Your life, so full and dear, is a photographic disaster.
You envision charming lifestyle photos, but end up with unremarkable snapshots. Your Instagram flows from an alternate universe where all homes are lovely and everyday moments live on as fine art.
You’re desperate for more order, more light, more room and suddenly you’re browsing the MLS. Mostly, though, you feel defeated, and your precious everyday moments get a phone snapshot, if that.
This is not how it should be. Here are four basic tricks to get you taking better photos, anywhere, with any camera, starting now.
Your camera, not your home. Assuming you can get proper exposure, and you can keep your horizons horizontal, the easiest way to improve your photos is to hide distractions by moving yourself.
Here’s my perfectly average backyard. We have two sheds that, while useful, aren’t the ideal backdrop. They are bright, big, and they overpower my cute little subjects. The plain, dark privacy fence is a perfect plain backdrop, so I position myself accordingly. However, if the shed has to be in the shot, then I’ll use the door as a frame, and make sure to keep the lines fairly straight (which you should be doing anyway).
There is uncluttered space everywhere if you look. Here, you can see that even in this area too small to be called an area, you can create space around your subject by changing your angle. Just a very slight shift in perspective makes a huge difference when it comes to getting rid of distractions. (On a side note, you might notice that my improved photos are black and white. Good eye! Another simple way to clean up chaotic images is to remove the colors.)
Doorways are terrific places to shoot. You can capitalize on their straight lines for a more geometric and orderly photo, as I did in the above set, and you can use the contrasting light and shadow to hide more clutter. The following set shows the patio door from different sides.
When I stood outside, I exposed my daughter’s face for the bright outdoor light, so the interior of the house fell into shadow. This creates nice dark negative space which isolates her nicely. In the bright images,I exposed her face for the shadowy indoor light, and let the brighter outdoors behind her “blow out” (go white from overexposure). To make sure everything was a nice, pure white, I hung a sheer white cloth on the door. This might seem like a different trick, but really it’s still all about creating space around the subject and hiding clutter.
See the pointy, scrubby pine, the board and the dark trees that pull our eye away from the subject? I just moved until they were out of the frame and was able to create a much more compelling image.
Here’s another example of eliminating distractions just by moving. In the bad image we’ve got a parking lot behind the girls, which we can all agree, makes the photo less magical. That’s not even my car, so there is truly no reason at all to keep it in the frame.
In the good photos, the parking lot is behind me, and I’ve gotten closer, and bent down to get on level with the action. Now we’ve got nothing to pull our attention away from the scene. I did choose to go black and white here because I wanted all the focus on that little face, and the colors took away from that. Getting even closer crops out everything, and adds another element to the story, and this brings us to our second technique.
2. Get close (aka, have a purpose and make it clear)
If you are telling a story, tell it. And no, “This one day, my kid was at the park” is not a unique or compelling story. Really, think about what you’re trying to preserve or share when you feel a photographic moment coming on. Show personality, show mood, show interaction, show emotion, just make sure you have a purpose for the photo, and that you make that purpose clear. Going in close is an easy way to do this. Getting close isolates your subject from the background by cropping out the clutter and by making it easy to blur the clutter with a very narrow depth of field.
We spend a lot of time at this table, and you can see how small the space is. If I get close, the frames on the wall are cropped out, while the table offers negative space. To make these photos interesting, I have to tell a story about my perpetually distracted eater, or the little artist.. going in close makes it possible.
This time, the living room has been converted into a play classroom. This story has nothing to do with a couch or a large leaf picture. I got in close, and shot downward and now have a very clear view of the game without distractions.
Our living room gets a lot of living, and on this day, she needed a full array of dresses on the floor along with a blue folding gym mat. By pulling her closer to me, we get a cleaner story. By pulling her closer to the window, and shooting wide open, she gets brighter while the mess blurs and fades into the shadows. Its still there, but it’s a back story.
3. Every room has room – find it.
Actually, this isn’t a trick, but a challenge. I’m anticipating people saying, “Yeah? Well my home is even tinier and more crowded so these tips won’t help me!” This room is tight. The shih-tzu takes up a good portion of available floor space. However, so many stories unfold in this tiny place so I work with it, using the clean lines of the dresser and pockets of wall space as I can, with lots close-ups and wide apertures. Sometimes, I accept the clutter and chaos as a part of the story.
4. Find the best light
Alright. This isn’t a trick, as much as the most essential photographic skill to master, so I have to mention it. If you’ll notice, in the best example photos you’ve seen here, there is a nice mix of light and shadow. In your home environment, just use your eyes! Place your subjects near windows, just where the window light is softly spilling in and just observe the colors and shadows.
Pre-bunk-beds, this room had a dresser under the window, which was handy. In this set, you can see that I’m using about three feet of blank wall to either side of the dresser as the background. Depending on the type of curtains you use, whether they are blackout, or sheers, you can create different effects by controlling the light and shadow. Just play with it!
This experimentation is how you find your home’s “magic zones,” where even photos of pretty much nothing can become beautiful. This does take time to develop your eye for light, but it’s worth it.
It’s always worth it.