Developing an Eye for Photos

Once you’ve gotten the hardware that you need, and you’ve started to experiment with and perhaps even master some of the mechanical aspects of taking a picture, you now need to learn how to take “good” shots. And that means you need to develop your “eye” for photos.

You can buy the best equipment in the world, have a thorough understanding of aperture, shutter speed, strobe distance, animal behavior, and the like, but if you don’t take time to develop your eye, all you’ll end up with is technically perfect crap.

So your task now is to see what kind of pictures you like to take and learn how to take them well.

The “Wow” factor for each of us might be different. Maybe you like shooting wide and getting a sunburst in your shot. Maybe you’d like to shoot nudibranchs. Maybe your thing will be people. Whatever it is doesn’t matter. (And it doesn’t have to be one thing.) But the point is that you should learn to do it as best you can.

And there’s only one way to do that: Shoot, shoot, and then shoot some more.

We used to say “Film is cheap.” Even so, it did cost. And you could not look at your results immediately. Finally, each roll had a relatively few amount of shots.

The good thing with film is that it taught you discipline. As you looked at your shots over time, you begin to see what worked and what did not. And with only 36 frames you developed a discipline taught you to really think about a shot and anticipate the problems and limitations before you pull the trigger.

Digital presents a wholly different perspective. Digital is “free.” And it’s relatively unlimited. When I go down and shoot with my D70 at best-quality JPG on a 1GB card, I can shoot roughly 300 frames. That freedom also means it’s easy to be undisciplined when shooting digital. You can shoot, shoot, shoot without regard to quality because there’s always more.

But that’s probably not a great attitude to have. Ideally, you should try to develop the same discipline with digital that you might have with a film camera. The digital advantage then would let you even further refine your shots and produce even better results than you might have gotten with film, because you’ve got instantaneous feedback (even through the tiny LCD monitor) so you can see what’s working, what’s not, and make adjustments to make it even better.

Maybe the strobe angle is wrong. Maybe the pictures over-or under-exposed. Maybe the subject’s not in the right position. Or the background’s distracting. Or any other element you may not like. Digital gives you the opportunity to change that and make a better picture. But if all you do is snap, snap, snap and don’t bother to review your work until you’re back on the boat, you’ll lose the opportunity to improve the results while you’ve still got a chance to do so.

No matter whether you’re shooting digital or film, whether you’re a newbie or an old pro, there are two things you can do right now to start making your pictures better.
#1 – Get closer.
#2 – Get lower.

Especially when people start out, they tend to be too far away. Get as close as your lens will allow you. Generally, you’re not as close as you think. With SLR’s, whether digital or film, fill the viewfinder with your subject.

And get lower. At least try to be shooting on the same level as your subject, but experiment with shooting on a slight upward angle. Too often we see photographers shooting almost straight down. Usually, it doesn’t make for an attractive picture.

(The caveat here is that there are exceptions to every rule. Hammerheads don’t look right when shot on a level plane because you tend to lose the hammer of their head. Manta rays and whale sharks tend to look better when shot from either a downward or upward angle. So it’s not like this is a hard-and-fast rule.)

But if you generally start getting closer and getting lower, I’m willing to bet you’ll start being happier with your pictures. Couple that with a critical examination of what kind of shots you take that you think are good, and what you see other people shooting that you think are good, and figure out how to emulate that over and over again. Couple that with knowledge of the animals and subjects you’re trying to capture and an understanding of their behavior patterns, and you’re well on your way to having all the tools at your disposal to make excellent photos.

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