Dear Beginner, You make ripples!

Dear Beginner, You make ripples!

Photographers can cause ripples.

Recently I had an email from a reader who had some basic photography questions. He was dealing with some pretty common issues that most beginners deal with. He has been frustrated that his images, though taken in some very exotic locations don’t seem to grab the viewer. After I looked over some of his images and made some strong suggestions, I got the email below.  His questions are typical for where he is in his photographic journey. I figured the answers I would give might be helpful for others in the same place. So, I thought I would share them with you. I hope any beginners reading this, will find them helpful.

Beginner: Regarding composition — is there a book that you would recommend above the others?

Matt: Yes, several. But the one to start with is by Michael Freeman called “The Photographer’s Eye” from Larks Books. Michael goes into great depth covering composition and design. This book has really become a standard for beginners and advanced photographers alike, and no better place to start.

Beginner: The human side of my struggle in composition. A lot of the time I am walking around through a market etc and taking a lot of pictures on the fly.  I am not looking at the images after I take them but just trying to get the scene before people start to react to the camera.

Matt: This reminds me of an old joke. A guy walks into see his doctor and tells him, “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” The Doctor replies wisely, “Well, stop doing that!” The answer is stop walking through the market and stop and experience the market and it’s life. You will never get more than”snaps” if all you do is breeze through a place and take snaps. We get good images because we seek them out, we watch for them, we observe life around us. If you are there for a few minutes and raise a camera to your face, snap a picture and then move on, yes, people will react. But, the converse is true if you slow down and join in what is happening around you. Buy some fruit. Ask questions. Show them you are genuinely interested in them, once they see that, they drop their guard and you can take plenty of photos. You will find most of them will not mind you taking their image. The bonus is that many of them will go about their daily business and pay no attention to you. Now your subjects are relaxed around you, they don’t feel threatened and you get candid images that you can take your time making, frame in the camera and not feel rushed.

Beginner: In practice how do you deal with this?  How do you try to really compose the picture well while at the same time mitigate against the scene changing with the introduction of the camera. How much time do you spend framing a shot vs cropping later?

Matt: As I said above, you really need to slow down and experience the scene. At the risk of sounding rather Zen, imagine it this way. If you throw a stone into a puddle you will make quite the splash and plenty of ripples. But wait and those ripples subside and everything goes back to normal except, the stone is in the middle of the puddle. Think of yourself as that stone. When you first enter a scene you create quite a stir. The best thing you can do is calmly wait with your camera at your side. Let the ripples subside and eventually people get used to you being around and start to relax and soon you will be allowed to shoot without much changes in the scene around you. As for the second part of your question; I frame the image I want in the camera. If I have to crop in Lightroom it usually is only around 5- 10% of the image.

Beginner: For rule of thirds and off center subjects, how do you setup your cameras auto focus system for times when you are doing “quick shots” and moving fast?  Typically I set it to use the center point so that with my old camera it wouldn’t pick the wrong thing to focus on.  What do you do?  Do you let the camera decide where the best focus point is in those situations?  Are you able to just really quickly change the auto focus points on the camera?  Or do you focus lock and then frame?

Matt: It is not a good thing to ever let the camera decide things. The camera is rather stupid, it doesn’t have a very big brain. This is the very reason we don’t shoot JPEG. We don’t want the camera making decisions on how the image should look, right? So, for heavens sake, why would you let the camera decide the focal point of the image? You have two choices as you mentioned and I do both. You can scroll through your AF points and set the one point that corresponds to the composition you think you will be shooting. I only do this if you have time and good contrast. The outer focal points are not as sensitive to contrast as the center point and thus not as quick to focus. The other way, is  to keep the center AF point your active point; focus and then recompose. Using the center point will give you a better chance at nailing that focus as it is more sensitive to contrast and focuses quicker. However, be careful. The fact is if you are using a very narrow depth of field and you are close to the subject, you can in fact focus on say someones eyes, then recompose and then be out of focus. The film plan is a flat surface and if you are close to a subject, when you tilt the camera to the eyes and then recompose you change the distance of the film plane to the subjects eye. The change is very slight, but if you are working with a 1.2 lens like I often do, then you might see a difference. It really comes down to using the technique that works for you for that moment. But, do me a favor, don’t ever keep all the AF points active and thing you cover all your focal bases. If that is your method, you are in for some out of focus images.

Beginner: So far I typically snap the picture as quickly as possible (and keep moving) and then crop later.  But I am betting there is a better way.

Matt: There’s that snatch and grab thing going again. Take your time, compose in the frame, and savor the moment. Observe your surroundings. Save your pixels and compose in the camera.

Beginner: I guess in the end I see the distractions (telephone lines etc) but I am not always sure how to change the composition without changing the shot by my presence.

Matt: You just answered your own question. You have to change your presence as you put it. I would simply say change your position. When looking through a lens and composing an image, often – maybe even most of the time – distractions can be eliminated by shifting a few inches or feet. Look at the example below. The first image had all kinds of distracting elements behind the woman. But, by moving over to the right a few feet, not only did I find a cleaner background, I also (and this is a big thing!) found much better light. Remember,when you move, the quality of the light changes. The fact is, the light stays the same but the angle you view the light changes. So, beware of  the background as well as the light quality. I will change my position for either or both, as in this case.


Not so great light or background.

Not so great light or background.


Much better light and background.

Much better light and background.


Beginner: Last question —  I have lightroom, but I don’t have the full version of Photoshop do I need it?

Matt: No. In fact 95 to 98% of my work never leaves Lightroom anymore. Lightroom is so incredably powerful you only really need Photoshop to do a few things like cloning  or perhaps some difficult spot removal. I will say this, that the new Photoshop CS5 has Content aware delete and cloning that is remarkable. I have never seen anything like it. But, in short, no. You really can get by on Lightroom alone. Do your self a big favor and make sure you have Lightroom 3. There are some really great books that can be of some great help. Scott Kelby’s, “Lightroom 3 book for digital photographers” and Martin Evening’s “The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book, The Complete Guide for Photographers” Both look like real winners. I just got both of these yesterday from my buddies at PeachPit. Then of course, I can’t mention Lightroom 3 with out talking about David duChemin’s new book hot off the press, “Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom“. I don’t have it yet. But David gave me a sneak peak sometime back and, like all David’s books, it promises to be the one you keep returning to. More than a “how-to” book on Lightroom. This book promises to help you use Lightroom to express your vision that you had when you took the image to begin with.

I hope this has been helpful. If nothing more than a gentle reminder that you can’t stand with your feet nailed to the floor and expect to get great images. You have to work the scene and the light. Spend time with your subjects and learn to see the image in the camera when you take it.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Eli Reinholdtsen

    I can strongle recommend “The Photographer's Eye”. This is a book that made my jaw drop and completely change the way I compose my images.

  2. heimana

    Matt, you always have a good way to explain simple yet efficient things about photography!
    Reading this, I can see the way I –though modestly– improved my way of shooting during these last years…
    Thanks to people like you, Matt, and Zack Arias' photo critiques, and many others!
    Take care!

  3. ian furniss

    Some great & wise words Matt as always! I'll second any votes going on “The Photographers Eye” as it really is a great book that helped me tremendously.

    If I can also offer a tip or helping word for Canon shooters: Where you mention about choosing focal points, on Canon you can choose to select the focal point with the large thumbwheel on the back. Using that, it's as instinctive and easy to choose a focal point quickly as I can imagine it ever being. I tend to think of it in the same way as a car steering wheel whereby when you turn, your thumb is already on it and making the turn is pure instinct. You don't think about it, you just do it and it takes a fraction of a second.

    The choice is hidden away somewhere in the custom settings menu on Canon, no doubt other manufacturers will have it somewhere else as well. Hope it helps someone 🙂

  4. Jeffrey K. Edwards

    Matt –

    Wonderful words of wisdoms on many critical, but often overlooked simple points that can make or break your images. I especially echo your thoughts about approaching people in a foreign or unknown place. Great images are often created by astute observation and anticipating the moment….this is best achieved by immersing yourself in the situation, slowing down as you put it.

    I might add one of the persistent problems people have is they simply are not familiar enough with their camera equipment. For me it was a matter of starting back at the beginning….re-learning exactly how f/stop, iso, shutter speed all interact. Then learning how to control these variables intuitively in my camera with various lenses.

    I concur with your book recommendations regarding “The Photographers Eye” – I still often refer to it as it sits on my desk here today. I just got done reviewing David duChemin's “Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom“. It is an excellent book with great insights on how he creates an image utilizing LR. I highly recommend it. However, it is not for a LR raw beginner as it only focuses on the Develop module, you will need another introductory book to accompany this if one has never been in LR before.

    Keep up the great posts, all are enjoyed – cheers, Jeff

  5. Brad

    Matt –

    This was all really helpful as I finally have dug up funds for a DSLR and am hoping to rekindle my love of photography. One other question for you. Many novices like myself are utilizing kit lenses that came with entry-level DSLRs (I have a Canon T1i that came with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS and a Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4.0-5.6 IS. What would you recommend for an entry level set of lenses? I was looking at the Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8.

  6. David Shepherd

    Wise words. Even to a seasoned photographer this stuff is a reminder to move. Love the Zen stuff!



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