There’s a reason in your mind when you see a scene that you “need” to photograph. It’s usually one of these three things:
1. Something unusual that will surprise and delight
2. Something memorable that needs to be documented
3. Something beautiful that you want to remember.
Some examples of something unusual are funny or unexpected behavior from children or pets, or perhaps child-like (quite different than childish!) behavior from an adult. Something memorable may be a graduation, wedding or other family milestone. Something beautiful is often an outdoor scene or landscape, or perhaps a flower.
For all of these situations, the photograph is trying to tell a story. If the subject in the photo is placed badly (or out of focus), or if the background of the photo is cluttered with distracting items, the viewer will miss your story. Have you ever had to explain a photograph? It’s often even more painful than explaining a joke. Here are three ideas that can help:
Perhaps the most distracting thing is poor focus. Be sure and have the camera focus on the element that is key to the story in the photo. For cameras with lenses that allow control of the aperture (the degree to which the lens allows light through, also known as f/stop) it is possible to open the lens fully, creating a very shallow depth of field. This means that the camera will focus on one item but that everything nearer the camera as well as further from the camera will be out of focus and a little fuzzy.
This is a good way to highlight just the subject and de-emphasize non-important elements.
There have been thousands of pages written about photographic composition, and there is no always-right solution. However, there is a simple rule of thumb known as the Rule of Thirds that often works. When you frame the picture in the camera, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over the image. Place the important elements either on one of the intersections of the grid, or at least on one of the lines of the grid. The tic-tac-toe pattern will divide the image into three blocks, left to right, and three blocks, top to bottom (hence the “Rule of Thirds”). The result will be positioning that most people will regard as “pleasing.”
It is very common to see things in the photograph (print or electronic) that you never saw while taking the shot. These things are usually bad, in that they detract from the story or are just clutter that distract the eye from the important element of the photo. There’s two things to work on here. The first is to train yourself to really “see” what is in the camera. As the photographer, it is tempting to see only what you want to see. The camera is unforgiving and will capture what is actually there. Learn to look away from your subject and see the rest of the scene. The second issue is to learn to fix distracting backgrounds.
Sometimes you can wait a bit or change your position slightly and make distractions go away. Using the shallow depth of field trick we discussed above can help too.