If you want to think more visually, you may want to consider photography. Perhaps you aren’t sure where to start and don’t want to invest quite yet. Good news! You can begin with your smartphone. The exercise is simple: Take a picture every day with your phone for 90 days.
You will automatically train your mind to think about the world from a visual perspective. After 90 days, you will understand what makes a good subject as informed by your interests and tastes.
Here are some suggestions to help get you started:
Rule of Thirds
Frame your photos by using the rule of thirds (check out Digital Photography School’s primer, also the source for the above image). The rule of thirds creates a basic frame. Two vertical lines and two horizontal lines create a tic tac toe box.
Ideally, you want your subject to fit in the middle square. If it is a landscape, you’ll want the sky in the top third, the foreground in the bottom third.
Remember, rules are meant to be broken. You have to interpret scenes as you see fit.
In this photo the subject is the couple cuddling by the river. But the river’s rapids dominate the scene, a wavey series of white rapids created by a time lapse. While the couple is cute, the real visual treat is the river. I decided to keep the rapids, and leave couple on the right rather than cropping them into the center.
Your framing of a photo is the means to tell a story. That’s true even if you are reaching with a selfie or a pic of your husband’s lousy chili. Use the rule of thirds to inform your thinking.
Post Your Photos on Instagram
Before Instagram cropping…
You should post your photos on Flickr (here’s my profile) or Picasso so they are found. But you should also post on Instagram to get feedback on your photography — your visual thinking — from your friends.
If you don’t have an Instagram account, get one. Make sure to update your follow list to match your Faceboook and Twitter communities. You can find me at geoffliving on Instagram, and I will follow you back.
Instagram forces you to post a photo that eliminates approximately 1/3 the width of a standard 2×3 photo. In doing so, your subject matter is placed front and center, and the rest of your image context is left behind. That has it’s own issues, but for a budding visual thinker the square crop forces you to consider subjects deeply.
See how your photos fair. You will come to understand what works for your stakeholders — your friends and colleagues — and then adjust naturally.
Edit and Filter Your Photos
There is a social media movement towards no filter photos centering on authenticity and journalistic integrity. For the record, I don’t see any of the no filter crowd getting published by National Geographic or licensed by Getty Images.
In the old days, adjustments where made in the dark room to film. But they were made. Today, every professional photographer uses Lightroom or Aperture at a minimum to process their raw files and make small adjustments. Yes, even those National Geographic photographers edit their photos. I know, I’ve attended two National Geographic sessions, and photographers are asked to submit their Lightroom/Aperture adjustments with their photos.
The ones who get that pure capture are also using Nikon D4s or the equivelant, a $7000 camera body. Your smartphone can’t compete with that.
Why do all photographers edit?
Cameras are machines that attempt to capture light as it is animated on a subject area, and record it. They often have a) hidden information about that light that is only revealed through editing and b) misinterpret light scenes.
That’s why most photos don’t turn out like you remember seeing them. Your smartphone is a good pocket camera, but it is very limited compared to a DSLR. Most images come across as flat. Your camera misinterpets tungsten lit (light bulbs) scenes for shade. It can’t figure out which light it should focus on, the sunset or the light on the foreground, on and on. Even a DSLR or 4/3 camera has challenges interpreting light.
This photo in its edited form is a classic example. It was a slow capture taken at twilight. The sky was not plain white as depicted in the original raw image. The sky and street were not royal blue as it appeared in the tungsten white balance version of the shot. The combination of sun and electric light fried my Nikon white balance sensors. A Lightroom edit restored more of the actual look and feel of Larimer Square during a cloudy dawn.
Use tools and apps to help restore your photo to memory. If you want to go beyond and get artistic with it, go for it. But realize when you do that, you are exceding the conservative journalistic approach to photography. I don’t pay too much attention to those rules, but you have to find your own comfort point.
There are several apps I recommend. The first is Lightroom Mobile. It is fantastic, and will introduce you to a very important concept: Interpreting light in your photos. Lightroom is a Photoshop app, but it is less intrusive than the traditional app.
A simpler app is Google’s Snapseed, which I still use for my smartphone takes. It’s quick and easy, and has nice auto sizing for cropping photos.
Once you finish the 90 day challenge, you will find yourself taking more artistic photos that tell better stories. In doing so, you will be able to better understand some of the visual media trends that are occuring. You may even be ready to use your photography on a select basis with your own communications.
Good luck, and please share your results. Do you have any tips for would-be smartphone photographers?