“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
— Elliott Erwitt
Who this post is for
Aspiring photographers or anyone who wants to learn how to take more creative photographs. No photo-editing software is required, just a desire to learn and experiment with your camera!
The world offers no shortage of amazing subjects and experiences to photograph. In 2017, it’s estimated that people will take nearly 1.2 trillion photos around the world. Many of these photos will be simple snapshots—photos defined as informal, taken quickly or spontaneously, and sometimes without thorough consideration of composition. In many cases, that’s all a situation calls for, but for many subjects it’s often prudent to dig a little deeper and get creative with your photographs. Many variables come into play that can shape the quality and perspective of your photos. Things like light, composition (how a subject is framed), depth, weather, shutter speed (duration of the exposure), and of course location, all play a part in creating unique and interesting photographs.
In this post I’ll delve into these different variables and showcase a wide array of photos in order to expose the world of possibility you can capture with your camera (or, in some cases, your smartphone). Take some time to explore different ways to capture scenes and subjects and I promise your experiences will be much more memorable and enjoyable.
Create a photo, don’t just take one.
Correct exposures vs. creatively correct exposures
In the world of photography the word “exposure” — which is derived from the days of film — is just a fancy way of saying “photograph.” Depending on the roll of film, photographers were often limited to a couple dozen or so “exposures” per roll, in other words, a dozen or so photos per roll. Even though many of us use digital cameras these days, “exposure” is still an accurate term since the camera’s sensor is exposed to light, which allows photographs to be captured.
More importantly, for the sake of this article, there’s a difference between a “correct exposure” and “creatively correct exposure.” Technically speaking, correct exposures are the way in which your camera’s settings (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) work together to capture a proper photo of what you’re seeing. Smartphones’ and cameras’ “auto” settings will always attempt to take a photo at the “correct” exposure.
Here’s an example of a correct exposure of Multnomah Falls in Oregon taken by Caleb Jones. In this gorgeous shot, we can see in the photo above that the light is well balanced and the waterfall appears to be frozen in time. The shutter speed of this shot — or the time the shutter was left open to allow light to be absorbed by the camera sensor — was a fraction of a second.
This tutorial on Digital Photography School offers a lot of useful tips for creating long-exposure waterfalls shots.
Here is another, nearly identical shot of Multnomah Falls shot by Blake Verdoorn. Besides the coloring, can you spot the difference between these two exposures? In Blake’s photo, we can see that the water has more of a smooth, flowing effect. This particular creative effect is called a “long exposure,” which means the camera shutter stays open for a long period of time. This allows the sensor to absorb more light and catch more movement in photographs.
Long exposures are some of my favorite photos. We can really push the boundaries of reality when we get creative and involve time as a primary variable when creating photographs. Depending on the camera being used, we can take exposures from a fraction of a second to many hours. It’s incredible what can be captured when the camera shutter is left open for a significant amount of time. For these, tripods are usually required to hold the camera steady. And photos like these are also possible on some smartphones with the right apps.
In the summer of 2016 I spent some time in the deep woods of Brownfield, Maine, where the stars were incredibly bright due to a lack of light pollution from cities. This shot is both a long exposure (30 seconds long) and a correct one. The photo is nearly identical to how you would see the stars if you looked up in this same location. Since the night sky is often difficult to capture due to the lack of available light, it’s necessary to leave the shutter open for 20 or more seconds so the camera sensor can capture what our eyes can see.
PetaPixel offers some great tutorials on capturing star trails.
Here’s where things get interesting. The photo above is not a manipulation, nor was it altered using image-editing software in any way — it’s a creative exposure directly from the camera. After I captured the initial photo of the stars, I set a remote timer to take this second one. Remote timers are necessary to capture exposures over 30 seconds for most cameras on the market today. In this shot, I left the shutter open for just over 28 minutes — 1700 seconds to be exact! That basically means that for just over 28 minutes light was continuously being absorbed by the camera sensor and being compiled into one photograph.
Due to the spinning of the earth on its axis, the stars appear to be moving as time goes on, creating light trails. This is called a “star trail” photograph. These are extremely fun to capture. With that being said, they require a lot of prior research and patience to obtain. Time of year, weather patterns, and moon orbital patterns all play a part in creating these type of photos — but that’s an article for another time!
Speaking of Research…
Location research and scouting is paramount to capturing creative shots for many types of scenery and subjects.
We can really push the boundaries of reality when we get creative and involve time as a primary variable when creating photographs.
- Monitor how the scene or subject changes at different times of day. Even a few minutes can make a dramatic difference. Mood is powerful.
- Weather plays a major role in scene differentiation as well. Overcast days are best for capturing light evenly, but you certainly can’t capture a great sunset shot on a cloudy day!
- Experiment with composition. If you arrive somewhere and just snap a photo, chances are it’s not the best possible composition, nor the best angle. This is especially true for those really touristy areas and “scenic overlooks.” Explore the scene a bit to see what you can discover. But be careful and please don’t fall off any cliffs!
- Add depth to your shots when possible. Even great scenes and subjects can easily appear flat in photographs. As an example, try blurring some bushes in the foreground and focusing on the distance (or vice versa) for a more realistic view of landscapes and subject matter.
A few examples of some of fantastic, creatively exposed shots
Bruce Wunderlich wrote up a wonderful article on how to understand and create great depth of field.
Depth can be used to make scenes far more interesting and less flat, which we can see in this photo of a surfer by Annie Spratt. This technique, referred to as shallow depth of field, is a favorite amongst most photographers. Thanks to recent advancements in smartphone technology, capturing exposures with high depth of field is easy.
This just barely begins to scratch the surface of what’s possible in modern photography when a little attention is paid to the world around us. Whether you have a smartphone, a point-and-shoot, or an advanced camera — so long as you’re up to explore and experiment, there’s no shortage of photos to be created! For digging deeper into creative exposures, I recommend the book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson.