The related fields of engineering, construction and environmental science require lots of photographs. We take photos to show our clients the status of a work site, document a task, promote our project and expertise, or even just for fun.
Although photos are a common part of many on-site tasks, and we’re all used to taking photos in our personal lives, many of us have never received any training in photography. I can help! No matter what type of camera you have access to, there are some basic things you can do to drastically improve the quality of your photos—even if you’re using a cell phone. Here are the top five things to remember when taking photos at a project site, or any time.
1: Pay Attention to Subject and Background
Every photo you take should have a primary subject. It might be a person on a site, a piece of equipment or even part of a soil sample you’re documenting. Ideally, your subject should be visually isolated in such a way that it is clearly the dominant element in the photo.
There are lots of ways you can compose an image with a clear dominant subject. Often this is done by ensuring the subject is physically the largest element in the frame and is clearly differentiated from the background.
Being intentional about the background for your subject is also important. Select a background that puts the subject into a larger context or supports your composition in a visually pleasing way.
2: Move, Move, Move
As you can see from the example in the previous tip, it can pay to physically move around your subject, looking for different angles and compositions. After taking one photo, shift position and try it from another angle. Squat low or (safely) stand on something to experiment with high and low perspectives. This is crucial to isolating your subject and controlling the background of the photo. Something as simple as squatting or standing can mean the difference between a background of earth or sky. You might want both in certain circumstances. This can also be helpful when thinking about a photo’s exposure (see below). Some angles, especially where the subject is better lit, will make it easier to balance the exposure.
3: Include People
Adding a person to your photo can provide a helpful sense of scale and makes most photos more appealing simply because it tends to add a human or emotional touch. Even when your subject is not a person, including people as secondary or background elements can make an image much more appealing. This is especially important when shooting photos for marketing or promotional uses.
Be mindful of asking permission before taking a picture and consider any privacy policies that may apply to images of employees, especially if they work for other companies or firms.
4: Adjust the Exposure
There are lots of ways to affect a photograph’s exposure (the balance of light and dark tones that form the image). There is often some compromise in exposure. Because of the nature of light, there may be a wide spectrum of tones in a single photo, and you can’t necessarily light every part of an image perfectly. As a rule, you want to expose for your subject, meaning that the subject is neither too light or too dark. Here are a few very basic tips that can help, even when using cameras with limited exposure controls.
Most smartphones allow you to alter the exposure simply by touching areas of the screen with your finger while taking a picture. If your subject is a person, simply touch their face on the screen and the camera will take a light reading and adjust the exposure for that part of the image.
A flash can be a friend or enemy depending on the circumstance. If you’re shooting a darker subject against a very bright background, turning on your flash can be a great way to add some light and fill in the foreground of a photo. On the contrary, sometimes a flash can create harsh shadows and a “flattened” image. This is especially the case when there are objects near the subject that can catch shadows. For example, taking a picture of a person leaning against a wall. To correct this, just move your subject farther from the wall, or turn off your flash and use the ambient light.
Many cameras, including some cell phones, also have a tool called “exposure compensation.” This can be a useful way to dial-in the exposure when the automatic setting just isn’t getting it right. Exposure compensation settings allow you to manually tell the camera to over- or under-expose an image in set amounts (+1 or -1 etc.). Experiment with these settings when the automatic exposure isn’t performing well, especially in instances where the subject is backlit by something bright like a sky.
5: Shoot with the Light
Photography is all about light. When shooting on a job site, be mindful of where the light sources are for your photo. Of course, the dominant light source is often the sun, but lots of other sources can interact together to light your photo. The simplest way of improving the lighting of your photos is to keep the primary light source behind you while shooting. Again, this is a great reason to move around your subject until you find the best angle for the light.
The quality of the sun’s light also changes throughout the day, depending on the angle of the sun and how much light is being refracted by the atmosphere. At morning and evening, the sun’s light is softer and more diffuse. “Soft” light means fewer and softer shadows. Shooting a photo outside at noon usually means “harder” light, with more shadows and greater contrast between light and dark tones. An overcast day will also soften the sun’s light and improve the vibrancy of colors in your photos. Each of these situations might be useful depending on the type of photo you’re taking. Once you’re thinking about light it’s easier to experiment and learn how each situation will affect your photos.
Each of these tips is just a starting point, and the most important factor of all is experimentation. Try things! Digital photography makes it easy to shoot, adjust, shoot again and repeat until you have the desired result. With a little thought and experimentation, your site photos can delight your clients, promote your company or expertise and satisfy your own artistic visions.