Huntington Gardens

Huntington Gardens – an irresistible pattern! Captured with my iPhone, like all the photos in this post.

I had planned to write this post before the whole coronavirus lockdown. After all, even in “normal” times, many photographers only pick up their cameras when they’re traveling, or taking a workshop. Then when they go on that special trip they’re rusty, and it takes several days just to get back in the groove and start seeing better.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are two simple tips for keeping your photography eye sharp while you’re stuck at home – and even once you go back to your normal routine.

Watch the Light

During the Out of Yosemite conference in February Matt Payne did a live recording of his F-Stop, Collaborate, and Listen podcast. I was one of the panelists, along with Charlotte Gibb, Collen Miniuk, and Alex Noriega. At one point (about 37 minutes in) we were talking about whether we felt compelled to photograph all the time. Alex said that he can go on a hiatus for one to three months, but that even when he’s not photographing he’s still growing, and observing the world around him. He said, “When I’m not in photography mode I still, like most landscape photographers, feel a compulsion to point out anytime there’s good light anywhere, to whoever’s with me.”

That got a laugh from the audience – probably because we’ve all done that too. I, for one, am constantly watching the light and the weather (and yes, pointing out interesting light to whoever is with me). Light catches my eye anywhere and everywhere. I might notice the shadow of a water glass on a table at a restaurant, or late-afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows of my house, or reflections of neon signs in wet pavement at night. You can find beautiful light everywhere, if you keep your eyes open.

You don’t have to photograph this light – just notice it. But then again, we all have highly-capable cameras in our pockets these days. When you notice some interesting light, why not pull out your smartphone and snap a picture? Even better, take a moment to refine the composition, and make the best photo you can. Just looking for light, and photographing it whenever possible, will improve your photography immensely.

Lobby of the Mitzpah Hotel, Tonopah, NV, USA

Lobby of the Mitzpah Hotel, Tonopah, Nevada. How could I resist photographing the morning light streaming through the stained-glass windows of this old hotel?

Wine glass

Light refracting through a wine glass in a restaurant

Barstools and shadows at a Rubio's in Bakersfield, CA, USA

Barstools and shadows at a Rubio’s in Bakersfield, California. Late-afternoon light streaming through large windows created some wonderful shadows on the floor.

Door handle, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, USA

Door handle, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Nice shadows again.

Look for Patterns

I think one of the biggest keys to improving your eye for composition is to learn to see abstractly. That means thinking less about the subject, and more about the lines, shapes, tones, and (maybe) colors in front of you, and how those elements might fit together to create a cohesive composition.

One of the best ways to train your eye to see lines and shapes is to look for repeating patterns. What do I mean by a pattern? Any visual element that repeats itself. It could be a series of rectangles, circles, parallel lines, diagonals, or curves – any repeating line or shape, or anything that echoes the lines or shapes of something else.

Do it right now! Get up, walk around your house, or your yard, and find as many different patterns as you can. And while you’re at it, you might as well pull out your smartphone and snap a photo of each pattern. Try to fill the entire frame with the pattern, so it appears as if the patterns extends beyond the frame in every direction.

Acorns on my deck

Acorns on my deck in late-afternoon light

Roses on display at Target, February 13th

Roses on display at Target, February 13th

Wine glasses at a Merced restaurant

Wine glasses at a Merced restaurant

Agave, Rancho Mirage, California, USA

Agave, Rancho Mirage, California. I noticed this pattern outside my brother-in-law’s house.

I do these exercises all the time. I’m constantly snapping photos of random things with my phone, just because the light caught my eye, or I noticed an interesting pattern. (I’ve included a collection of those photos here.) Then, the next time I pick up my big camera, my eye is still finely-tuned, and I’m able to find compositions that I wouldn’t be able to see if were rusty from a month-long layoff.

— Michael Frye

P.S. – A Global, Online Photography Conference

In these interesting times we have to adapt, so Chris Smith and his Out of Chicago team are putting together a huge online global photography conference for the weekend of April 24-26. I’ll be among 60 instructors participating in this event, with three days of live presentations, interactive sessions, panel discussions, tutorials, photo challenges, and group image reviews. For more information visit Hope to “see” some of you there!

Related Posts: The Camera in Your Pocket; Abstract Vision

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.