Here’s another comprehensive example — ripped-straight-from-the-workshops — in our on-going, occasional series featuring Photography’s Dirty Little Secrets  …

This ripped-straight-from-the-workshop lesson is actually the very first field lesson we do in all our beginner level workshop courses. It’s one of those dirty little secrets that, once we explain and show it, you hear a lot of forehead slapping from everyone, with exclamations of “Really? It’s that easy?” and “I’ve always wondered how they got that look!”

Now, we’ll share it with everyone. And it’s as simple as remembering this simple catch phrase: “If you can touch it, go wide. If you can’t touch it, go long.”

What’s this catch phrase mean? It’s a simple reference to choosing your focal length when it comes to composing your photos, after you have determined your foreground object.

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In the photo above, taken by Ico Guarini during our Death Valley workshop last March, the scene is of Dante’s View, which is located above Badwater and Death Valley. This picture is a standard (read: tourist snapshot) scene taken from standing level.

After taking this picture, Ico identified his foreground object as the green cactus in the rocks in the right portion of the photo. But you can barely see the cactus in this wide view. But using the catch phrase of “if you can touch it, go wide”, Ico changed his camera-to-subject distance and his camera’s focal length to create the photograph below.

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In this case, Ico went even wider with his focal length (to around 16mm) to get close enough to the cactus to touch it — literally! When we say “if you can touch it …” we mean it. Get up and move in closer to that foreground object. Get down low and right on it. You need to get that close to have that dominant foreground to hold the photo.

This works because a “good” photograph needs a foreground, middle ground and background. But also it needs a center of interest or focal point. And this dirty little secret is about placing a center of interest dominant in the foreground, letting the eye lead out through the scene with the middle ground and background layered in the photograph.

Now here’s a bonus dirty little secret to this dirty little secret … that foreground object that is the focal point can be pretty much anything. Really! (Well, we’d recommend staying away from cigarette butts and crushed Coke cans.) Whatever you put in that foreground object, as long as it is dominant and close enough to touch it, it will stand out and anchor the scene perfectly! It works every time.

But what if you can’t get close enough to touch your foreground object? Then the follow the second part of the catch phrase: “If you can’t touch it, go long.”

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By going long, we mean use a telephoto lens. In the photo above, Ico switched to a 200mm lens and placed the dominant foreground of a rock cliff in the lower left of the frame. (This is the same rock cliff that is the left side of the first photo above. If Ico got close enough to touch it, he would have fallen off the cliff!)

In this case, Ico layered the foreground in the lower left, the middle ground on the lower right, and the background in the center and sky. Perfectly done!

This dirty little secret uses typically a 16mm lens on the wide side and a 200mm or so lens on the long side. If you have the 24-70mm lens on your camera, switch it out!

So remember the next time you find yourself at the vista point or touristy spot (or anywhere!) … find that foreground element … if you can touch it, go wide. Get in there and have it fill the frame. If you can’t touch that foreground object, go long. But remember to fill the frame so your picture shows great depth!