Breaking Old Habits in Photography

I photograph live music a lot (in this shot is soul legend Charles Bradley), but when I feel like I’m in a rut, the concert season is over or I’m simply bored...

Breaking Old Habits in Photography

Text & Photography b y J. Dennis Thomas, as published in Shooting |

It’s very easy to develop habits and get stuck in a photographic rut. This process can be so gradual that you may not even realize or notice that you’re stagnating creatively. Your pictures can look perfectly fine, but you may have stopped growing and advancing as a photographer without even knowing it.

The key to keep growing as a photographer is not only to learn new methods of taking photographs, but also to be careful not to use the techniques that you already know excessively. You don’t need to completely stop using the techniques that you like—sometimes using your favorite techniques with more subtlety is all that needs to be done.

I’ve picked out a few of the most common methods of shooting that I’ve noticed many photographers have become locked into using, from the newest amateurs to seasoned professionals (including myself). Identifying these habits and trying something new will lead to a much more diversified body of work.

…I like to break out the macro lens and experiment with abstractions using everyday objects and different tools like off-camera f lash.

HABIT: SIMILAR SUBJECT MATTER

Some folks like to photograph f lowers, some prefer birds, portraits, landscapes, macro, sports, architecture, and on and on.

TRY THIS: SOMETHING NEW

Get out there and challenge yourself by expanding your horizons. Changing up your subject matter can open up your mind to new and possibly more inventive techniques that may also be applicable to your preferred subject matter.

Depth of field plays an important role in directing the viewer’s attention in a photo. It can also have a dramatic effect on the atmosphere of an image. The key is knowing when to use shallow depth of field and when to go deep. Too often, photographers opt for a blurred-out background (top) when the effect isn’t warranted. For example, the shallow depth of field adds an ethereal and artistic feel to this simple photo of a phonograph, which works great—it’s the right choice here. On the other hand, the image above uses extreme depth of field to convey a sense of hyperrealism. Photographing this scene wide open would cause the details to be lost, which would make the image less intense.

HABIT: SHOOTING WIDE OPEN (AT THE LENS’ LARGEST APERTURE)

This is, by far, the most overused method of shooting that I’ve noticed in the past few years. Many photographers discover fast primes and go crazy with the “bokeh” photos.

TRY THIS: STOP DOWN

While a sharp subject and a nebulously out-of-focus background may look great for many subjects, try stopping down and getting more into focus. Look for and pay attention to background details; they can help tell a story in your photo.

In this image, I used a standard vignette, which draws the eye into the frame, but the bright spot in the center competes for attention with the main subject: the f loral arrangement.

HABIT: VIGNETTE

Adding a vignette to the edges of the image when postprocessing is an easy way to draw the viewer’s eye to the center of the frame. Unfortunately, your subject isn’t always in the center of the frame. One mistake I commonly see is the heavy-handed use of vignette that overlays the subject. This can obscure important parts of the image, making them appear dull and gray.

TRY THIS: USE A LIGHTER TOUCH

If the subject is off-center, use a “dodging and burning” technique instead. I use the Radial filter in Lightroom 5 to make a subject pop, as opposed to the Vignette slider in the Effects panel. This gives you the same effect as a vignette, but it’s centered on your subject, not just the edges of the frame.

In this image, I placed the model according to the Rule of Thirds. Setting it off-balance works with the leading lines in the background.

HABIT: THE RULE OF THIRDS

This is a great rule of composition that can also turn into a photographic cage. Neophytes tend to stick their subjects smack-dab in the middle of the frame, so one of the first things they’re taught is to use the Rule of Thirds to make the composition more interesting, and it works. One thing to watch for is always placing the subject in the exact same off-center spot.

TRY THIS: COMPOSE THE SUBJECTS IN DIFFERENT AREAS OF THE FRAME

Another option is to compose outside the thirds. And don’t forget: Sometimes placing the subject right in the middle works perfectly. Visualize the entire frame when considering the Rule of Thirds.

For this shot, the frame created by the concrete works to keep the image interesting, and placing the model in the center of the frame works best.
Here, I used a Radial filter to make an off-center vignette that draws your attention to the floral arrangement and holds it there.

Both photos were taken out in west Texas. Many people think that landscapes are only shot with a wide-angle, such as the top shot of Highway 285 in the morning, but the image on the bottom was taken with a 200mm telephoto lens. You can see how the telephoto lens compresses the Chisos Mountain Range and f lattens the peaks into a pattern, making for an unconventional and interesting composition.

HABIT: RELYING ON WIDE-ANGLE LENSES

Wide and fisheye lenses can add a great effect to many images, especially when used creatively, but when used for a majority of shots, the impact of the perspective distortion can become dull and monotonous.

TRY THIS: EXPERIMENT WITH LONGER FOCAL LENGHTS

Try using normal to long focal lengths for added variety. This creates different perspectives to your images. Conversely, if you find yourself using longer focal lengths most of the time, grab a wide-angle to mix it up.

In some images, like this psychedelic “Cool Bus,” a highly saturated color scheme works out great.

HABIT: OVERSATURATED COLORS

Sometimes, in an attempt to make an image stand out, there’s a tendency to oversaturate the colors so that they’re very bright and seem to “pop” from the screen. This can work, but it can also lead to your images looking garish and gaudy.

TRY THIS: TAKE IT EASY

Many times, more natural colors are better for the image. Adding color to make the image stand out doesn’t necessarily make for a better image. Or, try this technique: Desaturate the image a bit to lighten the tones and create an almost pastel look.

In this portrait, I reduced the color saturation for an almost washed-out pastel look, which better fits the image. Adding too much color to the portrait could easily change the entire tone of the photo.

 

In this image, I cranked up the Clarity to +100. The micro-contrast is over the top, which gives the portrait an unflattering tone.

HABIT: THE CLARITY SLIDER

The Clarity slider, available in Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom 5, is a great tool for adding micro-contrast and bringing out details in many subjects. I mostly see this effect overused in portraiture when photographers are trying for a hyperreal effect. It can work well in some cases, such as with portraits of men with hard lines on their faces, as well as sports figures, in which it adds a bit of harshness that helps to show some character. Where I often see this go wrong is when it’s used on portraits of women. It takes the softness of a woman’s face and makes it appear hard and angular, which is typically less f lattering.

TRY THIS: SHOW YOUR SOFT SIDE

When doing portraits of women—or of a couple that includes a woman—leave Clarity at 0 or even back off a tiny bit (I never go more than -10 or so). Most women prefer to appear soft, which can ease the appearance of lines and wrinkles.

This image uses the same exact settings except Clarity is left at 0. The appearance is much more gentle and alluring.

 

via DPMag