3 Photo Basics My Mother Taught Me

Photography 101: 

Or 

3 Things My Mother Taught Me

Mom was a pretty decent photographer.  She was first a single mother of 4. In 1978 when she was moving to Denmark and getting remarried, her very talented friends threw a going away party for her.  It was a ‘song and dance’ skit that ran a good hour.  Her friends were a bunch of very talented people.  I still have the cassette tape of it around somewhere. The theme was ‘Courses’.  My mother was always taking courses in something or other.  Whether it was French, photography, or taking up skiing when she turned 50!  

I asked her once about the fact that she volunteered to drive cancer patients, people she didn’t know, a couple of times a month.  She would drive them to and from their treatments. She told me she felt she “needed to give something back to society”.  !?!?

She obviously learned something in her photography classes as she won a couple of contests for her art. One was for a naked grandson when he was about a year old - I don’t think that would go over so well in this day and age!

As a youngster I’d carry a camera around with me a lot - an old Brownie 127, I think it was.  Not sure the exact model but it was 2 1/4” negative.  Much later I got SLR cameras but as kid it was the Brownie with the black and white film.  I got some great ‘horse’ photos even then.  Learning with a large negative camera was kinda cool.

Here are a few things my mother would constantly remind me of, as I learned photography.

Rule #1: Watch Your Background

This one was hammered into me.  Almost often as the poke in the shoulder to stand up straight!  The idea here was that you didn’t want a telephone pole or church spire sticking out of the top of someone’s head when you got the photos back.  Taking pretty photos of flowers in the back yard, you didn’t want the neighbour’s laundry hanging in the background.  Well, I didn’t anyway!

There was more to it than this really.  It made you look at the complete photo as opposed to focusing on just the person or cat or dog that you were trying to capture.  As a result, I would move to one side or the other, up or down and sometimes closer or further.  This had the added effect of seeing light and how it lay over the whole image.  How it changed.  As a child I could see that there was more than one way to shoot that object or scene.  Something as simple as crouching down as you are taking photos of small children.  It completely changes the intimacy of the relationship between child and photographer.  I find that now, I will walk the extra ‘mile’ to get a different perspective on scenery without thinking about it.  They always don’t turn out but I’ve had exclamations from enough people about my photos over the years by applying this one rule.    

This also would allow you to look at the photo as a whole.  I watch tourists in even in Niagara Falls concentrating on one part of the photo - either the person or the Falls.  They don’t ‘stand back’ and see the whole photo.  You might have someone standing by a tree.  If a large overhanging tree, you could use it to frame the person.  Or have them lean against it, having them interact with the tree, making it part of the photo instead of just another thing cluttering up the picture.

Rule #2:  “Add some red.”

This ‘rule’ made sense to me in that I could see in photos that had something red - that colour became the focus or there was at least something about it that gave perspective to the overall image.  The color red could draw you into the photo or give some depth to an otherwise bland image.

Warmer colours like red, orange, yellow and the in-between shades of these come forward or appear to be closer.  Cooler blues and greens will generally appear further.  This tends to mimic the reality of the fact that things in the distance tend to fade to pale blues and greys.  

And to belie that rule, brighter, intense and more vivid, of whatever colour, will appear closer. 

Try putting certain colours in an otherwise monotone photo to see what happens. 

Rule #3: Don’t Cut Off Their Feet.

This by itself is a simple but important rule.  When the feet are cut off at the ankles, it makes a standing subject or subjects look as though they are going to fall over.  It looks terribly unnatural.  When shooting a full body photo of someone standing try and make sure that you include the feet.  If you want to cut things short of the feet try above the knee or the waist.  If you are trying to include background try changing the angle, how high or low you are shooting from.  

Part of the issue with photos like this, where you have someone standing at attention facing you, well, it makes for an incredibly boring photo anyway.  It doesn’t lead you into the photo.  There are numerous ways that you can make it more interesting many of which only take an extra few seconds.  

If you are trying to get your subject in front of Niagara Falls, have them turn sideways and look at the Falls.  It will likely be easier for them to have a relaxed visage and smiles will be more forthcoming.  You can also have them sit or lean against the rocks that hold the railing.  This as I mentioned earlier with the tree, the overall look will have them interacting with the environment as opposed to be just standing there completely separated from it.  This has an added benefit of distraction.  When people are just standing there, they often don’t know what to with their hands, face, etc.  Have them leaning, pointing, or touching something or someone.  This can be used to help pull the viewer into the photo as well.  (Eye Trail)  Create different moods with expressions at the same time, even in the same series of photos.  Smiling, puzzled, serious, moody….  

So, to recap: 1. Watch Your Background; 2. Add Some Red; 3. Don’t Cut Off Their Feet.  These all pretty much add up to observe what you do.  Try different things, change the angle, change the pose.  Then take a look and compare the different photos to see what you like best.  

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