I had spotted him at the Crooked River overlook, a fellow photographer chasing a sunset. He had caught my eye as he cranked through shots, not at all paying attention to what he was doing. He was weathered and bent like an old oak snag and his face, a crush of wrinkles, showed only a faint smile. But he was a gentle man and when he spoke, his words were etched with wisdom. He said ” Anybody can capture a pretty scene but it takes talent to ruin one.”
I figured he was just another hare-brained photo editor off his Prozac but he said he was the author of four books, each devoted to the art of mediocre photography. The first had been a great success- The Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide to Unprofessional Field Techniques. His second book was more specific- Screw-ups. His third book explored his philosophy of capturing the mediocre moment- Unfocus on Nature, and his fourth, Blandscapes, dealt with the bland scenic. His name…….John Flaw.
The sunset was a screamer so he was disappointed and had time to talk. He gave me his ten rules to ruining an image- reproduced below- and then he quietly left. I later found out that he had died, bitter and unappreciated, from the drink…..a beer truck had flattened him…but his legacy lives on.
Rule #1 Put as many bright and out of context objects on the edge of your viewfinder as you can. This creates distraction and pulls the away from the subject, diminishing its impact.
My Response: Your eye is attracted to the brightest part within your composition. If the brightest spot is not part of your subject you have diluted its impact and created visual confusion. If the bright spot is on the edge of the frame your eye is pulled completely out of the composition! This is a particularly common problem with less than blue skies. These milky skies will always appear blank white on film. Crop out white skies as much as you can, completely if possible. Also, be aware of white sky sneaking through tree branches. Either zoom in to eliminate the treetops or move to a spot where the sky is blocked by vegetation.
Rule #2 Take plenty of haphazard photos and never be patient or deliberate. Mindlessly bracketing exposures is a great way to waste your time. You’ll also end up with lots of so-so photos. Beware, sooner or later, if you take enough shots, you’re bound to get a good one despite yourself.
My Response: Everything about the photographic process should be deliberate. You should be able to verbalize why you are using a particular lens and not another, why you are set up where you are, why your tripod is so high, why you are photographing this subject and not another, etc. This is the best reason to use a tripod- it slows you down and forces you to be deliberate. Once you have slowed down, there are times when it is as important to just stop and wait. The wind will eventually ease up and the light is always changing, it is up to you to be patient and wait for the best conditions before you take the picture.
In the photo of the Fall aspens, the sky behind the aspens was not great. But I noticed a thunderstorm approaching and waited for the dark sky to be behind my composition. The shaft of light on the aspens was just luck but the chances of having good luck increase the longer you hang around.
Rule #3 Photograph in full sun. Not only is harsh, direct light the most unappealing for nature subjects, the increased contrast will hide all those annoying details.
My Response: Yikes! Sunny days are days to sort images, scout locations or go for a hike. Harsh, direct light is terrible for most outdoor photography. No camera can handle the enormous range in contrast on sunny days- either the shadows will be blocked-up black without detail or the highlights will be blazing white. This is why you should never photograph winter or in a forest on a sunny day- too much contrast. Also, many of the subjects that we photograph, like flowers, birds and leaves, are soft and delicate, they should be photographed in soft and delicate light. Full sunlight is just the opposite. Use a diffusing screen to soften the light- the closer the diffuser to the subject the more diffused the light. Or, cast your own shadow on the subject if you don’t have a diffuser.
The poppies against the cactus were photographed at noon, under the blazing desert sun. I used my camera’s self-timer and ran around to cast my own shadow on the flowers to get the quality of light I wanted. Soft light for soft flowers.
Rule #4 Never think or take control of any part of the photographic process. Today’s sophisticated cameras always know better and besides, you paid a lot of money to let the camera make all the decisions.
My Response: Autofocus; autoexposure; autoknowbetter. Auto modes just make your mistakes for you automatically. Your camera’s auto modes are tools that are appropriate sometimes but never all of the time. Raise your hand if you think the new matrix metering modes can handle all exposure situations better than you can. Wrong! Figuring out proper exposure is no more difficult than getting yourself properly dressed in the morning. If you rely on autoexposure all the time you will miss capturing the magical light or the unusual circumstance that we all hope to photograph. If you rely on autofocus all the time you are more likely to bull’s-eye the subject within your composition (another John Flaw technique).
Rule #5 For portraits and close-ups find the most distracting background you can. Nothing ruins a great subject like a terrible background. If you happen to come across a great subject with a perfect background just move the subject to a different background.
My Response: Bad background, bad photo. It is as simple as that. It does not matter if your subject is spectacular. If the background is distracting, the photo is lost. This is why great photographers use their depth of field preview before every photo they take. By previewing the depth of field you will see what is actually going to appear on your image. I know the viewfinder gets dark when you push the preview button. Be patient. It takes about 30 seconds for your eye to adjust to the darkness. You will not be able to take consistently good photos without a depth of field preview on your camera. And never, ever, pick a flower to move it to a better spot. No photograph is more important than the welfare of the subject.
The golden eagle is a falconer’s bird, photographed on a Birds of Prey workshop. That is an antenna and a power plant in the background. They were barely visible through my 300mm lens until I previewed my depth of field. By kneeling down and shooting the eagle against the blue sky I eliminated those distractions.
Rule #6 Try to merge your subject with the background. This may require a bit of extra effort but the added visual confusion will be worth it.
My Response: Merges most often occur when something of similar color overlaps with your subject. The classic example is the telephone pole coming out of Aunt Millie’s head. The best way to avoid this visual confusion is to photograph your subject against a contrasting color so it separates from the background. This then allows a clear presentation of your creative vision, the goal of good photography.
In the example, the red Indian paintbrush flower merges, or blends, with the similar pink flowers in the background. It is difficult to tell where the flower ends and the background begins. The solution is to find an Indian paintbrush flower you can photograph against a contrasting color, for example, the green of grass.
Rule #7 Light is light. Don’t bother trying to change it, it is not worth the effort. Besides, reflectors and flash were designed for studio use….they don’t work outside.
My Response: Light is light but there are times when it must be modified for an effective photo. Remember, your camera will render strong shadows darker than they appear. I have previously referred to diffusers. I always carry a pocket sized one in my photopack and a larger one in my car to diffuse bigger scenes. Another way to balance the contrast inherent on sunny days is to add light to the shadows. This can be done with a reflector or with fill flash. I use a gold-sided reflector to throw warm light into shadows when it is appropriate. Be careful not to throw unnatural light, for example, from below, on to a subject. I use fill flash a lot on sunny days to brighten the shadows on animals. This is extremely easy to do with modern smart flashes. They can be programmed to fill shadows to any amount you want.
I photographed the short-eared owl by using a gold-sided reflector to brighten its shadowed side. The reflector is always “on” so when the owl struck the pose I wanted I could fire away and get the shot I wanted.
Rule #8 Never include interesting foregrounds in your photographs. They are difficult to find and too visually inviting to your viewer.
My Response: For landscapes, interesting foregrounds are as important as good backgrounds are to close-ups. Foregrounds invite the viewer into your photograph. They put the viewer at the foot of the photograph, ready to step into the frame. The foreground should have a compositional connection- a stream, a fence, a line of color- to the background to tie the two together. Be sure that the foreground is in focus. We are used to seeing distant objects out of focus but not near objects. If you have to make a choice, keep the foreground sharp.
Autumn red maple leaves on green grass is a great photo opportunity. By getting as close as I could with my hyperfocused wide angle lens I was able to emphasize the leaves in front for a strong foreground. Doesn’t it make you want to grab a rake?
Rule #9 Include everything you see within your composition. When in doubt, back off and add some more.
My Response: Tell me if this sounds familiar: “I like the stream through the leaves and, oh, that part of the stream in front is OK and the two trees in front too and the stream bank is kind of nice and the treetops and……” Creating a strong composition is really quite easy. Just ask yourself what it is about the scene that you like and answer in a single phrase. Then eliminate anything you did not mention. In other words, photograph phrases not paragraphs. Your initial phrase is lost within a visual paragraph and the viewer has no idea what you liked about a scene.
“I like the stream through the leaves.” Photograph only that. If you want to show the rest of the stream, take more pictures. To illustrate a paragraph use lots of phrases.
Rule #10 Photograph the first subject you find. It will probably be either dull or tattered. Why waste time looking for a better subject or angle? The first one is good enough.
My Response: It always happens this way: you get out of your car, extend your tripod legs, put a lens on your camera and mount the camera to your tripod. Then you look for something to photograph. The problem is that you are fitting a composition to your lens and tripod height and not vice-versa. Instead, wander around with your camera off your tripod, hand held. Then when you find a composition you will be able to know how high the tripod should be and what kind of lens you need.
The marine iguana was sitting on a rock ledge right next to the beach where we disembarked. It was just an OK specimen but I photographed it. I then wandered around a bit and found a much more colorful marine iguana in a better pose. Why bother with mediocrity when greatness is just around the corner?