When I first started taking photos as a kid, my only tools were a tiny point-and-shoot camera and my own intuition. I have since graduated to a much nicer Canon DSLR, and I’ve begun to realize that the “eye” I had at the beginning is always growing and changing. Though I feel like I have yet to find my own distinct photographic “style,” I’ve seen a lot of improvement in how I compose and execute my shots. In the “Pro vs. Amateur” series, I’ll be exploring the different ways an amateur and a seasoned photographer could look at the same subject.
This first installment will focus on landscapes. The first two image pairs are cityscapes from London, England and Chicago, IL. The first time I visited London was in the summer of 2017. I took my camera with me everywhere and took as many pictures as I possibly could. Below is a quick shot I got of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, not far from where my friend and I were staying:
The image lacks any dynamic composition, with the subject slightly off-center and the surrounding buildings failing to create a sense of perspective. The crowd of tourists in the foreground certainly doesn’t help, either. Color-wise, it’s flat and fairly boring. Compare that to this shot, which I captured on my second trip to London in October 2018:.
Much better, right? I took this shot from the 10th floor of the Tate Modern Museum, which offers panoramic views of the whole city. I framed the cathedral in the center this time, so it’s clearly the focal point. The lighting is much more dynamic thanks to the time of day and the clouds overhead. I haven’t edited either of these shots, so you can really see how much of a difference one can make by just changing vantage points and framing. Both images were taken on the same camera by the same photographer, but they show a vast improvement in composition. Another example are the next two images that I took in Chicago, both during the summer of 2017
This picture was taken on my phone, which explains the poor quality, but I want to focus on the composition. The way it’s framed is awkward; the John Hancock Center, one of Chicago’s most recognizable buildings, is hiding behind a cluster of less interesting structures and therefore fails to be a point of interest in the image. I changed locations and caught this next image.
This was taken on my camera and has been edited, but compositionally it also stands out because it places more of an emphasis on its subject. I framed the John Hancock Center in the left third, which makes the image more dynamic and interesting to look at. Framing makes such a huge difference, especially with cityscapes like those shown above. It’s just a matter of finding ways to position yourself within your surroundings to capture the best image possible.
This image, along with the following one, are from a park near my house here in France. I took these in a way that demonstrates how framing can affect the tone of an image. First, take a look at this shot of La Meuse, the river that runs through my town. It’s a gloomy day, so the tone is fairly somber. But there’s a way to exaggerate that feeling by paying more attention to the foreground and background:
By adding the tree in the foreground, the image suddenly becomes much more foreboding. We now have a subject, which draws our attention, but the background still gives a sense of space and context. It’s certainly a more interesting and dynamic photo to look at. The shallow depth of field also emits a cinematic quality, which helps boost that sinister tone I was aiming for.
All of these images showcase the importance of framing in communicating tone with landscape photography. Landscapes can be tricky because as a photographer, you have virtually no control over how they look. You cannot position or instruct them like a model; natural lighting is constantly changing; and there are often things in the way of that perfect shot you really want. Shooting a better image is simply a matter of finding creative ways to interact with the environment, be it going to the top of a tall building or simply standing behind a tree. These are lessons that I am continuing to learn as I take more pictures, so I’m glad for the opportunity to look back at some of my older photographs and see how far I’ve come.