Stop Taking Crappy iPhone Pictures! Part 4

Session 4: Compose Yourself

So, you’re taking more iPhone photos. You’re looking at them with a critical eye. And you’ve turned off your flash — as a result of which some of your shots might be a little blurrier, but they might also be showing you some things you hadn’t seen before. As a side benefit, your friends may be finding your picture-taking habit less obnoxious, without the bright light going off in their faces. And, probably, your iPhone battery, now that it’s not spending itself on flashes, is holding its charge a little longer.

So, let’s return to our Checklist of How to Take Better Photos, and consider what Item No. 4 might be:

4. Compose your shots.

That’s an incomplete statement, but it’s a start. We know that one way of thinking about composition is that it’s about how you arrange light and shadow. That’s kind of an abstract way of thinking about it: as “painting with light.” But photography isn’t painting. It has an additional dimension: it’s a record of what you were pointing your camera at… of something, however transitory, that once existed in front of the lens.
This is not a pipe.
When we recognize an object in a picture, a complicated process is set in motion. We begin to substitute our idea of that object for the image of it. So, a photograph becomes not just an arrangement of lights and colors and shadows, but a frame in which some things appear — sometimes next to or in front of or behind other things. It’s hard not to think of the subject matter of a photograph as “things”; if you take a picture without any subject matter, you’ll start finding “things” in it anyway.

In other words, looking at a photo is a matter of interpretation, of resolving objects and their relationships.

Okay, okay, it sounds all very Art Theory 101. But what it comes down to, since pictures have “things” in them, is that a photo has immediate impact when it’s composed around a single identifiable object or focus of attention.

Which is a roundabout way of saying “in each photo, make one thing matter.” So, let’s revise Checklist Item No. 4 to read:

4. Compose your shots such that one thing matters. 

You’re probably already thinking about exceptions to this rule. And there are lots of good exceptions. Rules are, after all, made to be broken. (You can always think of an exception as a special case of the rule, but we won’t pick nits, here).

One of the ways you can center a composition around a single object is to zoom in on it. Here’s where one of the limitations of your iPhone comes in: it doesn’t have a great zoom. To have a great zoom, a camera needs to be able to move its lens, and your iPhone is, by design, purposely short on moving parts. Which is a good thing. But it means that you might find it hard, sometimes, to limit your composition to just the things you want.

Your iPhone does have a zoom; in fact, it makes it downright easy to zoom way in on stuff: just place your thumb and forefinger (or other two digits of preference) on the screen and pinch them apart to zoom in. Whoa. Or use the slider at the bottom of the screen. By zooming in on one part of the screen, you have effectively limited the composition to contain just one part of the action. Which is what we just advised you to do, right?

Who's zoomin' who?

The drawback is that this kind of zooming is what photographers call an interpolated, or “digital” zoom. That means the lens isn’t actually moving — the iPhone’s software is just magnifying part of the image. You’ve made some things appear bigger or closer, but you’ve lost some detail. Though the loss of detail makes your iPhone’s fine camera look like a less fine camera, there are times when you’ll want to use it anyway. Just be wary of overusing it.

You do have other options. My iPhone 4 takes a picture that’s 1936 pixels by 2592 pixels. That’s a lot of pixels — so many, in fact, that you can afford to throw a few of them away. Which is what you do when you use software like Photoshop to crop or resize an image. My Cinema Display is only 1920 x 1200 pixels, so if I want to see the entire photo, I have to crop it, or zoom out, or resize it down to about 60% of its original size. This is, in fact, what you’re doing when you view your photos on your iPhone: it’s scaling them down for you. To see them at full size, double-tap the image in the Photos app, or pinch apart to zoom in. Scaled down, with the pixels closer together, the image appears in much finer detail.

If you can’t edit your photos after you take them, or if you have to send them somewhere straight out of the Camera app, use the digital zoom. Otherwise, consider editing your photos after you take them. Can’t afford Photoshop? No problem. There are some good apps available for editing and cropping right in your iPhone.

So, your assignment for next session will be: Shoot (or collect) some examples of shots in which one thing matters. (And maybe some exceptions, too.) And we’ll talk about two ways you can control the focus of attention in your photos.

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