I got a very nice ask just recently from a young photographer who wanted to know any advice I could give to help with her growing photography passion. You know, there’s the things that every photographer will tell you — practice a lot, look at the masters, figure out what you like to shoot. I’ve dolled out that kind of advice before, myself. The usual response is “thanks.” Which really amounts to, “Yeah, I already knew that.” Really what people are asking for is some very concrete tools to help make their images better right now. The cynical side of me would say they are trying to skip school, but another side of me completely understands the desire for a few tips and tricks to help get a foot up on a medium that is deceptively complex. It’s like tennis — anyone can hit a ball over the net. It’s not until you really start to understand the game and get better at it that you truly realize how hard it can be. And while I realize there is no substitute for the “ten thousand” images one needs to take to get to a master level at this, there are a few pieces of real world advice I can give that are concrete and can make a big difference in anyone’s photos, starting from the moment you read it — and that I wish had been told to me a lot earlier.
If someone finds me on Instagram and reaches out, then I already know what kind of images they want to get, because those images are highly-curated. It’s high-drama black and white, for the most part. So, I’ll focus on these highly-tangible pieces of advice that are assured of adding drama to anyone’s work. See what you think:
This has become my number one piece of advice for novice shooters: shoot wider. I’m talking super wide, like between 14–24mm. Too much wider and it’s going to start to look fisheye and nobody needs that. But in general, most people think a wide angle is a landscape photographer’s lens — and to some degree that’s kind of what makes it so good for drama. It offers a better sense of the grandness of your environment. And that just naturally offers more drama to your shot.
In this image, for example, the very wide angle allows for more of the garage in the background, but also an increase in perspective, which can create a much greater dramatic effect, especially when it includes a human form for scale (see how all the lines inside the rectangles seem to be pointing to the figure?). It also shows how there’s just more to play with in a wide angle shot. That increased space gives you options for using your environment that you just don’t have with longer lenses.
These next images really show the value of a wide angle. This first one is a pretty typical long exposure shot you’ll see from Los Angeles Instagrammers, as cars and freeways are such a big part of our surroundings. But to really capture the beauty of this spot, you need that entire sweeping arc as well as the towering buildings above it.
And here’s the same shot I found with a quick search, by someone without the wide angle lens, probably a 35mm here. Still a nice shot, of course, but you can easily see the decrease in dramatic effect. Less of a sense of completion of that arc and very little of the buildings to really bring that verticality to life. This is the power of a wide angle.
A wide angle lens is the number one way to add immediate drama to your images that will stand out, especially at the size that images are displayed on Instagram — you’re getting a lot into a little space and that just has an impressive feel to it. And you’d be surprised how many of the top Instagrammers are using super wide lenses exactly for that reason.
The drawback — it’s an easy lens to take lousy shots with. It’s kind of what I like about it; it’s exacting. But for many it can be an infuriating initial experience. In fact, I sold my first wide angle lens out of frustration. But I shoot wide about 80% of the time now. A good wide angle is also going to be a bigger lens, as it takes more glass and some complexity of design to manage all that imagery and not warp it. Keeping those lines true is a big deal. So, invest in a good one and really spend some time with it until you start to understand how to get what you need from it. And if you need some suggestions, write a comment.
It’s the same trick that we use in advertising — so much of the effect of your shot is predetermined in your choice of location. The average street shooter enjoys walking around finding images and light, and that is a very rewarding experience, but you’ll increase the amount of high-impact shots tenfold if you first do a bit of location scouting.
You can’t overestimate the power that your location has in establishing the gravitas of your shot. Artists throughout history have always sought out their favorite haunts to paint. How many times did Paul Cezanne stand before Montagne Sainte-Victoire, truly taking in his environment, before he found the technique that would change art forever?
The good news is that finding locations to inspire you is not too hard these days. I primarily use three applications to scout: Instagram, a browser and Google Earth. Here’s a pretty foolproof technique:
- Find a photographer with a good following who lives in your area (or the area you’re going to visit) and look for locations in his/her feed that appeal to you. If they list the location, you’re done. If they don’t, proceed to #2. And if you’re looking for spots in Los Angeles, I have a few articles on specific locations to shoot at (including the one above), here and here.
- Search by descriptions of the location you’re looking for, or even just try putting in “best photography spots (name of city) + (one or two descriptors, i.e. lake, long exposure, etc.), as there’s usually articles and discussions in photography forums on this subject for just about everywhere. If you find it, you’re done. If you don’t, look for landmarks and specific features in the shot and move to #3.
- Google Earth is your best friend for finding hard-to-figure-out shots. But when you get some practice, figuring out certain landmarks in a shot can get you to a spot very quickly. Especially when buildings have names on them, or a skyline where you know the buildings and can figure out which angle it was taken from how the buildings are lined up. In my image above, for example, the position of the US Bank building on the left means this shot is shot from the north. Getting on Google Earth and heading north of the city to find this spot wouldn’t be too tough.
By their nature, however, a lot of popular shots are taken in unpopular areas. That’s what makes them unique and interesting. The difficulty in finding the spot is often directly related to the interestingness of the image. So, put the time in to determine where you’re going to shoot before you go. But there will be times when none of the techniques above work. I’ll tell you one story of when that happend to me.
Before my trip to Romania last year, I was doing this very kind of research to figure out some spots I wanted to go (when you travel, pre-planning is essential). In this search, I saw a shot of Bran (Dracula’s) Castle, from a very popular photographer, that had a cross in the foreground. I was obsessed with finding it, but it was impossible with all my usual techniques. So, I had to just go and look.
We got to town and just started asking locals if they knew of this cross on a hill. The third person we asked pointed us in the right direction. It was, in fact, a bit of a hike up a very steep hill, impossible to get to without a bit of hand-holding, abiding by the axiom that the most interesting shots are taken in places that are hard to get to. You’ll see a lot of shots on Instagram taken from atop buildings and from hard-to-get angles. Commit to being a location scout, getting yourself in position to get spectacular shots and then, when you’re there, use your creativity to add your own flare to it.
I keep a list (with photos) in my Notes application of all the spots I’ve shot and the ones I am still looking for. I highly recommend it, as you may very well want to get back to a place to shoot it again, send the address to someone else or do a photo shoot there one day.
I think there’s a mentality that photography is about putting yourself in a wanderer’s state and observing the world, randomly taking photos of it. As a person who spent many years doing that, I highly recommend saving yourself a lot of time and having a location in mind first. In fact, the excitement of finding a location and making plans to go visit it to get a shot is a joy that I’ve come to really embrace in the photography process, and it has increased the amount of good shots I get per week, in countless ways. I’ve taken to visiting locations multiple times just to make sure I’ve explored it fully.
Just beware, most photographers hold on to their locations like the Ring from The Hobbit. You can ask them, but don’t expect too much. Which, in and of itself, is a pretty good sign of how precious those locations are.
Graphic Design Sensibility
Start reading some interviews with popular Instagrammers and you’ll notice a trend — a large portion of them have a background in Design and Art Direction. That’s no coincidence. Instagram offers a pretty small canvas and a lot of what plays well there is a solid sense of graphic design. Designers and Art Directors naturally think in terms of a grid and the organization of elements, which is immense help in their composition and cropping. They also have a pension for graphic elements and those play extremely well on Instagram.
Images with graphic elements in them — lines, typography, geometric shapes, hard angles, spirals, etc. — do a good 25–50% better among my audience. And if you really do spend some time with the masters’ black and white photographs, you’ll start to notice just how much of a designer’s aesthetic works its way into the images.
I see a lot of Instagrammers, in essence, doing the tricks that graphic designers do, but with their photographs. They’ll reflect an image to create some kind of perfect symmetry, they’ll go very high contrast to give the image a very graphic feel, they’ll use exaggerated perspective by getting very low to the ground and shooting up, get up high and shoot down, and they’ll find buildings and structures that offer interesting graphic shapes, like a spiral parking structure ramp or staircase. Repeating lines, grids, harsh angles… these are all part of a design approach.
On the left of these two shots is a poster of a visit by virtuoso designer Paul Rand to the MIT Media Lab. It wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of my mind when I was taking the shot on the right, but I’m sure all of my work in graphic design over the years crept into my decisions nonetheless.
Graphic elements are all over the place, in both architecture and in nature. The first image in this article, of the side of the parking garage, is a very graphic shot. As is something like this:
In case you’re confused as to what makes for good graphic imagery to use in a photo, it does not hurt to consult some of the design masters and start to familiarize yourself with their work. Saul Bass, Neville Brody, Milton Glazer, Tibor Kalman are a few whose work should be emblazoned in your mind — and are for sure in the minds of many great Art Directors-turned-Instagrammers out there doing awesome imagery. It trains you to see the graphic in the everyday and use it to help propel your imagery. Ultimately, this is about developing your sense of taste. The more you look at beautiful design, the more you strengthen the muscle in your brain that can recognize it out in the world around you — it’s everywhere. Shadows can provide as much graphic element goodness as architecture or actual printed/painted graphics… they are all usable elements for your composition that can be added to create real drama and intrigue to your composition.
Hopefully that offers some real, tangible ideas for you to add to your photography right away. In each case — wider angles, location scouting, and graphic design sensibility — there’s obviously a ton to go deep on, but it should also add an immediate forehand, backhand and serve to your photo-taking, giving you a ton of things you can add to your arsenal today to dial up that drama. I hope it helps!
Thanks for reading. Any questions, thoughts, comments — please add!