There are thousands of people taking pictures every day. With the popularity of zoo, wildlife, and state or national park shots being near the top of the list I decided to use them as examples for this post.
Let’s look at this picture. Can you tell me why this is a great shot? The photo is obviously clear. There is heavy shadow on the subject, but the exposure is perfect. You can assume that it was taken in the midday sun.
I took the shot with a long lens. I used a tripod to prevent camera shake from softening the image. I also used a fast shutter speed (thanks to the bright sunlight). Note: Your subject, whether human or animal should be looking into the image, not off the page. It’s also true for publications, like magazines.
In this example, too, you can apply the “Rule of Thirds” –that is, divide the image in thirds vertically and horizontally and place your subject on the one vertical lines (since the subject here is vertical) looking into the shot not off the edge of the photograph.
In the old days, there was an hard-fast rule about telephoto and super-telephoto lenses. “NEVER hand-hold anything from 200 mm up. Use a tripod.” It was an edict I followed faithfully and my photographs were evidence of that wisdom. Today, I see people hand-holding massive lenses with mediocre results due to camera shake. A tripod is worth its weight in gold as far as I am concerned. With so-called “crop sensor” camera bodies the effect of a little camera shake is magnified. I cannot emphasize this enough, use a tripod for the best results possible. Don’t take any chances.
The “lens factor” or “crop factor” is a measure of the difference between the size of a 35 mm negative (24 x 36 mm) and your camera’s CCD or CMOS sensor. A typical APS-C camera sensor is about the size of a postage stamp. The most common lens factors are 1.5 and 1.6 meaning 150 or 160 percent of the lens focal length. The result is a cropping of the image that would be captured on 35 mm film or a full-frame sensor (like those found in high-end professional digital SLR bodies).
You want the sharpest images possible, especially if you might want to print enlargements. Using a tripod will ensure that you have crisp lines and your subject is in focus. The higher the magnification of your lens, the more important it is to use a sturdy tripod.
I took the leopard shots below using a long lens and a Manfrotto tripod.
Getting right on the leopard’s nose made for a very dramatic shot. I used that image for the cover of my book, Frame That Shot.
Both of these shots were taken with a Pentax fully manual SLR film camera from the same vantage point. The first one was taken with a 500 mm lens. The second one was shot with a 200 mm lens.
Looking at the two images, together, you can see just how dramatic the close-up shot really is. The close-up was very tightly framed. The more distant shot tells the story of a leopard soaking up the sunshine. I named it “Catnap” for obvious reasons. The lesson here is that using multiple lenses or one zoom lens will enable you to compose a series of shots from the same vantage point without having to move closer to your subject. I frame my shots in the camera, meaning, I don’t want to crop anything. That simply degrades the image.
Rule: Fill the Frame for Dramatic Shots.
If you want impact, compose your shots in the camera body whenever possible and fill the frame so that you won’t have to crop your images. Now, sometimes, that is just not possible (like capturing birds in flight or getting closer to a dangerous carnivore, like the big cats). I don’t mind carrying big glass when I can get shots like the first of the two above, but, I don’t take chances. Always keep personal safety in mind.
Using a long lens provides you with another benefit. It compresses the background when your subject is in focus. That can add drama and blur out unwanted distractions.
The shot above is Old Man’s Cave in the Hocking State Forest (southeastern Ohio). Thanks to lens compression I have a dramatic image and uncluttered background. The effect is enhanced by the deep shadows behind the steps leading to the cave in this image. I shot it with a 400 mm lens on a digital camera with a 4:3 ratio sensor.
Your composition should lead the viewer’s eyes to your subject. An image that is too busy will lose the viewer’s eye. A well-composed shot will draw attention to your intended subject. Compose each shot with that in mind.
A well-composed shot will win a contest every time.