10 Principles of Beautiful Photography

by Trey Ratcliff – note: this article appeared in Smashing Magazine.

Farewell India

The backside of the Taj during a summer sunset

Introduction

A camera does not work like an eye; memory does not work like film.

There is a fine line between a photo that is quite nice and one that is quite breathtaking. At some undefined point, a photo can cross the Rubicon and be forever a piece of beautiful art. That hinterland between a regular photo and evocative art is a moving target from person to person and taste to taste. However, that zone of wonderment can be narrowed a bit once you start to consider about the way the brain stores memories and emotions.

And, yes, it gets a bit touchy-feely here to determine if you have been able to cross that line. With rigorous practice and peer feedback, you can start to appreciate where that zone is and consequently improve your hit ratio.

The good news is that it does not require rune rites of scapulimancy to divine your way to a more beautiful photo. There are some basic things and mantras to keep in mind as you practice and fail then practice and succeed then practice and fail and then rinse and repeat. I’ll detail a few of these below.

Swallowing the Ruins

Swallowing the Ruins – a remote temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia

1) Think about the brain

I’ve always thought about photography differently. I grew up only seeing out of one eye, thanks to several botched surgeries in the 1970’s, when the state of the art was refurbished archaeological tools of Australopithecus medicine men.

When you see out of one eye your whole life and then start using a camera in your mid 30’s for the first time, something happens to you! You come to realize that a camera works nothing like the eye. Forget 3D; I’m talking about the way the brain stores images and scenes.

After birth, you have legs, but it takes a few years for your legs to get along with your brain enough to actually walk you around the savanna a bit. The eyes are the same way. They get wired faster than the legs, but the neural pathways from the optic nerve into the parts of the brain that matter take a while to find their chemical trails. You start to sense light levels, then shapes, then edges, then relative positions, and the like. And then, around age two or three, you finally come up with a tagging system to know generally what a “barn” looks like. Your brain has been working nonstop over that time to give you the visual and memory infrastructure to enable that watershed event.

Now let’s fast forward to today. You are older, your brain is more or less fully formed (!) and you happen upon a barn in a field. But it’s not just any barn – it’s the barn you’ve been wanting to see your entire life. And in the distance, there is a storm brewing as a gentle sun is setting. It’s beautiful –- you LOCK it into memory. The way you lock it into memory is nothing like the way a camera records the image on film (or CCD). This is what I quickly came to realize as I sat there, looking at a photo I took with a fabulously expensive Nikon as I was showing a friend, “Well, you really had to be there.” I’m sure you’ve all said that!

Now, this step 1 is a big step – it’s a philosophical re-assessment of how the camera works versus how the memory maps a scene, layering the visual reality with the emotions and previous memories that are linked to the scene. You see, you are not just remembering that barn, but you are remembering every barn; you are not just remembering that storm, but you are remembering every storm. A beautiful photo must tell the epic tale of the memory linked with other emotive memories that fold into whole.

Fourth on Lake Austin

Fourth on Lake Austin – the first HDR photograph to hang in the Smithsonian

2) Engage in the Neo-Global Salon

In the 1860’s, all art roads led to the Salon in Paris, which was the most important judged competition of art in the western world. In a period of just over 10 years, the Impressionist masters like Renoir, Monet, Pisarro, and Caillebotte battled it out in a competitive and cooperative tour de force that created a panoply of creations that we cannot imagine the world without.

The reason Paris became the center of the art world to enable an explosion of new art was a combination of new technology in travel and communications combined with Napoleon III’s focus on the infrastructure around the Salon.

Today the same thing is happening – only no one really seems to realize it in a grand historical sense. It’s called Flickr. Flickr has become a techno-Salon, allowing the world to use the Internet to easily enter the competition and force them to evolve and improve their art. The automated “Explore Algorithm” does a pretty good job of automatically choosing the best photos that are uploaded every day. Go ahead and look at the current some of the best in the last 7 days. Click RELOAD a few times and I promise you will see something that impresses. It is quite unbelievable the level of art and beauty that is created every single day. Now, all of this amazing art on Flickr can either inspire or intimidate you depending on your mindset for competition. I hope it inspires you to upload one photo a day and see if you can make it in the top 500 or the top 10 for the say — and don’t give up. Competition makes everyone better; this is an undeniable truth and you are not realizing your full potential if you keep yourself removed from the process.

Now, I can think of a number of tangible things Flickr can do to improve this new global competition. Their AI algorithm to find the most interesting new artists still makes many mistakes – maybe I will save that for another article! In many ways, Flickr is squandering an amazing opportunity to set the art world on fire.

Hindu Ascent (by Stuck in Customs)

An elderly woman, who has never cut her hair, ascends the stairs to her daily Hindu pilgrimage

3) Get rid of your toy camera

Oh, look at that camera you have! It’s so tiny and slim and techno-looking. Look! It fits right in your pocket! Oh my, you can take it to parties and to sporting events and it’s so convenient. Oh – it does 10 megapixels too! Oh my. Well that is a good camera then!

No it’s not. It’s a toy – give it to your kids or the nearest Japanese gradeschooler (for whom it was designed) and get serious. I know that 19-year-old blue-shirted-Best-Buy-boy told you that your compact camera was really neat and just what you needed. But are you gonna listen to him, or me?

Get yourself a good camera. I have a list of HDR camera suggestions that aren’t very expensive for people just starting out or ready for an upgrade. For those of you that don’t know, a DSLR is one of those cameras you have seen pros carrying, but it doesn’t have to be one of those giant ones you see in NFL endzones.

Sorry to be rude about the toy thing, but you want to take more beautiful pictures, yes? Well a decent DSLR has such a good sensor chip, combined with more flexible lenses, that your batting average will dramatically improve.

Also, (people with DSLRs already know this) it is important you have a good wide-angle lens for landscapes. Beautiful photography does not have to be a landscape, but they commonly are, and this is what people envision when they want to make their own “beautiful” photos. Thus, we should talk about wide angle lenses here for a moment. If you are used to a toy camera, the you have never really seen the world through a good 10-24mm lens. It’s almost the difference between regular TV and HDTV. The vistas are wide and bold, the clouds and the sun and the mountains all FIT, the river and the bridge are easy to compose, and the like. Once you go wide-angle, the landscape will never be the same!

The Lost Hindu Temple in the Jungle Mist (by Stuck in Customs)

An ancient Hindu temple at sunset in the jungles of Indonesia

4) Carry a tripod for those beautiful sunsets and sunrises

Oh, what’s that? You don’t want to carry a tripod? Are you a 9-year-old girl?

No, come on now – you are a grown up and you want to take some seriously beautiful photos. Do you think pros carry around tripods because they just like carrying extra weight? No, of course not – they know what the heck they are doing.

If you bit off on getting a DSLR above, then you are going to need a tripod, especially for sunset and night shots. Unless you have the steady hand of a T-2000, then you are going to get some camera shake.

A tripod allows you to do the following things for landscape photography (in no particular order): set up and take your time to compose a photo with serious intent; enables low noise as the shutter stays open longer; look cool while you carry it around; allows you to keep the shutter open for 5+ seconds for the fleeting sunrise and sunset shots; and it can be used as a weapon in a tight spot while traveling (not kidding).

So, you are still worried about carrying it around? The problem is mostly with your attitude, you understand. Let me give you a new perspective. Nothing in life is worth doing unless you are going to be serious about it. You are going to shoot that sunset, and you are going to take your nice DSLR and your tripod out there and make it happen and no one is going to stop you. You’re carrying that tripod because your serious about this. Otherwise, you can just go sit on a pretty beach at sunset and drink beer with your friends and not be serious about it… go ahead… but you won’t be getting any beautiful photography.

The Bridge of Death (by Stuck in Customs)

The Bridge of Unholy Death in Dresden, Germany

5) Admire impressionism

I spoke earlier about the Salon of Paris and what happened in the Impressionist movement. While the process and history of what happens when artists begin cooperating and competing is interesting from a social-group evolution perspective, this section is more about the art itself.

Early critics of the artform found it crude, sloppy, and unconventional to the point where it didn’t even deserve to be placed alongside classical masters. But the public was awestruck by the new art form. It doesn’t take a critic to know good art, but it does take a careful and discerning eye.

Consider the colors and the styles of Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Renoir. There is not a single thing about any well-known Impressionist painting that is the slightest bit realistic. But yet, the rough shapes and colors still make sense. What do we mean by that? There is something there that just feels right. What is it?

To me, what feels right about Impressionism is what was discussed in part one above. These Impressionist images get deep into the viewers brain and evoke memories of shared scenes and events. The memory is in fact an Impressionist playground of fleeting colors, shapes, and edges. A face here, a blur there, a hint of something almost there but not quite.

Look at the Monets. Think about how the yellows of a sun in the distance is the same yellow as in a nearby flower, but something about the nearby colors makes the sun feel brighter than the flower. How does he do that? Can you get closer to achieving this with your photography?

As you look at Impressionist paintings, juxtapose them to your own photography. If you want to evoke the same sorts of feelings, then consider the realism that is not there.

The Majesty (my largest photo ever) (by Stuck in Customs)

An icy lake at sunrise, fed from the seasonal melt at Glacier National Park, a pano of 90 shots

6) Practice with HDR

What is HDR? It’s short for High Dynamic Range photography and it’s all the rage. I have an HDR Tutorial right here on my blog. I will explain with HDR is in the following paragraphs in a circuitous but meaningful way.

About 80% of my photos use HDR, but I do something a little different. As you start looking into HDR (many of you already have), you will begin to notice how absolutely horrible most HDR looks. When many people begin experimenting with it (myself included!), it was overdone and looked too psychedelic. Over time, mine have improved via rigorous self-examination and evolving methodology.

Remember that bit me growing up and seeing the world with one eye? Now we come to part two in this daring mini-biography as we are cross the stepping stones to my point. My background in college was Computer Science and Math, so I’ve always thought about things in terms of algorithms and software. After the very first time I used a DSLR camera when I was 35 or so, I very quickly came to the realization that there was something missing.

The missing something was the “software” layer between the eye and the memory. Consider what you do on the scene with the barn, and juxtapose the following sequence of events with how the camera works. You survey the scene. Your eye jumps around from interesting object to interesting object, sometimes moving slowly, sometimes moving quickly. Your eye lets in more light in some areas, less light in others as your pupil dilates. You squint into the setting sun and see warm colors splashed across the clouds, the grass, and the barn. You remember other barns, other storms, other sunsets. You are with someone or your are alone, but you certainly remember. You lock it all up in your mind’s eye forever.

Since we are all visual creatures, a photo or a painting can evoke great memories, just like a song or a smell. But the only way to trigger some of those intense memories on a deep level is to adjust the light levels in the photograph, so that the effective light levels and color match those that are buried in your head. The HDR process can help achieve these goals.

This is Nathaniel (by Stuck in Customs)

A young Amish boy allows me to freeze time after I help him carry wood with his sisters.

7) Take your camera everywhere

Don’t just take your camera out on those rare occasions when you actually decide to set aside a portion of your day for photography. Face it: we’re all busy people with real lives and setting aside 3-4 hours for anything extracurricular is rough. But it only takes a few seconds to get inspired for a photo, and it’s no good if your camera is back at home.

Keep it in the trunk of your car in a fun little photo backpack with a small selection of lenses. You never know when you will see something wonderful.

Use this opportunity to take at least one photo a day. It doesn’t have to be a grand landscape – just something small and nice that you really should have noticed before.

Dante’s Gates of Hell, a sculpture by Rodin, captured in proper lighting

8 ) Understand the fantasy/reality membrane

Do you have kids? Are you a kid at heart? Think about being a kid and what happened when you turned into a jaded old grown up. Maybe by the end of this section you can ask yourself some new questions about reality.

Kids have this remarkable “membrane” between fantasy and reality. They can jump back and forth between the two in an effortless way. In fact, the membrane is wonderfully “thick”, in that there is a vast dreamstate wilderness where the world is both fantasy and reality. When pressed, the kids will tell you what is real and what is pretend, but that is often a painful process that extracts them from the escapism that was so visceral just a few moments before.

When we are all grown up and serious, that membrane is razor-thin, and there is little tolerance of what is “pretend” and “fantasy”. Why is this? Is it because we are surrounded by other serious people and we want to conform? Is it because fantastical events and escapades are what “kids” do, and thus is not pertinent to the practical?

Obviously we all still can get into that fantasy zone and we all love it. That’s why movies are still such a potent force; they give us social permission to be like a kid for 2 hours, once a week. It also explains the waxing relevance of online games.

But when we start talking about photography – well now, that is a different subject! Photography is a serious art form, practiced by classically trained masters whose reality is quite serious indeed! There mustn’t be anything fantastical introduced via the art form. The process is the camera straight to the film, you see!

Poppycock.

Learning to Draw by Candlelight (by Stuck in Customs)

My personal foray over the last year into learning how to draw

9) Learn to draw

Hey this is a weird one, eh? Who on Earth has time to learn to draw? Well, you would have time if you stopped wasting time on nonsensical activities. You’ve got one life here so you might as well start applying yourself.

I didn’t have any time! Heck I have a load of kids, a full time job, a bunch of cool games to play, books to read, I have to go exercise, I do a bit of photography, and blah blah blah… So, as a personal experiment, I was going to see if anyone can learn to draw. This is similar to another experiment I did on myself to see if I could take something I hated and turn it into something I enjoy. Only that experiment was coffee, and I was afraid learning to draw would be harder, particularly because of the jitteryness introduced from the first experiment.

I’ve always admired people that can just grab a pencil and paper and make something amazing. Man, I always wanted to do that! I went into the experiment with the hypothesis that there are great natural artists that can draw anything with zero instruction whatsoever. These are true masters and I was unlikely to achieve that goal. However, I thought I could get passable at drawing and get to a point of satisfaction. A great side effect, I envisioned, is that it would give me new insight into photography – into line, shape, light, and composition.

All of this turned out to be true. So, if you have hit a rough spot or the doldrums with your photography, take up drawing. There are a few instructional books out there that are practical hands-on guides that can get you the basic pointers you need. I think you will be quite impressed on how it starts to bleed into your photography art!

The Place Where Rebekka's Horses Run Free (by Stuck in Customs)

A wild-haired tame horse on the windy fjords of Iceland

10) Make mistakes

Last, make a lot of mistakes. Throw yourself and your art out there and see what works and what doesn’t work. Get your stuff looked at by real friends that give you frank feedback.

Don’t be like those sorry saps on American Idol who make fools of themselves in big auditions because they’ve spent their whole life with their tone-deaf mom telling them they are incredible at singing “Over the Rainbow”, because Aunt Mabel enjoyed it so much during that 2nd grade play. Get yourself online and begin making friends by finding other photographers that you respect. Beg and plead for them to come look at one or two of your photos and get their frank feedback. They will cut you apart, but just take your medicine, lick your wounds, and go out there and improve.

Fin

And there we have ten things to shake up your world a little bit. I’m no Baudelaire when it comes to writing these sorts of polemics. However, just as he drove Manet to be Manet, perhaps I can do my own little part to stoke the fires and drive a new art revolution forward; evolve and evoke, or whither into nothingness.

Extra Credit

Vitaly, the kind guru at Smashing Magazine, asked me to include a some other photos because readers love the sweet eye candy.  So here is a random selection of some of my favorites, which is somewhat of a canard because I get caught up in an endless loop of recursive objective self-objectivity.

The Lonely Trinity (by Stuck in Customs)

The Lonely Trinity

Merry D3Xmas from Trey and Stuck In Customs!

A Snowy Night at the Kiev Opera House

Stuck in India - Humayun's Tomb

On Frozen Pond

The Veins of Bangkok

The Bombing of Dresden

One Night in Bangkok

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