Relatively recently, digital photography has exploded into mainstream culture. Of course, regular people have enjoyed taking pictures for decades, but not until the advent of digital capture has photography captured the imagination of the masses.
What was once the realm of professional photographers has spilled over into popular culture, and as a result, graphic designers are more frequently handling the capture and/or processing of original photographs. Along with type, photography has always been intrinsic to graphic design, and digital photography is the standard in most modern graphic design. (Capturing on film is now only used for esoteric reasons.) From product photography to fashion, sports and architecture, the possibilities for using digital photography in your graphic designs are truly limitless.
Although digital photography is a subject that requires and deserves book-length explanation, in this article I’ll distill the essential aspects of digital photography that all digital photographers and graphic designers need to know. If you’re a graphic designer or digital photographer, there are some fundamentals you need to know in order to produce the best possible photos. If you’re using graphic design software or looking for graphic design jobs, you need to know about digital photography. If you need design services and are trying to find a graphic design firm, you can use this information to help evaluate prospective vendors.
“What it this a picture of?” is always the first and most important question to ask. If you’re planning to use the photo in a graphic design, the subject and theme of the photo should almost always be immediately apparent (unless you’re trying to be deceptively subtle, which is usually not the goal of graphic design). In graphic design, photography is mostly used to illustrate concepts, in which case the subject matter must match the intended message of the design.
There is no such thing as “bad light”, but the strongest images always marry the subject matter with the ideal lighting conditions to render the subject in the most visually appealing way. As a graphic designer or digital photographer, the study of light is crucial to the success of your work, and there have been volumes written on this subject alone. For the brevity of this article, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Read the shadows: Always look for the direction of light (or the lack of direction). The angle of light illuminating the scene is what determines the appearance of shadows and they have a very strong impact on the overall composition. Learn to read the light in the scene to know where the light is coming from and how it affects the rendition of objects in the picture.
If there is no obvious direction of light, the light might either be diffused (highly scattered, such as with clouds or a softbox) or the light source(s) may be positioned so that no shadows are visible. There’s no right or wrong here, but understand that as a designer or photographer you need to clearly see the light and dark areas of the photo and understand how they affect the viewer’s perception of the image. In addition to shadows, you need to see how the light is affecting the highlights (the brightest parts) in the image.
2. Know the color of light: In digital photography, white balance is used to control the effect of the color of light as it is captured. You can use white balance to neutralize the color of light or to impart a warming or cooling effect.
After subject matter and light, there is no more important aspect of digital photography than composition. This is where design truly comes into play. “Composition” is how you arrange the elements within the photo for the strongest visual effect. Changing composition involves moving the camera, the subject matter, or both.
You will find that even very slight changes in the position of the camera and/or the elements in the scene can create huge variation in the composition. The best photographs always exhibit effective composition, so this is something that as a designer or photographer you need to study thoroughly. Your choice of compositions will largely determine your own personal design style.
Unfortunately, the topic of equipment is all too often the most discussed. I hope by now you understand that if you get a) the subject, b) the light and c) the composition all correct, the equipment is of much less concern. Try not to fall into the trap of thinking a new camera will make better photos for you! Great photos can be made on any kind of device. There are a few broad categories of cameras being used in mainstream digital photography today:
1. dSLR: digital single-lens-reflex cameras come in different sizes, but they all work essentially the same: the sensor used for digital capture sits behind a mirror, with which you preview the scene. When you press the shutter the mirror moves out of the way and the scene is exposed on the sensor. Most dSLRs offer the ability to change lenses.
2. Mirrorless systems: these are becoming much more popular — and much more capable — in recent years. As the name implies, a mirrorless system allows the light to come straight through the camera without using a mirror for the viewfinder. The advantage is that there are fewer moving parts, resulting in much smaller camera body designs.
3. Smartphones: the iPhone has revolutionized the idea of what defines a “good camera”. This and other smartphones are being released with capabilities that are well beyond those of high-end “professional” digital cameras of just a decade ago. Using apps developed to take advantage of the new hardware (such as Camera Awesome from SmugMug) you can expect to make digital photos using your phone that can be very effectively repurposed for use in many graphic design situations.
File Formats and Resolution
Many cameras allow you to save your pictures in raw format, which essentially records all of the original data captured by the camera’s sensor. But, by far, JPEG is the most common image format. The potential drawback to JPEG is that when the files are saved, image data is eliminated to make the files smaller. In many cases this won’t pose a problem, and you might not even see the difference, but for the purposes of this article I’d suggest that if you’re serious about digital photography, you need to understand the difference between raw and JPEG files.
Once you’ve got your basic kit together, you’ll have more success with your digital photography if you add a few accessories:
1. Tripod and head – especially for scenic and architectural shots, you really need a good tripod. I prefer a ball head, which allows quick movement in any direction.
2. Lens filters – even with software being what it is, you can’t avoid the need for some kinds of filters to be used at the time you’re making the photos. The most essential is the polarizing filter, whose effect can’t precisely be replicated in post-processing. A polarizer (or polarizing filter) redirects light waves as they enter the camera lens to reduce glare and haze. I always carry a polarizer with me, and use it most of the time when shooting outdoors during the day.
3. Remote shutter release – for the sharpest shots, you need to be able to take pictures without touching the camera. Most cameras are compatible with a remote release that triggers the shutter either through a cable or wirelessely. If you’re using anything beyond a smartphone camera, having one of these is essential for good digital photography.
Storage and Backup
Storing your digital photos to keep them accessible and safe is imperative. While you’re shooting, the camera stores your photos on a memory card. You can — and should — copy your photos onto a computer hard drive and/or backup storage as soon as possible after they are captured. There are many possible configurations for hard drive storage for photos, but the easiest and best is usually external hard drives. It’s a good idea to set up one or more hard drives for just your digital photo library. You can also use cloud storage as backup, such as Adobe Revel, Dropbox, Apple’s Mobile .me, etc.
For the graphic designer interested in digital photography there are many more issues to consider, such as processing software, sharing your photos with other people, printing and color management. I’ve covered some of these topics in previous articles on GraphicDesign.com and will delve deeper into these subjects in future installments.
The subject of photography is one that serious photographers and designers spend years (or a lifetime) studying. If you’re really into design, then you’ll soon find that photography is just another form of design. As such, the creation of digital photography is something that you can and should take deliberate control over. Rather than just snapping a random shot and hoping for the best, take a moment to consider what’s in the frame, what can be left out, and how — as a designer — you can more effectively communicate your inner visions.