For someone interested in creating pictures with a camera, or for someone trying to understand photographic images and the idea behind them, it might come as a surprise that there are so many photography techniques out there that it’s not difficult to get lost. Because this artistic medium is often considered simple and easy to master, as all you need to do is “point and shoot” (and truth be told, sometimes this really is the case), the fact that taking photos involves both creativity and technical knowledge of the tool was often overlooked. This is, of course, something that could be applied to any other form of art as well, and since its very inception, photography offered a spectrum of possibilities for human imagination, from different points of view and compositions to the variety of results obtained by changing shutter speed, aperture, lenses. It is techniques like these that helped photography become as diverse and magnificent as it is today, with artists constantly inventing new ways to turn their visions and ideas into physical (or digital) reality. Perhaps the best way to understand the brilliance of their art is to witness - and learn - the way it is thought of and created.
Let’s go back to that famous year of 1839, when the world witnessed the birth of a fresh way of making pictures, more realistic and less costly than most of the others known to man. Take the oldest photograph ever taken, by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce, some three years prior. It is a photograph of a rooftop and it took several days for him to record it at the time. Although photography and its artists now operate on a whole other level, long exposure is still considered one of the most important techniques for photo-makers. While using it on still objects is completely useless, any moving elements will be documented as motion blur, as seen in one of the most iconic photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson or the soothing landscapes of Michael Kenna, for instance. Letting the camera capture the light for a longer period of time also helps photographers master “light painting” and achieve those fluid, colorful shots of city lights and urban landscape at night. Contrary to this, there are the high speed shots, which require high shutter speed and are usually practiced in nature photography or in a photo studio, when trying to document high speed events like balloon popping or breaking glass - take the iconic 1964 shot by Harold E. Edgerton.
Apart from techniques such as the aforementioned shutter speed and exposure time, which determine many things in a photograph like depth of field, focus and overall appearance, an important aspect in creating an image is its composition. Framing an event or an object explains the artist’s intentions, indicating the exact moment and portion of reality that they wanted to capture, leaving us in awe of their amazing eye and the incredible ability to know what to include in the frame and what not to. To do so, artists use lenses, of which there are three main categories: normal, wide-angle and telephoto, depending on the angle of view and the perspective. Landscape photographers like Andreas Gursky and Ansel Adams used wide angle lenses in order to cover the entire scenery spreading out before them, while artists like Ramòn Portellano use telephoto lenses to grasp even the tiniest insects in full detail.
The possibilities and particular effects provided by different focal length made sure that certain world-famous artists stick to a prime lens - one with a fixed focal length that prevents the use of zoom. For example, fashion photojournalist Bill Cunningham’s favorite was the 35mm, just like the one used by Annie Leibovitz in portraiture, while Herb Ritts preferred the 100mm one when photographing supermodels. Indeed, one common rule to follow is to “zoom with your feet”, as the zoom of your lens will shrink your image, diminish its quality and prevent you from getting an even better shot from a different standing point.
Another interesting aspect of experimenting with lenses is the tilt-shift. Often used for simulating a miniature scene, plays with perspective using two types of movements: rotation of the lens plane relative to the image plane, called tilt, and movement of the lens parallel to the image plane, called shift. The result is a part of the image that is sharp, in focus, while the rest of it is blurred. To name one famous artist using this technique, we have Olivo Barbieri, who used the tilt-shift in his aerial shots, documenting cities like Rome, Montreal, New York and Shanghai. The shift technique in particular is often used in architectural photography, as it helps avoid the convergence of parallel lines when using wide-angle lenses.
What’s great about photography is that its black and white examples can be as stunning as the ones shot in color. In order to take the best out of both, in the manner of the greatest image-makers out there, here too there are a few techniques to be employed and mastered. Although black and white photography came first, color shots came only a short while later in the 19th century, as it was quite a task to develop a film that could absorb and keep them all the best way possible. Today, we can talk about elaborate spectrums captured in both digital and analogue cameras, which gives artists a lot to experiment with. Black and white photos are among the most common ones, especially in the fields of photojournalism and portraiture, to name a few, as they transmit a sense of drama, mystery, a unique emotion; take the stellar shots of Dorothea Lange in portraiture or the refined imagery of Edward Weston, relying on contrasts and texture to perfection. During the era of the darkrooms, such aesthetic was achieved through the complex printing process, while today we can talk about possible post-production and the use of editing softwares such as Photoshop.
When it comes to color, its great potential and the ability to transmit the world in all its glory is being widely recognized by many artists working in all genres the medium can offer. Think the great William Eggleston and his peculiar scenery, Thomas Ruff’s mesmerizing abstract palette, or the expressive fashion shots of Guy Bourdin. Getting just the right hue and shade, or perhaps distorting one, depends on the film characteristics in analogue and the pre-set white balance in the digital world, as they directly influence the way light will be “caught” by your camera. Another way to draw every detail from a given scenery is the HDR technique, or High-Dynamic Range of luminosity, which basically combines three images into one in order to retrieve areas that are too bright and too dark. Many young creatives adopted the technique, such as Tim Clarke and Trey Ratcliff, applying it to both urban and natural landscape.
Among the most popular photography techniques nowadays, taking the high place is the infrared method. The photos, which can be both black and white and color, produce quite different look and feel, once they are captured on a film or image sensor sensitive to infrared light. This means that photographers should have their camera converted for this purpose, but once it is, the possibilities are endless and the visual impact is breathtaking. Possibly the most famous examples of infrared photography are Richard Mosse’s shots from the Infra series he made using Kodak Aerochrome, a discontinued reconnaissance infrared film.
Even though you can create a fake infrared effect using Photoshop, as it can be done with almost all photography techniques we listed here, nothing beats the thrill of doing it in-camera and witnessing the result in person. Therefore, whether you’re an aspiring photographer looking for an exciting journey, or a curious collector on a look out for an impressive image, photography techniques can help you understand and appreciate the hard work and original vision behind each of them a little bit better.
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All images used for illustrative purposes only.