Guest Post: Three Steps to Step Up Your Digital Photo Game

By Brian Dilg, Chair Photography School at New York Film Academy

We are all photographers now. Within a world that is increasingly visual, when every person has a pocket holding a camera that happens to also be a phone, we are all just ten seconds or less away from being our own version of paparazzi. And we tend to think this is all quite normal, don’t we?

Because it is – normal, that is. But let’s imagine you want your photos to be more than normal. How do you shoot pictures, even with a simple smart phone, that are extraordinary?

If that is you, I suggest first that you think about what kind of photographer you would like to be. Some say it is about being a silent and objective observer – unobtrusively recording whatever it is that is going on at the moment. This is when you are a photojournalist, which plays an important role in how we perceive the world around us. The most talented photojournalists can recognize visual news, which might be the significance of a melting glacier, the smile on the face of an old woman or the drama of a child running out of a burning building. Your ability to capture those things requires command of your camera as well as being in the right place at the right time – and ready to shoot.

A professional photographer quite often gets much more involved in constructing the shot and using the technology of the camera to accomplish certain things. Let’s break that down into three pieces, things that even an amateur photographer could learn (learn, perhaps, as they are looking at photography schools as a possible educational pursuit):

  1. Take control of the camera exposure

Before there were smart phone cameras and digital cameras, we only had film cameras that relied on the photographer’s expertise to make sure exposures were correct, since there was no immediate feedback. The technical challenges of this often removed much of the spontaneity of individuals and failed to capture many live or moving objects. Today, with a smart phone you simply point and click. But say your subject is surrounded by things that are much more brightly lit, for example a face near a window in daytime, where the window would also be in the photo. The smart phone camera is easily fooled by the brightness of the light of the window, and underexposes the face. But if you tap on your screen at the place where the face is, the camera focuses on and exposes for the face and ignores the window. Presto! – You have a beautifully exposed subject surrounded by a dramatic blast of light. The same works in any situation and you can even force your smartphone to create dramatically brighter or darker pictures than it otherwise would, simply by tapping on a dark or light area.

  1. Learn what light can do for you

We tend to think that the brightest things are what get our attention. That may be true, but the drama of a photo is often in the shadows. This is because what you don’t see activates the imagination on a subconscious or conscious level. Look at much of fine art photography and this will be evident – what is not seen is left to the audience, to allow them to complete the picture in their own mind. To reduce contrast, learn to work with flex-fill reflectors, which essentially create a second source of light. This is typically used to highlight a face or other close subject. So while you may want to show a fashion model at sunset, you can have the setting sun in the distant background while still reflecting light back onto his or her face in the foreground. Remember that the reflector is like a mirror, and experiment to find the right angle.

  1. Plan a photo story

Few photos stand on their own. You can take a story beyond a single image when you plan in advance on a theme to several shots (what some may call a “photo essay”). For example, if you wish to shoot photos of a model (a friend?) in summer eyewear, establish a setting and time of day to fit the shoot. Perhaps this would be an urban streetscape at midday or late afternoon, where you bring several pairs of glasses, different hats and different clothes (or just tops, if you are capture above-the-waist images). The model should plan to change outfits quickly such that your daylight angle stays relatively consistent. You should pick out specific locations to take advantage of different (or similar?) backdrops that fit a narrative. What’s a narrative? It’s a story line, which here could be “Eyewear Scoping out the City.”

Again, each of these things can be shot with a smartphone camera. At some point, you may upgrade to more sophisticated cameras and auxiliary equipment. But in this technological era, be happy you can work with something so simple and yet produce extraordinary results.


Writer biography:

Brian Dilg is Chair of Photography at the Photography School at the New York Film Academy. In addition to 20 years of professional teaching experience around the world, his work has been published in The New York Times, Time Out, Village Voice and covers of books published by Simon and Schuster, Random House and Hyperion. He has also worked in post-production for major fashion houses, consumer products manufacturers and media organizations. Dilg has won awards as a filmmaker and worked as a director, cinematographer and editor of narrative, documentary, music video and commercial films.

All images accompanying this article were shot by Brian Dilg with a smartphone camera.

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