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Jeffrey Shutterbug
Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, and thousands can think for one who can see. To see well is poetry, philosophy, and religion - all in one. — John Ruskin
Click, click click, don't you just love the sound of a camera snapping off? Pick one up and try it yourself. That distinctive sound is as familiar as the wind blowing, but as much as we love the sound of the shutter we adore gazing at well-made photographs even more. How many times have we looked at snaps and said under our breath, "Man, I wish I could take photos like thatů" Or maybe too frequently, we snicker "I've taken better shots than that!" More than likely you haven't but wish you could. There is a saying that we are all "closet actors" but I think this applies more to photography. There would be nothing better than to take magazine level photographs that make people go "aaaaaaahhhh!!!!!"

If you read our first two articles of Jeffrey Shutterbug, you know we explored the qualities of light and the mechanics of the camera itself (back orders of The Link are available on the web at In this edition, we will discuss your Eye and how it sees. Do you want to make your friends and neighbors go gaga over your photos? How your eye visualizes is the key to the door of creativity. Before every photo, ask yourself "why am I taking this photo?" A photo can be like a mini-symphony: Look through the viewfinder and compose, take a quick glance again at the scene outside the viewfinder and recompose. Don't just snap a photo because it is there! Compose and recompose until what you see is art. Easier said than done? Maybe, but if you follow a few basic "rules" and practice, practice, practice you can put yourself on the right path.

When photo techies talk about how the eye should see, they're basically referring to how a photographer should compose the elements within a photograph. In other words, think about where should you arrange the family for that portrait. Or where should you proportionally position the trees, mountains, rivers and streams in a landscape. Composition is something you do with patience. It is just too easy and careless to pick up a camera, look through the viewfinder and press the button, especially in the digital world. What you might get are your typical snapshots, but of course you wouldn't be reading this column if you didn't want something more. Next time you go out to take photos, take your time and create your shot. A common mistake is to look into the camera and only see the "main subjects" in the photo itself. As if there was some kind of visual block, we see what we want to see and it seems perfect. That's why, after the fact of course, we get our prints back and see trees or antennas growing out of mom's head. We didn't pay enough attention to the background! Or what is that ugly telephone wire doing sticking out of Uncle Charlie's ear? Opps!! Why do Vera, Chuck and Dave look like ants next to that big church? Did we see the trash on the ground marring our Grand Canyon landscape? Why didn't we see that finger in front of the lens, or that everyone was blinking at the moment the camera went click, click, click? Becoming aware of everything that appears in that rectangular area is essential to creating better photographs.

The first essential step you should take when "composing" a photo is to view the shot outside of the viewfinder. Put the camera down and look around you. First visualize the photograph outside of the limits of the rectangular viewfinder. This gives you the opportunity to not only verify that where you are is the best spot possible to shoot, but also reposition your subjects (or yourself, for that matter) if they are not in an ideal location. Even in the limited space of someone's backyard, a simple request to move your subjects into a better spot can improve the photograph tenfold. Checking out your environs also gives the opportunity to pickup a distracting piece of trash or make a sensible adjustment (like waiting for an undesirable aunt to walk out of the photo). Looking at the "overall picture" outside of the camera also allows you to examine light conditions. Maybe you might want to wait for that big cumulus cloud creating that ugly shadow to pass by before snapping.

While we're at considering the photo as a whole, it's never too early to become aware of what lays in the foreground and background of the shot. Here we aren't just noticing and eliminating that rogue piece of trash or the distractions behind the main subjects. I'm referring more to foreground and background as actual elements of the shot. Ask yourself, what would look good in front or in back of the subjects that would tell more of the story. You can also use both to give scale to the photograph. I think we automatically do this with our everyday snaps. For example if you are shooting a picture of your son at his birthday party, don't you normally try to spot the cake in the front? When I'm shooting a landscape, I try to include some human element in the foreground to give an idea as to just how huge the scene actually is. If I'm at an event, like a parade, and I take a portrait of one of the marching musicians, I also pay attention to what is behind him to make the photo more interesting (see photo #1).

We're all beginners at some point and when learning about photographic composition, no student can escape their gray-haired, battle scared instructor's harping about the venerable "rule of thirds." But like all rules, this is to be taken with a grain of salt after we go over exactly what it is. In art, all rules exist to be broken but only after the actual "limitation" of the convention has been mastered. Principally, this is a great rule to learn as a newcomer and by following the rule of thirds, you will notice that your photos will become more interesting. This is especially true of landscapes and portraits because the key is improve the overall balance of the photograph (see photo #2). You will notice the most obvious change is that you will no longer place your subjects smack dab in the center of the camera viewfinder. The rule is this: Divide the rectangle of the viewfinder into a grid which includes two horizontal lines evenly placed a third of the way from the top and a third of the way from the bottom. Do the same vertically from the right and left and you have your classic rule of thirds grid (see diagram for an example). Where the four points of the lines intersect is where you should more or less try to place your subject. You don't have to be exact in your allocation! This can be either top or bottom, right or left but anywhere besides the middle.

Experiment: For a change, try placing your subject in an area off center and see what the result will be. Try taking a friend's portrait by placing her on the right-hand side and allowing the background to come through. Not only will this make the photo more interesting, but it might even shed some light on who the person really is or reveal something about his or her personality. For example if your little boy plays hockey, shoot the photo not only of the little tike in uniform but maybe with the rink in the background. If you place your subject smack dab in the center, all you get is a photo that could have been taken anywhere at anytime. Composing the photo using the rule of thirds transforms the shot into something much more interesting by documenting a special moment as well as revealing something special about the person. The goal is to make your photos different, distinct and even unorthodox.

You'll see a difference in your photography from the get go but you can and should branch out from there. As you will discover after lots of practice, this exercise will become automatic. You will also find at some point that achieving balance in a photograph may require ignoring or intentionally breaking this rule (see photo #3). Get out there and experiment and you will see what I mean! What it all boils down to is that there are no real "rules" with this art form. As you progress and gain confidence, challenge yourself to think of possibilities. As soon as you open this door, you allow your imagination to play apart in your photography. Is there a better angle to shoot? Tilt the camera to create a funky perspective! Can you get closer or should you step back? How about the ultimate close-up shot of a flower, your pet or your brother's face? (see photo #1 again) What about playing with colors? Feeling blue? Try a day when all you shoot is the color blue! Step on a chair, or a ladder or a rock to look down on your subject. Better yet, get on the floor and look up! Get on an even level when shooting children and watch them turn into giants! Is there a reflection you can use to make an ordinary photo spectacular? (see photo #4)

A Beginning

One of the best things you can do for your child is to buy them a camera. There is no better way to stimulate the imagination, and be it digital or traditional, manual or automatic, disposable or fancy smancy, cheap or expensive, photography will open up the world of the child's creative mind with very little complexity and an eternity of space to grow. Everyone who gets into photography seriously does so for very personal reasons. Show your child beautiful landscapes and let them dream of where and how they were taken. Take them to a photo exhibit and light the spark that could explode into a full-blown passion. Maybe you could give them free reign with the camera next vacation. You shouldn't be too surprised to see just how hard it is to get it back. Wait till you see his or her face when the prints come back from the lab!

That's exactly how it began for me. Living in Los Angeles, we took frequent trips to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. One day in the mid-70s ( I was probably around 11), I was given free reign of my mom's cheap 110 film Kodak pocket-slim camera. Wow, I felt like a king ordering my older sister into position, shooting the rides, shooting smiles and clicking away without restrictions. The photos came back and I felt like a master. There was one shot of the free fall parachute ride that I was sure was the best ever taken! Then it became an adolescent obsession (which quite frankly hasn't stopped). I discovered that Thursday was the big LA Times ad day for photography and I drooled all over the pages at the latest Yashicas, Canons and Pentaxes. I chose and re-chose the perfect machine for me but all were too expensive. One day my dad came home with a very old Argus C-4 camera (complete with the moldy, flaky leather pouch!) he had won in a poker match. My life just hasn't been the same since.

Homework Assignment #3: This issue's assignment retains the Jeffrey Shutterbug tradition for being easy and fun. A great way to learn about photography is to look at photos. Go to your local bookstore or surf the net and look at photographs. It's that simple, and it can be any photographer you choose as long as you pay attention to what we talked about in this month's column. Pay attention to composition! Here are the three specifics I want you to notice: (1) How did the photographer used the background and foreground to his or her advantage? (2) How was the rule of thirds used? Did the photographer break the rule and if so, how? (3) As far as composition is concerned, who was your favorite photographer and why? Observe the results, and please feel free to send in any questions or comments to

Jeffrey Shutterbug Glossary (every month we will include a glossary of technical terms and names of photographers for your learning pleasure. Feel free to cut it out and paste the selection into a special notebook!)

Composition - How the elements are arranged in the photograph. This includes attention to detail i.e. looking at the foreground and background as well as the main subject. Where these elements are placed in a shot is very important to making a photograph with interesting composition. See the Rule of Thirds above for more details.

Eye - The eye but not the eyeball. No matter if yours are brown, blue, green or gray or you can't even see at all (yes, there are some wonderful blind photographers!), this refers to the way we perceive the photograph. No two people will see the same scene in quite the same way. Your eye is the perspective you give to the shot and the sooner you develop this uniqueness, the more original your photographs will become.