I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy and is managing to remain somewhat active and positive. We are living through scary times, not just in terms of the Covid 19 pandemic itself but also because of the economic and social problems associated with it. Social isolation is increasingly becoming a problem for people and it is now being addressed by governments and various organisations throughout the world.
An initiative which has just been launched by the Irish Government is #inthistogether, which aims to help people to stay connected, stay active and look after their mental health during the Covid 19 pandemic. Among other things, people are being urged to set a new daily activity to help boost their positivity and feel healthier, physically and mentally. The initiative states, “Now that more of our time will be spent at home, it is a great opportunity to get creative or pick up an old hobby.” This is where I believe photography has a part to play. It can be carried out inside or outside the home; it needs little investment in order to get started (a mobile phone camera!) and it takes care of both our physical and mental health. These might be lofty claims, but I have come to regard photography as my mental stimulation, my passport into the great outdoors and my go-to creative activity, so I speak from my own experience.
My own journey into photography began about two years ago, simply with a suggestion. I had taken early retirement from my job and needed something challenging, something creative, something meaningful, and in photography I found all of that, and more. Photography has helped me to become more observant in everyday life, it has given me a greater appreciation of nature, has helped me discover new places, has given me a creative outlet and has taught me the importance of being in the moment. It has given me patience and the ability to strive for perfection while always being willing to accept my best. One of the strengths of photography as a hobby is that it can be as simple or as complex as we wish it to be; it can remain at the level of enjoyment and receiving positive comments on Instagram or it can open doors that lead in all directions and bring us on a new journey of discovery.
First off, I am by no means an expert in photography and this blog has charted my learning from a position of almost complete beginner. When I started out, I had a lot of photographs filed on my computer under the name of the place in which they were taken. They were mostly holiday ‘snaps’, photographs taken quickly, usually with a fellow traveller or family member positioned in the middle of the picture and the landscape a mere background feature. I had no idea how to correctly compose an image to achieve the best visual impact, I didn’t always expose correctly or take account of light, and I usually took my photographs from the same position – that of a standing adult. These ‘mistakes’, and how I have learned to improve in these areas, have formed the basis of my five tips for turning snapshots into photographs and making a beginning on becoming a photographer rather than someone who takes occasional photographs.
At first glance this might not seem to be the ideal time to begin photography but I hope my 5 tips will show how this is exactly the right time to get started at an activity that could go on to provide a lifetime of pleasure. During this lockdown phase opportunities to get out and about with a camera are somewhat limited but these 5 tips can be tried out close to home, with a camera or mobile phone, and still have the potential to transform our images from snapshot to photograph, and ourselves from beginner to enthusiast photographer in a short time.
1. Become more observant
With or without camera at hand, I think one of the main strengths we need to have if we are to become good photographers is the ability to be continually observing our surroundings and constantly on the lookout for a good photo opportunity. I have found that I am generally becoming more observant and am beginning to see things that I had often overlooked. We can look up, look down, look around, and particularly at this time of year, even if we can’t walk very far, nature is unfolding before our eyes. If we are confined to our own backyard or garden, we can still observe the sky as it changes minute by minute, and the sun as it casts its light around us. Observation is a key skill and one that will be developed over time but one that can begin right now.
2. Pay attention to composition
Composition is one of the photographic skills that I am constantly learning more about, and always trying to improve. Often when I take photos I don’t include people in them, but when I do I usually try to position them off-centre, in as natural a pose as possible, rather than have them smiling, centre picture, as I used to do. While I have learned about the ‘rules’ of composition, I don’t stick to them rigidly but do try to find a composition that to me is aesthetically pleasing.
And keep compositions simple!
Even at times like these, when I cannot go too far afield with my camera, I can still practise composition. I took the photograph below in Marlay Park (which is within my 2km limit). I concentrated on the leaf and made that the focal point of my picture, rather than trying to include everything. Even when using a mobile phone camera, I have learned to set the focus by tapping on the screen, thereby choosing exactly which part of the scene I want to have in focus.
I like to concentrate on small parts of things, unusual or overlooked items, and these are the kinds of photographs I can still take close to home.
3. Vary the angle and perspective
Most photographs are taken from the position of a standing adult. In order to have our photos appear more unique a simple technique is to vary the angle or perspective. Shooting flowers from a low vantage point lets us see them in a way that we don’t normally see them from our standing position. Placing the camera close to the ground can give a change of perspective and I even lie on the ground at times to get a more unique view. This technique works particularly well with a mobile phone since we aren’t using a viewfinder.
Placing a mobile phone on the ground provides a more unusual angle from which to take our image
Looking around for the best perspective is a good rule of thumb as it helps us achieve the best background against which to set our subject. For example, in the image below, moving around and shooting up against the sky, rather than shooting against a coloured background of trees, gives the subject more emphasis.
Looking down, too, can present unexpected opportunities to capture something unusual. This leaf print is set into a concrete path in my neighbourhood. I walked past it many times without noticing it until one day I happened to look down and realised it had probably been made deliberately, and it is not something seen often, so I took the photograph.
4. Pay attention to the light
I have often spoiled an otherwise decent photograph by not paying attention to the light. Sometimes I want to take a certain scene, but the light is just too dull, and the result is a very flat, lifeless image. In many cases subjects were over or under exposed because I didn’t ascertain where the light was coming from and adjust my position accordingly. Sometimes, I look out at my garden and know that any photograph taken will be dull and uninteresting because the light is dull and uninteresting. At other times, a sliver of light falling on a leaf, a petal, a surface, can transform the possibilities for getting a decent image. It is generally agreed that early morning and late evening are the best times for getting good light, though many will say that just after rain is good too! Harsh midday sun is not as good as the soft morning or evening light but sometimes we need to make the best of the light we have, as long as we are aware of that and work accordingly. At times, I have even found myself identifying what I want to shoot then waiting for the light to arrive!
5. Learn something from an expert
While I feel confident in passing on tips that worked for me, I believe there is no substitute for learning from an expert. There are countless tutorials online and free photography lessons for beginners, some more useful than others. One link I am happy to recommend is https://iphonephotographyschool.com/mobile-photography-tips/.
This site has lots of tips for improving phone photography, and they can be applied to all smartphone cameras, not just iphones. The tips given are easy to incorporate into our everyday photography and I believe that they have helped transform the way I use my mobile phone for photography. In these days of limited movement, mobile photography may just be the place to begin the photographic journey!
"To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it." -- Kurt Vonnegut