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Taking better pictures through keen observation

Updated: Jan 3

Our inquiry into how to take better pictures has to begin with asking how we define good. After we capture pictures our mind magically takes the next step of picking the best one. It somehow knows what it likes. If it looks good, if it tells our story we select it. Do you ask why did you pick it ?We are naturally bestowed with the ability to critique and select. Its just that don't bother to articulate and pen our decision process unless we are asked to do so. But why is it that we select some pictures and reject others ?


We observe work of other artists, painters, creators, note prevailing trends and train the neural network inside our brain to identfy patterns that it should accept and reject. You will not see a person wear dark blue shirt over a dark green pant. Our brain was not tuned to accept that combination. If our mind is trained with patterns it approaches the task with a sense of purpose. It helps in avoiding common mistakes. You dont have to ask others to critique your work. You know how to critique yourself. Even if you are not capturing a fleeting moment and are in full control of the entire creative workflow you will need a product vision in your mind and skills to manifest it into reality. That vision will not appear in your dream but will have to be acquired by deliberate research, hours of practice and grappling with failures.


In this article let's look at the work of creative professionals and see if we can peep into their mind by observing their work. Our goal will be to look at their work carefully, break it down into its elements to understand how it can be re-created. This is also known as first principals thinking. It is the best way to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility.


Every picture is composed of colors, shapes, lines, foreground & background elements

light & shadows, empty space, emotions, activity etc. When you break down each photograph into its individual elements you find yourself observing many things, such as :


1. The different objects in the picture.

2. Spacing between each object.

3. Relationship between foreground and background elements.

4. Colors of each element and how they complement each other.

5. The interplay between the light and shadow.

6. The direction, intensity and color of light in the frame.

7. The number of colors in the picture.

8. The interplay between the foreground and background color.

9. Lines and other geometrical shapes in the frame.

10. Empty space.

11. Compostion : Symmetry, diagonal lines, mirror image, leading lines, rule of thirds, frames.

12. Overall balance in the composition

13. Distracting elements.

14. Textures

15. Positioning of limbs, etc


Let's observe this video clip shot in Golkonda fort, Hyderabad carefully. After watching it, pause and ask your self what did you notice.



What did you like in this video ? What did the cinematographer do make it interesting ?


Let's review each scene one by one.


Scene 1 : Subject has been side lit. The light has a warm tone. Looks like an artifical light. Soft light and no harsh shadows.


Scene 2 : Natural window light is leveraged as a back light , sidelight & hair light.



Scene 3 : Pink light is working as back ligt illuminating the back side of actors face and also as hair light for the acress. Its not by chance that the actor is facing that direction. So in the first three seconds itself you see a pattern emerge. Lets explore further.


Scene 4 : Frame in Frame. Within the camera frame, there is another frame of window. Inside the window frame, the actress has been side lit from orange light from the left, we also see hair light from the top which is white in color. To seperate the actess from the brick wall they have added a low intensity light on the wall. The room is light be a night lamp to seperate the subject sitting in the root from its background. Looks like a 5 light setup.




Scene 5 : Silhoutte. What could be the reason behind including this scene in the song ? It is a different visual effect. The 3 minute song is packed with as many visual effects as they could to captivate users.



Scene 6 : Rule of thirds. The top of golkonda fort is placed by following rule of third. The protruding wall creates a digonal line creating a sense of depth in the frame.



Scene 6 : Rule of thirds. Note that the face of the actor is placed exactly at the point which intersects the image in one third , both vertically as well as horizontally.



Scene 7 : Rule of third. You should know that viewers attention gravitates to the brightest and sharpest point in the scene. In the picture below your eyes will naturally gravitate to the white dress, whether you like it or not. The blurry and dark rock does not hold your attention. This simple principle is used while preparing corporate presentations , in product branding & advertisements , while seperating a movie star from the pack of dancers behind him. Do you want everyone to look at you ? Go wear lemon lellow shirt over bright red pant, or reverse the combination. You will be irresistable and the talk of the town as well.



Scene 9 : Frame In Frame + Texture. The subject is asked to walk between two walls such that these walls make a rectangular frame with the cameras frame. Your eyes will naturally gravitate towards him as he placed at the brightest spot in the image.


Scene 10 : Rule of third. Again, we observe that the brightest object is placed strategically so that it follows the rule of third. Your eyes naturally gravitate toward that point.


Scene 11 : Rule of third. Diagonal line lead to the brightest element in the frame and conveys sense of depth.



Scene 12 : Both the foreground and background elements are placed such that they following the rule of third. Is it by chance that the hero is wearing a white dress ?



Scene 13 : Rule of thirds + Diagonal line. Notice how the camera has been tilted in the image below to create diaginal leading line which to guide your eye till the top of staircase. The lady is made to wear a bright dress to attract your eyesballs. Everything is intentional.


Scene 14 : Diagonal Lines have been used to divide the frame in equal half to create interest, the subject is side lit from right side and rule of third is also followed.


Scene 15 : Natural light as hairlight / backligt


Scene 16 : Frame in frame. Subjects placed inside the frame in the dome.



Scene 17 : Crystals are used to create a frame inside cameras frame in the next image. These patterns will become so commonplace to your trained eye that eventually they will monotonous.


We saw that few patterns kept repeating. You might have noted that I kept observing the direction and nature of light. Photography literally means drawing with light ! The greek word Phos means light and Graphe means drawing. You are paiting on the sensor of your camera with light. And yes, did you notice that the editor kept changing scenes after every 3 seconds ? Go back and watch the view again and count when the scene changes. Our attention span is less than that of a gold fish. The fact that you have come this far is a proof that I have done a good job of engaging you. :-)


Now the next time you watch TV or a movie observe the work of cinematographers. You never know what they will teach you. I hope you found this article interesting.


Bye for now. Cheers !

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