooperate!
3. Watch your background
So looking at Picture 2, we've reframed to remove the distracting branches. We'd gotten closer to enhance the subject. But it's still not even a keeper. What's wrong? That background and horizon is really distracting! There's lots of things that be distracting about backgrounds. Clutter, reflections, crooked horizon lines, ugly boring skies, etc, etc.
The third tip is "watch your background" and it's probably one of the most important. How much more pleasing is this third picture than the second one? That horizon that included the ugly grey looking sky was extremely distracting as it cut across the middle of the photograph. It could've been even worse if the horizon had cut through the subject! The difference between the first picture and third is quite remarkable don't you think?
The easiest way to fix this problem is to be aware of it while you are in the field. As mentioned before check the whole frame for distractions, but also check your background. Is there a shiny water reflection competing with your subject for attention? Re-frame! Is that horizon line a problem? Move your feet and get rid of it.
As you go out in the field try to keep these things in mind. Check your frame before you press the shutter. Anything distracting? What's the background look like? Can and should I get closer? Or a different angle? If you are worried about the bird flying away, than take the photograph first, and then work the different angles. See how much you can improve on the first photograph!