Monday, April 29, 2013

Taking Great Photos: Tips from Robb Cyr

Hi everyone! My hubby Robb is doing a guest blog post today!  As I've mentioned, he's an amazing photographer (just see that photo below!) and he has some great tips for taking beautiful photos to use in your layouts.  Enjoy and thanks Robbie!

Taking Great Photos

Hi Folks, thanks to Cass for letting me talk to you guys for a few. We have 2 posts planned, the post you’re reading now will be about the photos you make and use in your layouts, and the 2nd will be about actually photographing your layouts. This is my first time writing about tips for photography so hopefully you will get some useful information out of it!
I’m a photographer and web designer, and similar to scrapping, I usually start a project that is inspired by an image or concept. Having great source materials to start with can really make your final presentation stand out. In this case, having better photos will improve the overall presentation of your layout. So it is with this in mind that I have put together these tips to help improve your photos and ‘up your layout game’. Let’s get started!

1) Fill The Frame When Shooting a Portrait

Portraits are pictures of people, specifically including their faces. If you have a picture of a person facing away from the camera it’s technically not a proper portrait. When you are shooting a portrait, it’s important to fill the frame with the subject; it may seem obvious to some, but you have no idea how many times I have seen a cute picture of a kid that falls flat because either the scene is too busy, distracting, or the location doesn’t add any strength to the photo. This can be done one of 2 ways. A) In camera: meaning you actually take the picture of the subject filling your entire screen or viewfinder. B) You can crop the image on your computer to “re-compose” your photo.

The best way is the first method, in camera. This will give you the highest quality image because you’re filling all those megapixels that you paid for, with your subject. When you take a wider picture and crop in you’re basically throwing away those pixels, aka details, aka QUALITY!

Speaking of mega pixels, briefly I want to dispel the myth the higher MP = better photos. There is a lot of info on this topic online, but quickly let me just say; in MOST cases your megapixel count only determines the maximum print size you can get away with, but this doesn’t necessarily mean “better” photos. You can make prints as large as 8x10 all day long with only 3MP!!! At this stage in the game, most newer cameras come in 8, 10 , 12, 16, or 18MP!! Without getting too techy, if quality is your main concern, the actual physical sensor size in the camera is MUCH more important than the MP count.

The benefit of a higher MP camera is when you are cropping. Again, when you crop, you are throwing away hard earned megapixels, so those of you with 12MP, 16MP and 18MP cameras have a few mega pixels to spare. In theory you could crop an 18MP file down to the equivalent of an 8 to 10MP file which will still print very nicely. But no matter what kind of camera you have, if you fill the frame you get the best image quality.

Example 1

The other reason, and the most important reason, to fill the frame is for stronger portraits. In example 1 we have our son Charlie standing near the edge of the lawn with the nose of my truck peeking in the left side of the frame. The scene is boring and the truck is distracting, so you can crop this picture for a better, stronger portrait.

Example 2

You can do a tight crop like in example 2 that is ONLY of Charlie’s face. Doing this means you are only giving the viewer one thing to look at. You are also now only getting a gray background from the street, again you are now focusing the attention to exactly what you want people to see.

Example 3

In example 3 we converted that same photo into black and white. And now you can see that the photo is now a very strong standard portrait, taking on a more artful, serious tone.

Example 4

In example 4 we are doing a wider crop which eliminates the distracting truck, but from top to bottom the frame is still mostly filled with Charlie. By using the “Rule of Thirds” we are giving a little this photo a little more space to breath, and leaving open some room to overlay text, or other design elements without interfering with the subject of the photo. I applied just some simple “auto tone’ in Adobe Lightroom to brighten up the photo and give it some kick.

So as you can see, you can take a pretty dull photo, and really make it pop with a little cropping, and simple color presets. All of these edits combined took me no more than 5 minutes to crop and color adjust. Most software that comes with your computer will have these tools. In Windows you have basic editing tools when you preview the the image. On Mac you’ll have iPhoto which also has a basic set of editing tools. While this has a lot of info on cropping, you can save yourself a boat load of time if you just fill the frame in camera the moment you are taking the photo. Filling the frame in camera requires no software at all, and gives you the best image quality.

2) Rule of thirds

In the camera or on the computer, cropping and composing all willy nilly with no composition rules won’t get you very far. Enter the Rule of Thirds (ROT). This is a fundamental composition technique that is used by artists of all disciplines. Again, there is lots of info online so I’ll touch briefly on this. The simplest, down and dirty explanation of Rule of Thirds is that ROT is a technique used to have your subjects off center. Either to the left, right, top or bottom.

Look at the examples above, they each have a grid overlaid with nine blocks dividing the frame in the thirds both horizontally and vertically. It was determined years ago, by artists much more skilled than me, that when you place your subject along the right, left, top and bottom intersecting lines it makes for a more visually pleasing image. It gives your eye some room to move, leave and come back; you absorb the information more intuitively. When you place a subject dead center in the frame your eyes finds it boring, it knows where to look, you get in and you get out. It doesn’t challenge your brain, and therefore comes across as uninteresting.

One big problem with many cameras is that it clusters all of the focus points in the center of the viewfinder or on the back of your camera. A lot of people just line up those focus points and fire away. You have to be mindful of your focus when trying to execute rule of thirds. A slightly more advanced technique of focusing and re-composing your picture can help you make sure you still keep focus while executing ROT. One of the great things with cameras nowadays is that some of them will actually overlay a ROT grid in the viewfinder as an aid for composing your photos in camera.

ROT is also used in landscape photography. Let’s say you are shooting the ocean, you never want the horizon line dead center in the frame. You either want the horizon lined up with bottom line and catch more background or sky, or line it up with the top line and get more foreground, Sand and waves. Compelling photos tell a story, and these background and foreground elements help to tell the story of that landscape. Without good composition, photos become merely simple, cold documentation that you went to a beach.

3) Embrace Negative Space:

So now that I’ve told you to fill the frame and then put your subjects off to the side of the frame you’re probably saying to yourself “WHAT THE HECK DUDE!!!!”

Before getting into Negative Space, let me say that in photography the rules are meant to be broken. BUT you have to know the rules before you can break them. And even though the 2 tips above seem to contradict each other, let’s look at the portrait of Charlie again. Here we are filling the frame AND using rule of thirds. Do you see it? In portraits it’s ALL ABOUT THE EYES. They say that the eyes are windows to the soul, and that is never more true than in portrait photography. When you are doing a tight face shot, the eyes actually become the subject. If you look at this picture of Charlie, the eyes are in the upper third of the frame. We are doing both concepts at once.

Composition is mostly about focusing the attention of the viewer and telling a story with a single image. Embracing negative space is a great way to do both. Negative space is usually considered the space around the subject. Usually that space is free of a competing secondary subject, so the background should be pretty plain. Here we have a photo of a bodybuilder, He is far to the right with a TON of negative space to the left. This composition adds to the intensity of the man’s face: what is he looking at? what is he so focused on? You can let the viewer build a story in their head when you leave them some openness.

Negative space is also a layout artist’s best friend because it gives you space to overlay text and graphics. I create ads all day at work, and if I get an image with little to no negative space, I’ll edit the image and create negative space for the purpose of adding text. This is important for your layouts too because it gives you the ability to layer in and incorporate all kinds of visual, and text elements without taking away from the subject. Next time you look in a magazine look at the ads and notice how they have intentionally given themselves negative space for the sake of being able to add in other elements. Once you start understanding these concepts, it’s hard to leave the house and not notice them all over the place. Signs, ads, magazines, billboards, it’s EVERYWHERE!

4) Shoot at your child’s level

Here is a less technical tip. I’m going to assume that a lot of you have children in your life that you like to use for your layouts. Maybe more so than any other subject. So here is an easy tip for photographing kids: get down on their level. Literally get down on the ground and shoot them at their height. Shooting down on people is something that has to be done subtly and with finesse. Shooting down on people at extreme angles is pretty much a bad idea no matter who your subject is. But with kids they are obviously a lot shorter than adults, so there is not a subtle way to shoot them from above. Again, we want to very purposefully direct the viewer where to look. Getting down to their height, and filling the frame will provide great captures of your children time and time again.

5) iPhone (or other smartphone)

There is a famous photographer named Chase Jarvis who I follow that has really propelled the idea of using your cell phone as a creative visual tool. The saying goes, “the best camera is the one that’s with you.” Chase Jarvis actually released a photo book of images captured exclusively on his iPhone. These days a new smartphone has a 6 to 8MP sensor and is able to make really nice photos. If you have one of these phones, by all means USE IT! Even if you don’t follow the other tips, just keep shooting, it’s better to have these moments captured than to not have them at all. So pull out that cell phone and start shooting. The images created by smartphones are more than capable of being printed- Cass uses her iPhone all the time and I’m always super impressed with quality of her prints. Admittedly she is better at getting great iPhone photos than I am, and she is pretty stealthy too, she gets photos sometimes when I don’t even realize she is doing it. This has allowed her to have some great photos in her layouts. So don’t discount the very powerful tool you all carry in your pocket every day!

6) Shoot in Open Shade or Indirect Light

No matter what camera you have, you will almost ALWAYS benefit from shooting in “open shade”. Open shade is a shaded area from harsh direct sunlight. This could be under a large tree, a gazeebo, a pavillion, even behind a large building or house. Also an overcast day is a great time to shoot outdoors.

Why not in direct sunlight?? There are few reasons, some pretty technical, and others pretty easy to explain. For starters, direct midday sunlight is very bright, and it makes people squint and that’s not good. It’s uncomfortable for the person being photographed and it’s not a flattering expression. With the sun right above you it creates unflattering shadows around the eyes called racoon eyes, This name comes from the dark shadow that gets cast under your eyes by your eyebrows. Sunlight is a great thing first thing in the morning, or at sunset, but most people are out and about in the middle of the day with their friends and families, so unless you are specifically shooting at those times, it’s better to understand how to get great images at all times of the day, or at least the times most people are out and about.


  1. I love that you shared all of this goodness, always love helpful hints.

  2. Great tips! So nice of your husband to share with us. I can never understand why people wouldn't want to fill the frame when taking a photo of people! A close up photo is so much better.


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