Think like the camera

Understand its creative and technical potential

"But you don't understand me." That could be your digital camera talking as you look over your pictures and wonder how you can raise your game to the next level. Your camera is who it is and can't change. The camera-you relationship is truly one-sided. All responsibility for a better relationship lies with you.

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So get to know your camera--both its technical and creative sides. Learn its weaknesses and strengths. Become familiar with its hidden qualities, especially those that subconsciously guide you to make creative decisions that could be holding you back.

In the end the camera is a tool, and a highly complex one at that. Once you intimately understand the camera you will no longer need to think like the camera but will become one with it and raise your photography game to the next level.

The plight of being square...

...well, rectangular, really, but that doesn't make for a plaintive headline. The camera imposes a rectangular frame on you, and it's about time you started dealing with it. To be more specific, it tries to impose a horizontal rectangle on you because your camera is designed to make it easy for you to hold it horizontally.

Before we start discussing this problem, I want you to think it through yourself. Consider that rectangle and how it might influence how you take pictures. The ratio of width to height is typically 3:2. The rectangle comes with four right angles, and you know how in the western world we like our right angles to be square to their surroundings: the walls, the door frame, the floor, the ceiling, the pavement, and each other.

Rectangles have corners, and most of us hate to be cornered, because we get that squeezed-in feeling or feel like we're being punished if we're put in one. It's got a center that is marked and highlighted with autofocus brackets. It conveys a specific sense of dimension that changes as you start to fill it with subjects. And it features very distinct borders—fixed straight lines, not wavy or curved.

A square shape adds formality and dignity to a picture—even to a barnside basketall hoop.

Are you starting to get the picture? Like the Lackawanna to Erie train, the characteristics of that rectangle tend to direct you to a destination, possibly taking you there without your even knowing it.

Let's deal with horizontality first. Camera design is biased towards a horizontal hold. But don't let the comfort and convenience of horizontality dictate how you hold the camera. Consciously decide what position your subject and your intent require.

Do you have to stick with a 3:2 rectangular shape? Of course not. Imagine you're back in second grade art class and the rectangle you're holding is a piece of construction paper. In your other hand is a pair of scissors. You can change that rectangle into any shape: a skinny rectangle, a circle, an oval, a square. That rectangle is simply your starting point.

The camera's 3:2 rectangle is merely a starting point. When a subject fit awkwardly in it, think of a more appropriate shape you can apply in Adobe Photoshop.

When the rectangle isn't compatible with your scene, take the picture anyhow with the intent that you'll later change it. That may mean that while taking the picture the composition will look awkward while within the standard 3:2 rectangle, so visualize how good it will look once converted to the shape or proportions you envision.

By placing a subject in a lower corner and showing it small, you can convey a sense of isolation or loneliness.




Most of us avoid using the corners of the picture. Technically that may be wise because many lenses give slightly soft results on the edges and corners, especially at large apertures like f/2.8. But creatively, corners can be compelling. They are especially effective in directing visual flow through the picture or in elevating or subordinating subjects. Placed in an upper corner, a subject can seem imperious and in command, as if ruling the picture from a throne; conversely, placed in a lower corner, it can seem weak and submissive, or perhaps just lonely. You can even use corners to squeeze and stress the subjects inhabiting them.

Always consider how your medium subconsciously influences the many creative decisions you make. Don't let it force you down a path you don't want.

By elevating a subject to an upper corner you can make it seem to rule the rest of the picture.

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