Photography Theory

Get a handle on metering modes

Get a handle on metering modes

Being able to choose the right metering mode for your lighting conditions will help to ensure better exposure for your photos. Here's our handy guide.

A lightning-fast introduction to lighting

A lightning-fast introduction to lighting

Having taken a look at exposure and composition, it's time to turn our attention to light and lighting in our short introduction to photography series. Here, we've broken down some of the terms that you're likely to encounter and given you some examples when it comes to natural light.

Composition in a nutshell

Composition in a nutshell

Photography is a collaboration of the technical with the creative. Once you've negotiated exposure, and how to manipulate light to paint your photos, it's time to think about composition, or how you construct your photos and place your subject or subjects within the frame to create an image.

Exposure explained

Exposure explained

As a photographer one of the first things that you need to understand is exposure, or how to control light to create an image. If you're new to photography or have just picked up a camera with manual control for the first time, we suggest that you start here. Learning how to manipulate light to achieve the shots that you want is a life-long project, but these are the foundations.

Frames within frames within frames

We put pictures—whether they're paintings or photos—into frames to help direct the viewer's eye. The frame is a boundary that directs the gaze: it ensures we know precisely where to look. As well as creating a border from a mounted frame and from the edges of a photo itself, it's also possible to bring focus to your subject and compositional strength and depth by using natural frames within your photos. Despite the name, a 'natural frame' doesn't have to be organic in origin, although trees, streams, and cave mouths do indeed create beautiful natural frames, rather the term describes a frame-within-the-frame. Look out for windows, doorways, and arches—in fact anything that bounces the eye back towards the subject—to act as a frame.

Why the eye likes natural frames

Primarily we appreciate images that include natural frames because they direct the eye straight to the photo's subject. As the eye travels towards the edges of the image—and especially if it contains lines that drag the gaze away from the subject—a frame helps to draw it back toward the focal point, just where you want it.

The eye knows precisely where to look (Image by Haje)

Second, they can bring a sense of perspective and three-dimensionality to an image, giving you the sense that you're looking through one layer of an image and on to another.

Moving on through

A frame can also give a sense of place or give context to your photos, for example, indoors versus outdoors or a modern area versus a historical one.

Finally, we find images that make use of natural frames attractive because it brings a sense of order to the image, in much the same way that triangles bring order to scenes with multiple subjects. They place limits on the scene and provide it with some boundaries.

Composing with natural frames

Just because your scene has a terrific natural frame within it, it doesn't mean to say that you can ignore any other compositional theory. You still need to consider your use of lines, your subject placement, and the balance of the shot. Remember: combining these compositional techniques can help to elevate a good photo to a great one.

Think about other compositional elements, not just the frame

Frames and depth-of-field

If you're planning on using a natural frame in your composition, consider if you want the frame itself to be sharp or blurred. If your subject and frame are at different distances, but you wish them both to be in focus, you'll need to use a relatively small aperture to achieve an adequate depth-of-field. Of course, having the frame in focus might prove a distraction and defeat its purpose, in which case using a larger aperture and isolating the subject using a shallow depth-of-field will work better.

Choose your focal point


If you're inside a cave or tunnel and using its natural form to provide a frame for a brightly lit sbject on its outside, you will have to meter accordingly. Spot-metering for the well-lit subject might be the easiest option. Alternatively you could dial in some negative exposure compensation should you prefer to stick with matrix (or evaluative) metering.

Meter for the subject

In order to capture the full dynamic range of such a scene, with its bright exterior and dark interior, you would need to shoot two differently metered images and combine them using post-processing software.

Don't over do it

Using frames-within-a-frame is such an effective compositional tool that it's all too easy to get carried away with them and over-use them. One natural frame within a portfolio is clever; a dozen is cliché. Just because a potential natural frame exists doesn't mean it is the best way to compose the shot; it needs to bear some relationship to the main subject.

If you're not sure if a natural frame is appropriate for your photo, ask yourself: Does the frame add drama to the photo? Does it help to tell a story, add context, or give a sense of depth? Does the frame help to illustrate or enhance the focal point of the photo? If the answer is no to any of these, you might be better looking for an alternative composition.

Why patterns make pretty pictures

Pattern. Repetition. When you hear these words, what springs to mind? Maybe a print dress or possibly wallpaper for the former, and likely a sense of ennui for the latter? The words themselves do not necessarily evoke any sense of excitement or anticipation. The prospect of shepherd's pie for supper, every night, for the rest of your life is certainly not the kind of repetition that sets the mouth watering. But the senses are, actually, rather fond of both pattern and repetition. The ear appreciates rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. The eye favours rhythm, flow, and stability, too. By introducing them to your compositions, you have the opportunity to create appealing, compelling images. Man-made patterns tend to be regular and this can make them feel quite constrained and formal, whereas natural patterns usually have irregularities and feel more relaxed. But not always.

Pattern hunting

The act of deliberately watching out for patterns to photograph might feel a little, or even a lot, contrived, but once you start you might find it a little difficult to stop. Patterns present themselves both organically and synthetically, from flower petals and fruit peels to tyre-treads and architectural work.

Choose a point of focus, crop closely, and you have a repetitive but not necessarily boring image.

Get in close or shoot from far away; come down low or climb up high and you can pick out patterns wherever you are.

Consistent patterns

By isolating a pattern from its background, it's possible to imbue it with a sense of the infinite. With no evident beginning or end, for all the viewer knows the pattern extends interminably. Creating this sort of indefinite image is relatively easy: identify a pattern and get in close using either a telephoto or macro lens. By adjusting the aperture of your lens, you can choose a shallow depth of field with the pattern blurring into infinity, or one that's sharper across the frame.

Where does it begin, or end?

Broken patterns

Spot a break in a pattern, make it the focus of your image, and you have a great photo. Look for the red apple in the pile of green, the solitary shoe facing in the wrong direction on the shoe stall at the market, or the silk scarf in the row of woollen ones. Wherever there is an aberrance in a flow, there is a photo.

The street art is intriguing, but it's the boxes of chalk that focus the eye.

Pattern and colour

If you've decided to fill your frame with a single colour, or variations on a particular colour, you might find that it's patterns that give the photo interest.

It's all brown, but the variations in shape, texture, and shade give the image interest.

Composing for patterns

You'll often find that the constituent parts of the pattern create the compositional imperative for your photo: lines will point in a particular direction and dictate frame orientation or an aberration in a row will set a natural point of focus.

The angle prevents a feeling of confrontation and brings some dynamism to what could be a static shot.

What you need to do is use these indicators to create tension and balance in the frame. Try setting the point of focus off-centre—think of the rule of thirds—and angling lines on the diagonal to prevent them from presenting as flat or confrontational.

The sense of the infinite is appropriate at this Commonwealth War Grave in Thailand; but the repetition lends an important sense of calm, too.

Most important is to be certain of what you are trying to convey in your photo—from the feeling of the infinite, the odd one out, to the sense of consistency—to design the strongest image possible.

Remember: pattern and repetition does not have to be boring.

When cropping heads isn't a photographic crime

Have you ever had someone take a photo of you and a friend, only to find out later that they cut off the tops of your heads? It looks ridiculous, and if someone’s head 'sticks out' of the composition, your photo is ruined. In other words, it’s not hard to imagine where the don’t-crop-people’s-heads rule came from. When you are working with people and portraits you will soon learn that there are good ways to crop people, and others that are not so good. Cropping heads is at the top of the naughty list. Don’t do it! Slicing off some of the lovely Sarah's head would not have been a good look

Except that, sometimes, cropping heads can be highly effective.

When can you break this rule-of-rules? When you've got in close—really close—to your subject. If your composition is focused only on somebody’s face, it can improve the shot to crop in close.

Get closer!

Don't be afraid to break the rule and crop in close and slice something off of the top, bottom, or sides of the head when the features of the face are the focal point of your composition. The reasoning is this: if you’re going to get in close, get in really close. By filling the frame completely with someone’s face it can make cropping her or his head unavoidable, but it also doesn’t look unnatural.

The key is to decide whether your composition is mainly about the body, upper body (shoulders and above), head, or just the face. Each type of shot has a different purpose, and only the face shots will look natural if you decide to crop the head. Otherwise it merely looks like you failed to plan your shot.

Intentional or accidental? It's hard to tell.

But in-keeping with the adage that if you're going to break the rules, break them properly, if you are going to crop into somebody’s head, make sure that you do it properly. A composition where only a thin sliver of someone’s head is cut off looks accidental. If you go even closer and cut them off across their forehead, the composition looks a lot more powerful, and at least nobody is left wondering whether or not you did it by accident!

Be bold - get in close!

Be bold!

Rules Screen Shot More unusual ways of looking at things, remembering rules, and then breaking those rules, are in my lovely book, The Rules of Photography and When to Break Them. It's available as an e-book and in a dead tree version (UK, US).


Learning to look (or training your photographic eye)

When you've been shooting for a while, you might start to notice that as well as being able to handle your camera more deftly, you're also pressing the shutter more instinctively and with a greater degree of conviction that you'll create a good image. Indeed, you are producing a greater number of better photos. While this might seem to be some form of photographic clairvoyance, it's actually rather more prosaic than that. You've actually grown more observant as a photographer and instead of developing some kind of sixth sense, you're learning to look.

Looking for light

First and foremost, and maybe without even realising it, you're becoming more attuned to light, to its quality, to its direction, to its temperature, and to its quantity. You're getting a feel for the type of light that makes for great photography and you're growing a better understanding of where to stand to make the most of it.

Light. Shade.

If you're still learning about light, start by thinking about from where the light is coming and how it's falling on your subject. Consider what's illuminated, what's in shade, and how where you're positioned will have an imapct on that.

Knowing your domain

When you understand how a game is played or the schedule of an event, it makes it easy to anticipate how things might go or what should happen next. For example, a tennis player about to receive a serve is likely to stand on the appropriate side of the court; a religious marriage ceremony usually follows a particular format. These are illustrative examples of 'domain knowledge.' By knowing how tennis is played and religious weddings are conducted, it gives you a fighting chance of predicting what’s going to happen next.

They don't all do this...

That sort of 'domain knowledge' is vital in many aspects of life, but it's also darned useful when it comes to photography, whether it’s nature, landscape, portrait, wedding, or even street photography.

The more familiar we are with our subject matter, the better we become at anticipating its 'movement': its pace, nuance, and rhythm. If you photograph enough sunrises and sunsets, you'll develop an intimate knowledge of how the light changes as the sun sinks beneath the horizon or the impact of clouds on colour. Similarly, if you spend enough time observing people in a particular public place, you’ll become more familiar with the way they interact with one another within that space. Complete enough portrait sessions and you’ll become quicker at noticing how comfortable or otherwise your subjects are in front of the camera, and interact with them so that you are able to capture their essence.

Knowing how easily someone gets the giggles–and responds to them–made for a great shot

When it comes to sports photography, knowing how the game works and what to expect is a vital element in ensuring that you can get a shot. Understanding the idiosyncracies and routines of animals will help you with your wildlife and your pet photography.

This increased observance, whether of people, environment, or structure, increases your chances of capturing a precise moment because you know what to expect.

Wait a little; watch a bit A girl in a coffee shop, staring at the guys walking by.

It helps then, to be prepared for whatever it is that you're planning on photographing. As well as doing some research, make an effort to actively think about what you see. Even when you're out and about and not especially in a position to be taking photos, train your eye to look for 'moments': for shafts of light, for interactions and reactions, for interesting backgrounds or subjects. Being able to anticipate what comes next will help you to get the shots you want.

Thinking before you shoot

Perhaps the most common mistake anyone who's new to photography makes is adopting a 'scatter-gun' approach. All too often when confronted with a scene worthy of photographing, the temptation is to fire away without really thinking about the images we’re capturing. This is partly because it costs nothing to take a photo these days, and partly because we feel that if we take enough shots we’re bound to stumble across the image we want to capture.

That face!

This is something that we've covered in depth of Photocritic before now, but it bears repeating. It is much better though to slow down and spend some time observing the subject. This isn’t always possible if you’re photographing a short-lived or unexpected event, but in most cases you do usually have time to consider your subject and assess it for its specific qualities. You can explore a variety of shooting angles, change your point of focus or depth of field, or wait for a change in the light, even shift your subject’s position or posture. You should learn to visualise the image you want to capture and actively seek out that image, rather than reacting to images you’ve shot in the hope that one of them fits the bill.

Let wedding photographers do their jobs; or why you can't expect a disc of unedited images on the cheap

Oh dear. That was a bit awkward. Sitting on the floor at my nephew's birthday party, trying to capture pass-the-parcel photos that weren't anything other than wadges of wrapping paper thrust towards me in a multi-coloured de-forested haze, I encountered a fairly recently married and really rather belligerent woman who who wanted to berate me for the fees charged by photographers. In particular, she was infuriated that her wedding photographer wouldn't just hand over a DVD of all the original images from her big day and couldn't understand why they needed to be edited and why she couldn't have them straight away. Yes, oh dear. Despite being focused on my attempts to capture my nephew smiling and my niece not resembling a demonic, sugar-crazed monster, I did try to offer a reasonable explanation for why her wedding photographer wouldn't just hand over raw images for a flat fee. Naturally, I coined what I think is the perfect analogy when it was too late and I was on my way home. Thus for the benefit of everyone who might yet face this scenario, here it is:

Asking a photographer to hand over a memory card, USB, or DVD of raw images is akin to asking an author to present you with their book in manuscript format: unedited, unformatted, and including the paragraphs and chapters that didn't make it.

For any brides, grooms, or parents of the soon-to-be- or just-marrieds out there who might be wondering the same thing, I hope this helps.

Photo 04-10-2014 15 41 24

A bundle of unedited, unprocessed images isn't the whole story, the right story, or the finished story. You have to trust the photographer to produce a final version that's just right, as right as a book is on publication, as a painting on hanging in a gallery, or as a sculpture upon exhibition. What you're paying for is the complete product, finished by the photographer and making use of all of her or his skills. While any photo needs to be properly exposed and well composed, there are adjustments and edits that need to be made in post-production. And sometimes, they look better in black and white, too. This is all a part of what a photographer does; it is an integral part of of the process of creating images.

I pronounce you... (Image by Haje)

To continue with the book/author analogy, when you purchase a book, you don't get to choose the words on the page, or the images that might illustrate it; what you do get to choose is the format in which it comes, whether that's a signed hardback copy or a digital download. When your wedding photographer has done her or his job to tell the story of your wedding day, you can select from luxury albums or USB transfer.

The book needs to be finished before you buy it

If you're still not sure why photography is so expensive, there are plenty of photographers who've done their best to break down their costs and explain why wedding photography starts at around £1,500. (Yes, there are people who do start cheaper, and some more expensive. It's an average figure.) We even have an article covering it here on Photocritic. However, hoping that you'll be able to reduce your costs by asking for unedited images in digital format is a misrepresnetation of your wedding photographer's job.

Till death do you part (Image by Haje)

I don't especially want to launch into a 'you get what you pay for' tirade about the perils of hiring an inexperienced photographer and the images from your wedding day being an unmitigated disaster. I understand that some people have very restricted budgets and finding the fees requested by some photographers is beyond them. There are photographers to suit every budget; you need to be certain of what they can provide and if it meets your expectations, but you must let them do their jobs. And that job is a finished product, just like an author's book.