So you want to take your photography to the next level?
At some point on our photographic journeys we have all taken a look at other people’s work and compared it to our own and thought ‘what is the point I’m never going to be as good as he/she is..’ Taking your photography to the next level involves hard work and practice but with a few simple ‘tricks’ if that’s what you want to call them, you can get ahead of 95% of the other photographers out there.
Saying that, this isn’t some magic filter or effect you can apply to make a standard image into something great. You still need to put a lot of thought into what you are shooting, but next time you are on location or the moment presents itself you will be better prepared to capture the best possible composition using the subtle techniques that I’m about to explain.
I’ll be using this photo of mine to demonstrate the techniques that you should be using:
1) Pick A Main Subject
It might seem obvious at first but when photographing something like a landscape it’s tempting to get the wide angle lens out and try to fit everything into the frame. While this can produce stunning images of grand vistas, it’s also easy for it to become overwhelming.
Even with a wide angle it’s a good idea to try and pick an interesting focal point that stands out within the frame that people’s eyes will naturally be drawn too and rest upon. In my example it’s definitely the setting sun that’s producing a stunning sun star as it dips below the horizon.
(Tip: to get the maximum ‘sun star’ effect use the smallest aperture possible. It will really bring out the sun’s rays giving you huge bursts of light radiating out from the centre. I took the f-stop all the way down to 22 in this example).
Get as much into the shot as you feel needs to be, that’s where your own style and vision comes in, but if there is obviously a main feature of the image it helps to tell a story. All of the other elements contribute and lead you up to the main subject. That’s where number 2 on this list comes in.
2) Leading Lines
If you’re not sure exactly what leading lines are they are pretty much what they sound like. They are lines that lead the eye naturally to a focal point or main subject of your choosing.
Leading lines should be natural and subtle. If someone isn’t aware of this technique in photography they should do their job and lead the eye without the person even realising that’s what is happening.
As you can see there are some pretty strong leading lines in this example. Choosing your composition well to make use of natural leading lines is something that will set your image apart from the crowd immediately. That’s why it’s always best to scout out or research a location before a shoot as it gives you the opportunity to visualise the image.
Also getting there with enough time to spare so you can set up your composition (in this case before the sun started to set) is important because sometimes it can take time to get all of the elements you want to include in your photo in the shot as well as making use of natural leading lines.
3) Foreground Interest
If your main focal point is somewhere in the distance, or sometimes it doesn’t even have to be that far away really, it’s a good idea to get some kind of interest in the foreground of the photo. Having interesting elements in the foreground adds to the story of your photo plus it helps to put the viewer ‘into’ the image.
When an image has something in the foreground it gives the overall feeling of perspective and depth. In this case it’s very easy for somebody to feel as though they are standing on the side of the hill, on the path, watching the sunset.
If I had used a long lens and captured the sun setting over the mountains a lot closer up you would have no clue about where the photo was taken from. If you zoomed right in you could be taking the photo from the top of an apartment block and no one would be able to tell.
If someone wanted to replicate this image they could, with reasonable accuracy, figure out where I was standing and what angle it’s shot from.
So having an interesting foreground that people can use as a reference point helps to conjure up feelings of actually being there, behind the camera, themselves. Plus it adds depth which can make the photo feel “bigger” if that makes any sense.
4) The Right Lighting
This point might be the most common sense and obvious one but it’s still no less important, done right it will help elevate your photography to the next level. If you have every other element in place but don’t have the right light then the image is going to lack the wow factor.
The hour just after the sun rises and the hour before the sun sets are called the golden hours for a reason. Not only are they the best times to take photos using natural light but because of the sun’s low position in the sky during these hours the light is very soft and flattering which gives images a nice warm feel and plenty of natural contrast.
Sometimes very bright harsh light in the middle of the day can be just as bad as having no light at all.
Little splashes of light in the right places are not something that can be, or in my opinion should be, replicated in post production. If you take a photo on a dull, grey, overcast day it’s going to turn out ‘flat’ looking and lacking contrast. Which leads me nicely onto my 5th and final point..
5) Textures & Contrasting Elements
To prevent your images looking flat and dull it’s important to get plenty of textures and contrast into an image. Now this one isn’t a rule never to be broken. If you are going for a minimalist type shot where a certain degree of ‘flatness’ is what your aim is then great but if you don’t have that in mind then think about trying to capture some in your shot.
I kept the shadows that the rocks and palm trees are producing quite dark on purpose. It gives a lot of contrast against the bright sky and the even brighter sun that punches through the image.
The rocky path and uncut grass both add a lot of texture in the foreground which almost makes you want to touch the image (ok so that might just be me then) but it does help to add a 3D aspect to the overall composition. It helps to make the photo ‘pop’ to use photographer speak.
So if you keep these 5 tips in mind the next time you go out shooting then you really can take your photography to the next level. To give you an example of what I mean, below are two images of the same sunset on different days but with 2 different compositions.
The top image is fine, it’s a lovely photo but when comparing it to the bottom one there is no competition. The bottom image wins every time. And it’s all because of the 5 points I have just talked about.
The most important thing is not to give up just because you think your work will never be as good as another photographers. Remember that the work you are seeing from other people is the very best they have to offer (otherwise it wouldn’t be publicly available). They may have hundreds of other photos of a similar thing before they got to the one you are seeing.
Practise and don’t get discouraged! And also don’t forget that a little bit of luck can go a long way, you’ll get perfect conditions one day, you just have to be out there with your camera! If you need proof that some of the best photos can unexpectedly come out of nowhere then check out my article about how I stumbled across one of my favourite images: The Story Behind – Barge on the Danube.
Thanks for reading my tips on how you CAN take your photography to the next level!