By Jim Patrico
My photography education started with an introductory class at the University of Missouri. I’d enrolled in the Journalism School with the idea of becoming a writer. But in my first semester I randomly took a photo class, and my world changed. From then on, I found a home in the Photojournalism sequence, trying my best to learn how to use both images and words to tell stories. The instructors gave me the basics of photography, and my education continues to this day through trial and error. I also had the good fortune to be a photo editor for many years, including 20 with The Progressive Farmer. That job let me learn from the work of literally hundreds of photographers of all levels of expertise.
Here are five things I have learned along the way:
Watch the background. What’s behind your subject can either add to the message you want to convey, or it can distract from it. If your subject is a person, what’s behind her can explain her environment to the reader and help describe who she is. If the background is chaotic, it can draw attention away from the subject. A telephone pole growing out of the top of her head distracts the reader’s eye and screams that the photographer was careless.
If you can’t control a busy background, minimize it by using a wide aperture setting to decrease depth of field. A busy background that is blurry is less distracting than a busy background that is sharp.
Look for the light. When you click the shutter, you are capturing light. Make sure you are getting the good stuff. Everyone is familiar with the magic warm colors of early morning and early dusk. But we’re not always lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to see that magic. Try to find shade for outdoor portraits, or use a reflector to light up the shadows on a face. If you’re shooting a scenic or a working photo, be aware of the direction of the light and use the shadows rather than fighting them.
When you’re working indoors, look for diffuse light or light that glows. Example: Just inside a farm shop’s open door on a sunny day is light reflected off the floor. Look at the farmer’s face as he stands just beyond that bright spot on the floor; his skin is bathed in reflected light that even makes his eyes sparkle. If you’re in his house, pay attention to the light sources. Ceiling lights are awful; lamps are better; window light is best. In barns and auditoriums, look for spots of light that enhance the scene.
Don’t be in a hurry to start. If part of your assignment is to do portraits, save the photos for last. Do your interview, or at least chat with your subject until you are both comfortable. Information gained during your conversation can help you pick a location that will best to tell the story. During your conversations, watch how your subject stands or sits to make herself comfortable. Watch her hands and her posture. When you finally get your camera out, tell her you noticed that she likes to lean on her right elbow while her left hand dangles at her side. Ask her to try that pose while you point that intimidating camera at her. Switch the poses until you get something that feels natural for both of you. Lastly, a photographer friend once told me that he always tries to touch a subject–even a just a tap on the elbow–as he arranges a subject’s pose. That lets her feel a connection with him and also lets her know that he is in charge of this part of her day.
Talk to your camera. I’m not embarrassed to admit that my camera is smarter than I am. It knows instantaneously the perfect setting to get a proper exposure. But my camera does not know what part of the scene is most important to me, and therefore needs my input. To get the best exposure, I change my exposure control buttons to fit the situation and I place the focus dot in the right place. Examples: For a scenic landscape, I set my camera’s light meter to a matrix setting. The camera’s computers then average everything in the frame, giving only a little more weight to where the focus dot sits. For a scene that contains a variety of light intensities—say a farmer working on a planter in sun and shadow—I might choose a center-weighted setting. It puts more emphasis on the spot where the focus dot falls when determining on exposures. For a scene where there is a great difference between light and dark areas—say the farmer’s face that falls in a shaft of light in his office—I will use the spot meter setting, which uses that shaft of light in the focus dot to determine almost all the exposure setting for his face.
Pick the right lens to do the job. Wide angle lenses (24mm-35mm, for instance) expand the horizons. If you want a lot of landscape information, a wide angle might be a good choice. You might also choose a wide angle if you are doing a portrait and want to include a lot of background information. But be aware that wide angles can distort features, so don’t place your subject too near the edge of the frame. Also be aware that wide angles tend to add contrast. So, if you’re shooting on a sunny day, shadow areas might block up and go almost black. Ultrawide angles (16mm-18mm, for instance) cause great image distortion but can be invaluable in tight spaces. Note that post-production digital editing programs can reduce the distortion with a single click. Midrange lenses (50mm-70mm, for instance) give a view most like the human eye. They don’t add or subtract from a scene, but faithfully record reality. Great for many applications. Telephoto lenses (90mm to whatever your budget will allow) do more than bring things closer. They compress foreground and background in a way that distorts reality. But we’re accustomed to looking at telephoto images, and the distortion is not distracting. Want to give the impression of a packed crowd of people? Use a telephoto lens. Telephotos also tend to minimize contrast. So, shadows on a bright, sunny day are easier for the eye to penetrate. Used at a wide aperture, telephotos can blur backgrounds in a pleasing way for striking portraits.