Recently I began my new series of instructional photography lessons by introducing the Rule of Thirds and then I followed that up discussing how to control your focus. These will be your first steps in taking control of your photography and moving from taking snapshots to making great photographs. Today we will continue our beginning photography series by doing some spring cleaning!
Part 3 – Clean up the clutter!
One mistake that we all make at some point or another is we take a photo that looks just fine at the time you took it when you were looking at the scene in person but once you see the photo itself you find that the person in the picture who was looking so dapper at the time now appears to have a light pole sticking out of the top of his head, electrical wires running in one ear and out the other or a nice set of “deer antlers” made of the big mess of tree branches behind him. Why didn’t we notice that at the time we took the photo?!
WE BE 3D
The problem is that when we’re looking at a scene in person we see the scene 3-dimensionally. It’s just the way our eyes work together with our brain. In person the subject typically won’t seem to have deer antlers because that tree behind him is way more minimized when viewed 3-dimensionally. However, a dSLR camera does not capture images 3-dimensionally. With a small exception of 3D cameras most cameras capture scenes in 2D. The depth is lost and now those tree branches are at the same distance from your eye as the person’s head is – which is however close you are holding the picture to your face. Thus the problem arises and what could have been a good photo is now rather odd-looking. Once you notice something prominently sticking out of someone’s head in a photograph it never goes away mentally (which is pretty much the case in real life too).
It’s not just head-mounted objects either. Overall having a lot of clutter in the background can really distract from the subject in any picture. That is one reason that “white seamless” pictures are so popular (white seamless means that the background is just solid white with nothing else). They look crisp and clean with nothing but the subject and nothing in the background to distract.
The best way to clean up a background is typically just to choose a physically less busy background. You have to train yourself to be aware of things behind when you typically would pay them no mind. It’s part of becoming a good photographer just like learning to use your camera or using the Rule of Thirds or other methods of composition. I’m usually pretty aware of what’s behind but sometimes I still make this mistake. If you are about to snap a photo and you suddenly realize that your subject has a telephone pole unicorn horn then try having them stay where they are while you just move a few steps either way. Typically it’s easier for you to find just the right new position or angle than it is for them to find the best position.
Cut the crop!
One other aspect of making a clean portrait is controlling what parts of the subject are in the picture, what parts are not and where the edge of the picture intersects various body parts. So here’s one basic rule of thumb for framing a subject in your picture or cropping the picture afterwards in editing – don’t allow the edge of the frame of the picture to go through joints or cut off digits. The edge going through the middle of a thigh is fine, cutting off half of a finger or going through the wrist is not. The former looks purposeful but the latter looks more accidental or like the person does not have a hand or a finger. It can be a little more complex than this but you’re pretty safe to just remember as a rule not to allow the edge of the picture to intersect bendable joints (elbows, knees, ankles, wrists) hands, fingers, feet or toes. It’s also OK to cut off the top of the head, especially on a cloesup headshot. I do like to show some of the hair though if the subject has some so that they don’t appear to be bald when they aren’t.
As always these “rules” are really just guidelines. You may find some exceptions as I sometimes do and that’s fine. But these are definitely something to be aware of.
Assignment: Look through some of your old photos and find ones where there is a messy background or there are background objects emerging from heads. How could you have changed the angle to prevent that? This week when taking pictures and applying the concepts from the first two lessons pay special attention to your backgrounds and see if you can catch yourself before you take a cluttered picture. Change your angle or take other steps to clean it up… and watch those joints on the crops!