It’s easy to be presented with a scene and take in the totality of it rather than focusing on the details. We see the landscape before us, not the vignettes that comprise it. We see the group of people we’re photographing, not the individual faces - at least not at first.
Though the saying goes that “the devil is in the details,” in photography, it’s the details that have all the power. After all, it’s our individual characteristics that make portraits unique. It’s the colors, textures, and individual elements in a landscape that make it photo-worthy. If you want to learn how to see photo-worthy scenes details-first, here’s how…
Look for Patterns, Textures, and Forms
If something has a repeating pattern, like the columns of a building, textural details like cobblestones on an old street, or interesting shapes, like the cables of a suspension bridge, it’s a good place to start your photography journey. All of these elements are immediately interesting to the eye - they pull you into the shot because of their dynamic appearance.
Take the image above as an ideal example of this. Just by looking at it, you likely immediately understand that it’s the Golden Gate Bridge. But this detail-oriented shot gives us fresh perspective on the bridge. Rather than the typical shot taken from far off, showing the bridge in relation to the surrounding environment, this image is a little more unique because it focuses on the texture of the suspension cables. What’s more, the perspective of the shot - looking straight up - makes it still more unique.
By focusing on the details of the bridge first, you develop a better appreciation of what makes this bridge so beautiful. Then, when taking more traditional shots of the bridge like the one above, you’re more apt to notice how those details add to the shot. In this case, the linear lines of the suspension cables and the stark order of their repeating pattern contrasts nicely against the soft features of the surrounding environment.
Find the Light
Of all the details that make up a great photo, light is the most important. As such, whenever you’re ready to snap a photo, follow the light. Whether that’s Golden Hour, when the lighting is at its softest and warmest, seeking opportunities to filter light in unusual ways, or looking for interesting shadows cast by features in the scene you’re photographing, work to use the light in your favor.
For example, if you’re out shooting in harsh, mid-day lighting, which is typically not that pleasing when it comes to photography, endeavor to filter that light somehow. In the image above, the tree canopy successfully minimizes the light, allowing the photographer to illuminate the gorgeous color of the leaves from behind. The harshness of the lighting in this situation actually worked in the photographer’s favor because the detail of the leaves would have been lost had the sun not been positioned where it is.
No matter where you’re shooting, whether indoors or out, daytime or nighttime, train yourself to look for details of light, shadow, contrast, and the like, and how lighting interacts with your primary subject. That kind of detail will help you create a more visually engaging photo.
Contrast is Where It’s At
When you hear “contrast,” you probably think of it in terms of color or lighting. And though contrasting colors and contrasting areas of light and shadow are certainly worthy details to try to incorporate into your images, don’t just stop there. There are many other types of contrasts that add depth, dimension, and interest to a shot: rounded vs. straight lines, a silhouette against a bright sky, solid objects against fluid objects, and an element of motion in a still shot come immediately to mind.
In looking at the image above, you can clearly see contrast makes for a more interesting image. The stationary objects in the scene, like the buildings and stoplights, contrast nicely with the blurred movement of the passing buses. Just imagine this image if the busses had been stationary. Would it have been as interesting? Certainly not.
Remember - contrast is essential in photography because it gives the image a more three-dimensional feeling. Including these kinds of details in your photos, along with patterns, textures, shapes, and lighting, will generate much more interesting images that captivate viewers on a whole other level. So, seek out details the next time you’re out shooting, and see how your images can improve!