Lauren Coffield running in Santa Barbara, California / f/5.6, ISO 200, 1/1000 second, 17-35mm/2.8 lens
Last week I gave a one-hour presentation for the good folks at SanDisk, the maker of the flash memory cards I use in all my cameras, in their brand-new auditorium in Milpitas. I spoke about how the worlds of still photography and video are converging, and the future of visual storytelling has never been brighter. After the presentation, one of the employees of SanDisk approached me with a very direct question, one that caught me a little off guard.
“How do I make great pictures?” she asked.
It was a flattering thing to be asked, and at first I wasn’t sure how to give a decent answer. I found myself reciting the fundamentals, the stuff that you learn in photography 101, namely that a good photograph is made up of three things: Composition, Light and Timing.
First, composition: think about how you want to frame your subject in order to create the most interesting image. The often-cited guideline is the “Rule of Thirds,” in which you imagine your image as being divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. Then, you compose your image so that your subject is placed along these lines or at those intersections—as opposed to dead center. This creates photographs with more tension, energy and drama.
Second, light: Where is the light source coming from, and what is its quality? After evaluating the quality of light and its source, you go through a thought process that might involve simply tweaking your ISO, aperture and shutter speed, to using reflectors or flashes to create the lighting effect that will best bring out the elements and details most important to your photograph.
Third, timing. The Moment. When do you press that shutter? A second too early or too late might mean that you miss that perfect expression in your portrait, or that crazy moment of action. Timing is everything.
But these are tips for making good pictures. This employee at SanDisk
wanted to know how to make great pictures. And the more I thought about
it, I realized that there’s a fourth element that many great photos all
seem to share. That is, the element of surprise. The Unexpected.
One photo came to mind as being illustrative of having these four elements, and it was this running photograph I took a few years ago during a catalog shoot for Road Runner Sports. The composition is the classic Rule of Thirds, with the horizon of the ocean in the upper third, and my running subject placed along the lower third. The rising sun over the Pacific adds a really nice dramatic element, but its position behind the runner meant we needed to use reflectors to fill in the shadows and illuminate our subject so she really pops. Then, there’s the timing of freezing her stride right when her pose is most active and energized because both feet are off the ground.
But what makes this shot better than average (I cringe to call my own work “great”), are the two stand-up paddle boarders who just so happened to drift into the shot and frame themselves perfectly around the sunlight reflecting off the ocean. This little detail, this little serendipitous occurrence, was a gift that I couldn’t have scripted. But this kind of stuff happens all the time, and what I’ve learned is that to get that rare Fourth Element in your photos, you have to just keep shooting. Don’t put the camera down.
Also, be open to the Fourth Element. For example, I could’ve stopped the shoot and waited for those paddle-boarders to paddle out of view. But instead, I went with it. And once I got back to the computer, and saw the final product, I’m really happy I did.