Thoughts On Basic Photography

By Nic Stoltzfus

April 25th, 2014

A piece of driftwood at the Western Lake outfall.
A piece of driftwood at the Western Lake outfall.

One morning out on Western Lake (one of the coastal dune lakes in Walton County) the falling light of a sunset rippling off this piece of driftwood was too beautiful to pass up not taking a picture of it. I lined up the piece of driftwood using the Rule of Thirds and had the camera aperture set at 8.0 to allow sharpness throughout in this landscape shot.

Photography and cinematography have a lot in common. They bridge the gap between science and art. What I mean by this is that there is a lot of technical things goes into making a camera work. An eye is one of the most complex features of the human body. A camera is similar to the eye, except it is mechanical instead of being organic.

Here is the same image illustrating the Rule of Thirds. As you see the driftwood is off-center and lines up with the second vertical line from the left. It also is beneath the top horizontal third. The sky is not lined up using the Rule of Thirds, but it is okay because the visual interest is the driftwood.
Here is the same image illustrating the Rule of Thirds. As you see the driftwood is off-center and lines up with the second vertical line from the left. It also is beneath the top horizontal third. The sky is not lined up using the Rule of Thirds, but it is okay because the visual interest is the driftwood.

Photographers use math and mathematical principles to capture an image to present to the public as art. The photographer and the cinematographer bridge the gap between the art world and the mathematical/technical world. A brief example of this idea is how photographers use the Rule of Thirds. The camera screen is split into equally into three parts both horizontally and vertically, so you have a grid of nine identical rectangles. A well-framed sunset would have the foreground in the bottom three rectangles and the sky in the top six rectangles (Or vice versa depending if you want to focus on the foreground). This principle is founded on the precepts of geometry. There you have it—a mathematical formula underlying a photograph. Viewers of the photograph don’t have to understand the principle to say, “Oh wow. That is a good picture!” The above photograph utilizes this principle.

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson
Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson

To make a good photographer it isn’t a bad idea to have basic understanding of maths. Nowadays digital cameras do a lot of the heavy lifting for you and can automatically do a lot of things that took old-timers a while to set up by hand. But, it is still good, in my opinion, to have a rudimentary understanding of how cameras work in order to gain fuller mastery over them. I have two books that I recently purchased that have really helped me a lot on my journey to taking better pictures. The first is “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson. This was the first book I purchased and really provided a good grounding as to how the camera captures light. The camera captures things that aren’t always visible to the naked eye, and it is important to know how to set up the camera to capture these details (For example, a long exposure of the night sky can allow the camera to capture light from stars that are barely visible to the naked eye). Also, you can imply movement through certain exposures. This book does a good job explaining this.

The Digital Photography Book by Scott Kelby
The Digital Photography Book by Scott Kelby

The second book I purchased, about a month later was “The Digital Photography Book” by Scott Kelby and this gets more into digital photography and also recommends equipment that can help you out down the road.

Clyde editing a black and white image using Photoshop. Image by Niki Butcher.
Clyde editing a black and white image using Photoshop. Image by Niki Butcher.

Along with these two books I also watched Clyde Butcher’s “PhotoShop Made Simple” which gives a really good grounding as to how to use Photoshop as a digital darkroom (e-mail info@liveoakproductiongroup.com for info on how to obtain a copy). There are some ridiculously simple tricks in the videos that most people don’t use because Clyde approaches PhotoShop as an analog photographer (pre-digital, using large film plates) and goes from that point and creates a bridge to the digital world. It is a different approach to using Photoshop, and I have gotten some really great ideas from there.

Along with these three tools the thing that has helped the most is just getting out there. The old saying “practice makes perfect” is absolutely true with photography. But—you must also start the journey by learning what the tools are and how they work. So, read up about your camera and also start talking to other photo-junkies. Look at professional photographer’s pictures on Facebook, Flickr, and other places. Since I am photographing Florida I am most interested in photographers here. Those who I look up and admire include: Mac Stone, David Moynahan, and Clyde Butcher.

The wonderful thing about photography is that, like paintings, it allows each individual artist to provide a unique interpretation of the same thing. Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne may all have stared at the same French landscape but each artist interpreted it differently. Don’t be intimidated by other artists. Each of us sees the world differently and no one sees the world the same as you. So, get out there and get creative!

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