Highlighting your message


Last month we discussed how staying aware of everything in our viewfinder can help us make more cohesive and powerful photographs.  This month we’ll look at how we can use the edges of our photos to help.

As photographers we get to share moments and things we find meaning in.  But one of our challenges is clearly revealing what we found meaningful.  Generally we don’t want our viewers to have to work hard or guess.  If the viewer isn’t related to you they aren’t likely to spend much time trying to discern your message absent clear sign posts. 

Perhaps the clearest and easiest signposts you have in your toolbox are the edges of the frame.  To use them effectively you first must be clear on what your message is.  A common trap is having more than one unrelated message.  For instance, if you have a photo of both your cat playing and your dog drinking water you need to consider your message.  If the cat playing is what excites you, you may want to narrow in to just that.  But maybe your message is how great it is that your dog and cat are at ease in the same room.  There’s no right or wrong answer, but you need to choose. 

Tricks of the Trade grass dog.jpg

One nice thing is that you can sometimes choose after making the photo.  If you’re using software to view and edit your photos you very likely have a crop tool.  This tool allows you to select a region within your photo and throw everything outside of that region away.  If you haven’t used a crop tool before, they’re usually pretty simple, especially with tips from the program’s help page or manual.

In the example photo with your cat and dog, if you decide your desired focus is the cat playing, the crop tool should be ideal.  If you find that your subject — the playing cat — is on the right side of the frame and your dog drinking is on the left, you’re in great shape: just crop out the left side of the frame and keep only the playing cat you’re excited to show the world.  Before saving the cropped version it’s a good idea to save a backup of the original so you can make different choices in the future.

Now that we’ve cropped out the left side of the frame you’ll notice the new version of the photo has a different aspect ratio — the ratio of the height to the width of the image.  Our cameras have a set aspect ratio but there’s nothing magical about it.  Consider it a starting point.  Some photos are stronger as a square; others work better tall and narrow, while others are best wide and thin.  This is a whole other space for your creativity to run free.  And the right answer for any given photograph is simply whatever you feel communicates your vision best.

This month’s assignment

Have fun trying a different aspect ratio than your camera produces.  You might try a square portrait of a face, a tall vertical of your cat stretching, or try a wide panoramic of just an outstretched leg — anything that lets you experiment with a different aspect ratio than you normally use.  I hope this assignment helps expand your creative toolbox and can’t wait to see your shots!

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: David@DavidChildsPhotography.com. Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Go to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in December for your next session!
Trick of the Trade beach dog.jpg

David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at www.DavidChildsPhotography.com

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.

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