, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A giraffe surveys us from a lofty perspective during a game drive at Bayala Game Lodge, near Hluhluwe, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.

I thought I’ll offer a bit of insight into one of my photographs, for the benefit of photographers who are starting out and wondering how to make the most of any given shooting situation – even one as seemingly ordinary as a giraffe standing in the bush. That is, if you’re lucky enough to get the chance to see such a thing to begin with.

When the bug bites, we all want to take GREAT photographs. We fantasise about one of our pictures making the cover of National Geographic or Rolling Stone magazine. We naturally try to focus our inexperienced eye on THE shot! We believe that the good photographers out there have a way of rocking up, pointing the camera, and with the Midas touch, gently pressing the shutter button, thereby producing photographic gold! But in reality, even the very best photographers will take lots and lots of photographs that are mostly ordinary to good. The truly “great” shots, are rare, and often come as a result of factors that are beyond the photographer’s control anyway. Those “great shots” are equivalent to a golfer hitting a hole-in-one. Even rank amateurs get it right every now and then. The pros do it more often. But then they also practice a lot harder. Call it luck, if you will. In fact, any experienced photographer, who is honest, will tell you that in total, they shoot loads of images, most are mediocre (these are seldom the ones that get seen), some are good (you might get to see some of these), and occasionally they capture something really superb! But that honest photographer will also admit that in the mix is also a fair number of images that are truly shit. These are either deleted, or never see the light of day again.

A “good” photographer, is merely one who has learned how to shift the balance of their yield to the better end of the continuum. The photographer who takes only great photographs is a mythical creature! Every photographer – even a really good one – takes crap photographs; we just don’t show them to anybody.

So by learning to understand how a photograph brings across information to tell a “story”, one can learn to compose pictures in a way that make them a bit more interesting and eye-catching, even when the subject is not incredibly spectacular. A giraffe standing next to the road in a game park is not an uncommon or an immensely spectacular occasion, but it’s still a picture-worthy event. So how do you make the most of it?

We all know that the giraffe’s defining feature is that long neck. In this image I’ve managed to place the head and neck such that it sticks out of the detail-rich bush, into the relatively detail-less sky. This elongates the appearance of the neck and really draws the viewer’s eye to the bizarre shape of the animal. The flat blueness of the sky, also contrasts starkly with the warm patterned texture of the hide and helps to draw attention to the detail of the skin. 

The emptiness of the sky can be a problem, because it can make for lopsidedness in the composition, with the vast amount of detail being in the lower half of the frame and little or none in the top half. However, emptiness can sometimes be a subject in its own right, and as I mentioned before, the head and neck protruding it the sky draws conspicuous attention and emphasises detail in the animal’s shape, colour and pattern. It also draws attention to the fact that the animal is looking down on the viewer from a far superior height – again emphasising its extra-ordinary proportions and peculiar shape.

In this case though, the emptiness of the sky is helped along slightly by the presence of the day-time moon, which both adds detail to an otherwise uneventful sky, and also is another visual queue for how tall the animal is, with her head appearing to be nearly as high as the moon. It’s a child-like notion, but a joyful and fantastic way of describing the stature of a giraffe.

The rule of thirds: You may or may not be aware of the rule of third, which in a nutshell says that you should try to place your subject a third of the way into the frame, and not bang in the middle. Some photographers get really hung up on this “rule” (it’s more of a suggestion, actually) and try to place subject matter with mathematical precision, but I find this practice to be too restrictive and time-consuming. Plus it saps me of mental capacity that I could otherwise be funnelling into other aspects of the creative process – of which there are many others! Developing a feel for it is definitely helpful, and I prefer to think of it in simpler terms: try to not always place your subject in the middle of the frame – but not to close to the edge either.

Here you can see that my giraffe friend is placed slightly closer to the left of the frame than the middle or right. How did I get this right? Did I ask her to take a step to the side? No, I merely panned my lens to the right so that she was in the left of the frame. 

Additionally, if you focus your attention on the top half of the frame, you’ll notice that the moon itself is also placed roughly 1 third into the frame – this time from the right – and that it occupies a roughly 1 third by 1 third, position in the sky, so that even if the photograph was only of the empty sky and the moon, the moon would be placed at roughly this intersecting point.

By doing this, we’ve managed to combine a shot of the giraffe in the bush (our main subject) in a balanced and detail-focused way, together with the image of the moon (very definitely the secondary subject in this case) in the empty blue sky. This brings forth a far richer overall result. I think it’s fair to say that in terms of combining creative concepts, the product is not 2 +2 = 4, but often 2 + 2 = 5! (bear in mind though that 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 is usually = 0! Too many bright ideas on one page will not work. Simplicity and moderation is key.)

A final note on our blue sky is that in addition to the naturally occurring elements in this scene, I’ve also added a gentle and mild exposure gradient in post-shot editing. This lends further interest to a flat blue sky, by subtly ensuring that the sky does in fact change it’s appearance from top to bottom in an almost “invisible” manner. That’s right, I ninja’d your brain.

Of course, I have to point out that a number of elements that can be labelled as “luck” also came into play here. Our experienced driver-guide knew exactly where to stop our vehicle in order to get a great shot, and also how to approach so as to not scare the animal away, although she did take a pace or two and stopped in exactly the right spot. The time of day, and resulting position, together with the giraffe’s angled stance made for perfect lighting. I take full credit for the moon being exactly where it was, although I did ask for it to be bigger and brighter!

It this point in writing, I’ve realised that a picture is in fact worth more than a thousand words so I think it’s time to wrap up by saying that you can enjoy your photography more, and even get better results if you let go of hopes of making every single image you take a GREAT one – it’s just not going to happen. Relax into the skill and art of looking for the good ones. You’ll enjoy every image you shoot more, and you will eventually get a few great shoots too. You’ll also realise how rare and precious they are.

There is lots to be learned about tiny, yet powerful tricks that can be employed to make even the most ordinary scenes photo-worthy. Keep in touch, ask me questions, keep enjoying what you do, and your skills simply have to improve with practice.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little explanation of this shot. Let me know if you have any questions or if you’d like more of this sort of thing.