Photography Tips: Working the Scene

Photography discussions online tend to focus almost exclusively on gear, but rather than posting more technical tests or reviews, I’d like to talk about working the scene – being on location, and making little decisions that make a photo better.

I like to go out and challenge myself – I pick a location, then pick a lens that seems entirely inappropriate for that environment, and try to find a way to make it work. In this case, I went to Mount Pleasant cemetery armed with a 14mm prime.

I don’t really show these photos or do anything with them, I mostly just review them, take notes, and hopefully learn something that I can use later on.


Here is an entirely uninteresting shot. I saw something that looked a little bit interesting, and without thinking, I pointed and shot, and the result is a crappy photo unworthy of the hard drive space it is given. No thought was given to composition, narrative, form, light, it was just aim and click; nothing more.

How can I jazz this up a little?

One way is technical – to tweak my settings, like white balance, contrast, sharpness, saturation and all that to create a more interesting tone or atmosphere for the shot. Another is to actually put some damn effort into shooting and make sure the horizon is level and the base of the rock thing lines up and is level – with a 14mm lens, the slightest little tilt will give a dramatic angle.


Now we have an image that took some effort, but still sucks. While I don’t think this shot is horrible – it’s just bland and not worth looking at or thinking about.

How can I jazz this up further?
This is where it gets really subjective.
I ask myself, “what was it about this object that drew my attention in the first place?”
In this case, it sounds kind of silly, but that tower thing reminded me of those cool laser towers from the original Command and Conquer game, and that sinking feeling you got in your gut whenever you approached a NOD base and heard that buzzing sound, and you just knew that your expensive tank was toast.

OK, that might sound a bit out there, but if that’s the feeling I had that drew my attention to this, let’s go with it. What can I do to strengthen that connection?
Well, it was late afternoon, the sun is fairly low in the sky, maybe I could move around a bit, line up the sun and this tower so the tip of the tower just obstructs the sun, which should make some sun beams visible, and that’s always a shortcut to a pretty shot, and while these sunbeams may not be tank destroying lasers, they add another element to the shot.


While this shot isn’t going to earn me any awards or be printed or displayed anywhere, I kind of like it, and compared to the original shot, I think this one just has something more to it.

And that’s working the scene. It doesn’t always lead to great shots, but it leads to slightly better shots, and it has far more of an impact than a lens that is 6% sharper than the one you bought 2 years ago.

Experience beats gear.

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Kyle Clements

Kyle Clements is a Toronto-based artist and nerd. During his thesis at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kyle began working on his Urban Landscapes series, a body of work that aims to capture the energy and excitement of life in the fast-paced urban environment. After graduating from OCAD in 2006, Kyle spent a year living in Asia to gather source material and experience in a different kind or urban environment. His work is vibrant and colourful. Whether painting the harsh Northern landscape, or capturing the overwhelming buzz of life in the city, his acrylic paintings hover between representation and abstraction.