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Behind the Lens: Think before you shoot

In days of old, only the groundbreaking Polaroid camera offered instant gratification to a photographer. Within seconds of pressing the shutter, a white square of plastic emerged from the camera and a milky image emerged. Now, in the digital era, the week-long wait of developing the film, printing the image, and picking up the results at the local camera shop has turned into mere seconds. Gone is the need for a special camera, expensive lenses, and precious film. Today, almost everyone has a cellphone camera handy right in their pocket. With all these photographers roaming around, we should be seeing some amazing photographs. Instead, many hastily taken snapshots look pretty much the same. In a new era where images have replaced letters, messages, and texts, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram have become repositories of billions of images that tell us the stories of our lives. 

Shoot, ready, aim! 

Over the next few weeks, the photography staff at the Harvard Press will offer tips and tricks for turning ordinary subjects into extraordinary images. Each tip will come with a photo challenge, and some of the best images will be published in the Press.    

Be deliberate about your composition

Change how you see your subject using this simple rule: the rule of thirds. In other words, don’t put your subject in the center. Placing your subject smack dab in the middle creates a balanced symmetry that the brain doesn’t find particularly interesting. Dividing the frame like a tic-tac-toe board and placing your subject toward one of the points of intersection creates more visual interest and forces your eye through the image. For some reason our brains like this! 

When taking a portrait, the untrained photographer naturally places a person’s head in the center of the image, which doesn’t take advantage of the full frame, nor create a visually interesting photo. (Photos by Tim Clark)

By employing the rule of thirds, a portrait can be much more dynamic. Add in a little action and it becomes even more interesting. The rule of thirds also applies to natural elements, wildlife, and even still lifes.

Many cameras have a function that can activate these lines in the viewfinder or preview. For landscape photos let the sky take up one- or two-thirds of the frame; don’t put the horizon right in the middle. Naturally, rules are made to be broken;  you can—instead of positioning your image at right angles within the frame—divide the image on the diagonal to create more excitement for the brain.

Sometimes creating diagonal lines can provide a compelling composition. 

So next time you pull out your phone or camera, start experimenting with the Rule of Thirds. Move the subject around to different parts of the frame, step back, or move closer. Make conscious choices about where, and what, the final picture is before pressing the shutter.

Assignment for this week: Composition

Using the Rule of Thirds, photograph a place or object from the natural world that represents “springtime.” Email your photos to by noon, Friday, May 29. Each photo will need a caption or title. Provide your name, street, and what you were thinking about when you composed the photo. The editorial staff will select some of the best images to be published the following week. All ages and abilities are welcome.

 Bolton Road resident Tim Clark is the Harvard Press photography editor.

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