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Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part IV (“Bullseye” Photography)

Barn in Wheat Field
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Whew, we just covered some pretty “techy” areas in Parts II and III. If you have read on, I appreciate your patience, and there is good news. This one is much easier!  I want to talk about composition here. I left this for last because for the genre we are discussing (for lack of a better description, “smartphone snapshots”), it is perhaps the least important. Focus and exposure are going to take you a long way. Then we can think about composition (and the whole “level horizon” thing is really about composition – it is just such a common error that it got front and center coverage).

Hitting the bullseye is a good thing for darts, bullets, and arrows… photographs; not so much

Another very common thing I see is what I call the “bullseye” approach. Hitting the bullseye is a good thing for darts, bullets, and arrows. In most photographs; not so much. Our internalized image of a camera lens is round. On most cameras (including smartphones) there is an “aiming” point directly in the center of the viewing screen. If you don’t have movable metering and focus points, you are going to have to use that center aiming spot to achieve your photograph. Until (if) smartphone manufactures begin to put more sophisticated camera operating features in their native apps, you will do well to find one of the free, or nominal cost third party camera apps, as they will give you the much desired ability to use the camera as it should be used.

On most cameras (including smartphones) there is an “aiming” point directly in the center of the viewing screen

Given these built-in parameters, it is no wonder that many of the photographs we see posted have their subject dead center in the middle of the picture. If we are making a portrait of the subject (generally a front on of a person or pet), that is often desired. For most other (contextual) photographs, it usually results in boring composition.

Barn in Wheat Field
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

At the same time, the vast majority of scenic images have a “horizon” somewhere in the image. The most common fault here, is placing that horizon line across the middle of the frame. The Barn in the yellow wheat field is a good example. Our immediate thought is that the barn is our subject and we almost involuntarily center it on our aiming point, – in the middle of the frame. As you can see from the second image, moving it to the lower approximatley 1/3 or even the approximately upper 1/3 makes a more interesting, dynamic (and even believable) photo.  Whether you place it higher or lower, will probably depend on whether you want to highlight the foreground or the background of the image. Moving the subject out of the dead center of the image will usually make a more dynamic and pleasing picture.

Farm Scene
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

How do we accomplish that?  I have made reference to several of the tools discussed in Parts I – III. The most important of these tools will be the grid lines. I always have grid lines on on all of my cameras. The most common grid pattern is based on the artists’ “rule of thirds.” Perhaps the majority of images can be made using this grid. With a rule of thirds grid, the intersection of the lines places points in the upper let, upper right, lower right and lower left of the viewing screen. The horizontal grid lines, in addition to helping with level horizons, will help you determine where the horizon should be placed.  The vertical lines help to get the image out of the “bullseye.” It is often my preference to place my subject on or near one of the 4 intersections described above. It depends on the subject and often which way it is looking or moving (a rule of thumb is that you would prefer an animate object looking or moving into the picture). I “contrived” the farm scene image in Photoshop, to create the centered composition. In practice, I only rarely compose a shot like that, so I didn’t really have a good example. In the image I actually shot, you can see that the barn is roughly centered around the top right intersection, and the cattle are at or just below the bottom left (there are some other problems with this image. I would like the cows moving into the image. But in the words of Mick Jagger, “you can’t always get what you want 🙂 ).

Rule of Thirds Grid

The other tools we discussed will now also become very useful. If you move the focusing point out of the center of the image to the point where you want to place your subject, you will now ensure that the subject is not only dynamically placed, but there is a much greater chance that the important parts of it will also be in sharp focus.

Farm Scene
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

For exposure the metering point you want to measure in the picture may not be in the center. Most often, I find it is at the same point as my subject, but not always. Again, these are smartphone snapshots, so we don’t want to have too much to think about. I like to “pre-plan” a shot when I can. With my smartphone, I most often just move the focus/exposure point to the point in the image where I want it and then shoot.

Lobster Boat
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Sometimes composing a scene involves taking a step back and looking at context. When action is happening quickly, you don’t always have time to do that. But if you do have time, it pays to look with your eyes and think about what you want to include (and what you do not want to include) in an image. This is especially true of a scenic shot. The lobster boat shot in Bernard, Maine, is a good example. The boat was the first thing that caught my attention. So the shot is about the boat, right? Centering in on the boat certainly makes this point. But would a “composed” shot be better? Stepping back, either by moving your body, or changing the zoom factor, makes a completely different image. I’ll argue that it is a better, more interesting image and that the boat is STILL the main subject in the photograph. And my original “composition” also gets rid of that void expanse of blue water in the foreground of the image.

Lobster Boat
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

Composition is personal and subjective. I stood next to my best friend, Rich, to shoot this image. I don’t remember, but I would bet his composition was different (and probably better) than mine. What I have talked about here are not “rules.” They are guidelines. And rules and guidelines are “made to be broken.” There are certainly cases (for example, closeups and portraits) where centering the image is desired. But some thoughtful application of these guidelines will make your social media images more interesting.

I hope you have enjoyed this short series. A couple things. First, this stuff seems complicated and time-consuming. But it really isn’t. If you take some time to find and download a camera app, and set things up before you go out with the phone, you will find that paying attention to things like horizon, focus and exposure will quickly become habits and you will do them without really thinking about them. Composition may take a bit more time, but I truly encourage you to try it. Everything I have said in all four installments are “rules” or guidelines. They are not laws. They are only rules. And the age old saying that “rules are made to be broken,” certainly applies to photography.  It is your picture and you should feel free to break the rules when it suits your vision and taste.

Hopefully, if you slogged through all 4 of these blogs, that there was one or two tidbits of useful information.  As always, thanks for reading.


One Response

  1. Thanks for sharing these guidelines of useful information. It was a pleasure to have read them. I am sure my photos will look better from what I learnt.

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