Dynamic tension in Cindy’s hand. Also dynamic curve in background. Low perspective composition. Saigon, 2017
Dynamic tension in Cindy’s hand. Also dynamic curve in background.

Simple principles on how to make better pictures:

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1. Look at the background, then your subject.

To take better pictures, first look at the background before your subject.

For example, let’s say you have a subject you’re trying to make a nice picture of. In my case, that is my partner Cindy.

Before I take a picture of her, I look at the background and I ask myself,

How can I integrate and incorporate the background is a visually interesting way, to make a more compelling and dynamic picture?

For example, I was walking with Cindy in the streets of Saigon, and I saw this interesting shaped building in the background. I asked if I could make a portrait of her there, and I crouched down very low, used a flash in “P” (Program mode) on my RICOH GR II, and integrated both her hand gesture (the hand gesture was her idea) and the interesting background:

Assignment 1: Simplify your background/crouch down

Before taking a picture of your subject, pause, and look at the background. Ask yourself,

How can I integrate the background to make a more compelling image?

As a general assignment, try to CROUCH DOWN low, to get a more dynamic angle and perspective. This also helps make a more simple background.

2. Don’t center your subjects

Cindy on escalator. Kyoto, 2017

To make a more dynamic composition with your subject, don’t put them smack dab in the middle. Rather, try to place them off-center, a little to the right or the left. Ideally, look at the EDGES of the frame, to get leading lines to point directly to your subject.

Assignment 2: Place your subject off-center

Portrait of Cindy at Traveling Coffee. Kyoto, 2017

For this assignment, try to make picture of someone, but without centering them in the middle of the frame.

Put them a little off to the left or the right, and try to get them to do a hand gesture to fill more of the frame.

Also, make sure to keep the background of the frame simple, and no distracting people or figures in the frame.

Note that this technique works best when you only have 1 person in the frame.

Off center composition of woman on far right of the frame.

This technique also works in street photography, with the subject placed off-center.

Simplified illustration of off-center street photography composition.

3. “The cherry on top”

When judging and choosing my pictures after the fact, I always look for a “cherry on top”— a small detail which I like, which adds drama and interest to the picture. In this picture of Cindy, it is the kiss in the mirror, on top of her eye:

Selfie with Cindy in mirror, with kiss on her eye.

Assignment 3: Look for the “cherry on top”

A closeup shot of Cindy’s lipstick on the mirror.

When you’re making pictures, you don’t alwsys see the cherry on top. Often, you discover it afterwards, once you go home.

My suggestion: When you’re photographing your subject, simply pause— look around, and ask yourself:

What is the one detail I want to highlight about this person or scene? What is the one element which will allow this picture to “pop”?

4. Tilt your camera

NYC, 2017 #cindyproject. Shot on RICOH GR II, tilted.

For an entire day, don’t keep the horizon of your camera straight and symmetrical. Aim for asymmetry — non-symmetry, which makes for more dynamic compositions.

GOLDEN TRIANGLE composition guide: A good reminder to not just shoot the boring “rule of thirds”— better to tilt your camera.
Tilting the horizon to make a more dynamic portrait of Cindy.

Assignment 4: No straight pictures

For this assignment, spend an entire day only tilting your camera.

Dancing suits. Tokyo, 2017. Tilted camera, on the ground.

See how dynamic you can make your pictures, by tilting all the lines in your pictures to make them more diagonal:

Tilted picture of man walking up stairs.
Diagonal lines outlined.
Tilted street photograph in Tokyo, of a triangle composition (man in bottom left, man on top right, and advertisement in top left)

Also note, you can do simple tilted pictures. For example, photograph visual and graphical elements, while tilting your camera:

Tilted camera to make a diagonal. A photo of my hand, umbrella, and yellow lines on the ground.

5. Honor thy selfie

Selfie with RICOH GR II. Saigon, 2017

Don’t just take pictures of others, take pictures of yourself.

The best way to become a better, more confident, and bold photogrspher is to feel comfortable photographing yourself.

Or in other words,

Honor thy selfie.

White ERIC KIM FACE. Selfie, Saigon 2017

The more comfortable you are photographing yourself, the more comfortable you will to photograph others. Why? You will overcome your own self-consciousness, feel more confidence in photographing yourself, and therefore transmit that confidence to your subjects:

Saigon selfie. 2017.
Selfie in Kyoto with Necus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Shoot selfies everywhere. In the bathroom. In the streets with broken glass reflections, mirrors, and shadows.

ERIC KIM SELFIE in broken mirror. Kyoto, 2017.
Selfie in Uji, Kyoto 2017

To take selfies is to keep your eye sharp, and also document yourself, and your own mortality (photography memento mori).

Selfie near my Berkeley apartment. Trix pushed to 1600.
Selfie with Ricoh GR II
Dalat, 2016. Selfie with Olympus Pen F.

Assignment 5: Shoot a selfie of yourself, everyday, for a week.

Selfie in the mirror. Saigon, 2017

You are the best subject. Photograph your own shadow, reflection, and face. Use the front facing camera, the back camera, and any camera. Use your “normal” digital camera, use your phone, and the purpose is to build more self-confidence of your own face, and image.

Selfie with Cindy in car. Berkeley, 2016.

Once you honor your selfie, you will be able to honor your subjects.


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