[Blogger’s Note: When using the schedule function, it helps to enter the correct date. Here is last week’s post.]

We’ve all been in the situation. A friend, family member, or colleague has been on a vacation, they whip out the snapshots to show you, and they are awful. Boring. You’re trapped. Even people who have never picked up a camera suffer through this. It isn’t that the traveling shutterbug is oblivious. She knows very well what a bad photograph is. When she goes over to her brother-in-law’s place, she has to suffer through his boring snapshots. The problem is the proud traveler isn’t seeing what the rest of us are seeing. She has seen something that moves her—a beautiful vista, an impressive building, her child singing beautifully in the school pageant—and she has held up her camera and pressed a button. When she looks at the snapshot later, she is reminded of what she saw and the feelings she had at the time. The rest of us see a badly framed photograph of random scenery, usually with Martha in the foreground cut off at the knees, kilted off vertical, with black splotches where eyes should be, and a pole growing out of her head.

Some of this can be avoided by following a few of the basic rules of composition:

  • Avoid busy corners.
  • Have one subject.
  • If Martha is in the picture, show Martha (including her eyes).
  • If Martha isn’t in the picture, don’t show Martha.
  • Don’t have poles growing out of people’s heads.

The more fundamental problem is a lack of understanding that humans and cameras see differently. We see with our brains. Cameras see with film or sensors.

When you point your camera at something and push the button, the camera is not recording what you saw. The camera is recording the scene in its own way. The human eye can see a greater range of dark to light at the same time. The area between featureless shadows and featureless highlights is called dynamic range. Depending on lighting conditions and the individual person and camera, the human eye can have a dynamic range up to three times greater. Imagine you are standing in a windowed room on a sunny day. You can see all the detail in the room and all the detail outside the window. A snapshot would either have the window blown out to white or the interior of the room in deep shadow. You can work around this with High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging which involves taking three or more exposures for shadows, midtones, and highlights and combining them in post processing, but that isn’t a trick you carry around all the time. The camera is going to darken shadows and lighten highlights compared to what your eye sees. You could avoid scenes with a wide range of light values, or you can work with it—make the shadows or highlights or both part of the composition. Above all, be aware of it.

The second major difference in how cameras see differently than we do is focus. We have a circle of interest. A small area of our vision is high detail. The rest is a continuous stream of lower resolution information with details filled in by the brain with data from when those peripheral areas were in the circle of interest. We also have a focal distance and binocular vision. Usually these are linked, but they can operate independently as when you stare at a chain link fence or stucco patterns. It is very disorienting. Cameras have a focal distance, too, but they have a focal plane, not a circle of interest. Everything a certain distance from the camera is in focus. Whereas we with our circle of interest see one thing clearly, a camera sees that thing and everything else at the focal distance with the same clarity. If you want only your subject in focus, you must isolate it on the focal plane. Nothing else can be the same distance from the camera. The tiny little point-and-shoot pocket cameras have an additional problem here. They are marvelous feats of engineering and take darn good pictures. I won’t say anything against them. But they do have limits imposed by the physics of light bouncing around in those very short lenses. They always have a deep depth of field. Wherever you set your focal distance, there will be a lot in focus in front and behind.

Armed with the knowledge that cameras and humans see differently, and with the basic rules of composition, we can take pictures that might not bore our audience so intensely. Don’t hold your camera in front of you, push the button, and expect it to record what moved you to take the picture. There is a reason you want to take the picture. What is that reason? Fix it in your mind and take a picture of the reason.

I can’t tell you how many snapshots of churches I’ve been shown and been told how this church was really amazing, how it dominated the square, how it soared to the heavens. Sorry. It doesn’t. It’s a small picture of building. The building looks rather small because the picture is small. And the finial is chopped off, so it can hardly be said to soar. If you want to take a picture of a church because you were impressed by how it soared above you, walking back until you can get (almost) the whole thing in frame is going about it literally the wrong way. Turn around. Walk up to the church. Point the camera up. Get that sucker looming. Take a picture of thrusting to the sky. And don’t chop off the finials. You want to show me the amazing detail in the sculptures? A 3×5 snapshot of the whole facade from a mile away isn’t going to impress. Again, walk up and take a picture of the detail.

You want to take a snapshot of a busy market square because you are impressed by the hustle and bustle. There are lots of ways to take a picture of hustle or bustle. You could try an unusual angle; get low, tilt the camera to one side, or both. Perhaps the most straightforward method is to play with time. Your camera will tell you the fastest shutter speed it can use in the conditions to get a nice, balanced image. There is also the slowest shutter speed you can hold the camera steady enough to get crisp images of static elements such as buildings. This second speed is almost always slower than the first. Between these two shutter speeds lie hustle and bustle. Decrease your shutter speed from the fastest possible to the slowest possible and people and other moving objects start to blur with motion. Slower shutter, more motion blur. Objects moving faster will blur more. Objects closer to the camera will blur more because they have greater apparent motion. This method is also very good for flowing water: rapids, waterfalls, crashing waves, fountains, all look more dynamic with a little motion blur.

Maybe it is the colours of the market that impress you. So take a picture of the colours. Frame your picture to capture the richness and variety of colour and exclude other elements that might distract from the colours being the subject. Think, why are you taking this photo? What are you going to tell people when you show them the photo? Take a picture of that. If you have to take a dozen pictures to capture different aspects of the marketplace that struck you, do so. Make each picture a good picture of one aspect, one thing that moved you.

How about that snapshot of Don in the parade with his school’s marching band? First, do you want a photo of Don’s marching band or Don in the marching band. You can get great photos of either, but not at the same time. A photo of Don’s marching band focuses on the band, the group, the formation. A photo of Don in the marching band focuses on Don. You can do this by literally having Don in focus and the rest not, but as mentioned above this can be difficult to impossible with small point-and-shoot cameras. Another way to focus on Don is to capture him doing something different than the rest of the band. Perhaps he is the only one playing. Even easier, have him and only him looking towards the camera. The obvious way to get Don to look towards the camera is to call out, “Donny!” as the band marches past. Unfortunately he’ll probably be so embarrassed by this that he’ll look away. Not the effect you wanted. Instead slip some random hot girl in the crowd five or ten bucks to yell, “Donny!” He’ll look.

Little Suzie’s school pageant is a similar challenge. Do you want to show the pageant or Suzie? Either is great, but, if you’re taking a picture of the pageant, take a picture of some clear aspect of the pageant. Like the bustling or colourful marketplace above, isolate and capture what drew you to the subject. If you have a good DVD player, step through some movie scenes frame by frame. Or, if you have a camera that can take rapid fire exposures, capture some action and look at the resulting shots. You will see that most randomly selected moments are bland. Most pictures of people throwing baseballs show either the furthest backward extent of the windup or the moment of release. These are the moments that convey power. A great many jumping dance shots show either the launch or the top of the arc. Not many show the landing. The landing, captured in a split second, doesn’t convey power and grace as clearly as the launch or apogee. Try to capture a moment of the pageant that moves you.

To take a photo of Suzie in the pageant, isolate her like you did Don in the marching band. Take the photo when she is literally in the spotlight. Or isolate her with focus or gesture or even time. Is there a moment when she is standing still while everyone else is moving? Slow down your shutter a bit and shoot. Or, if she’s moving and you are up to it, slow down the shutter and pan with her. She’ll be sharp in a field of motion blur.

So, if you insist on showing me or other innocents your snapshots, please don’t. Instead take pictures of whatever motivated you to raise the camera and press the button. Thank you in advance.

An imposing building:

Sculpture on a building:




A colourful market:

An event:

A focus isolated subject:

A gesture isolated subject:

Panning (on face) to define subject:


About gordonrhorne

Professional dilettante past my year of grace. View all posts by gordonrhorne

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