When you go out to take photos it can be tempting to start shooting right away with the goal of getting the ideal image or capturing the perfect picture. But before you get your camera out, it might be good to take the opposite approach and slow down. Way down. Let’s take a minute to consider some lessons you can learn from the age-old tale of the tortoise and the hare. Ironically, one of the most important things you can do when inspiration strikes is to move slowly like the tortoise, rather than rush along like the hare. The tortoise might not have been the quickest animal in the meadow, but he stuck it out and made it to the finish line while the hare had long since grown weary of the race and gave up altogether. As a photographer, it’s tempting to be a hare and race to photographic perfection, but if you look to the tortoise you see a much better example to follow.
Here are five tips to help you slow down and take better photos:
1. Study your surroundings
One of the most important elements of a good photograph is that of framing; how is your subject positioned relative to the environment? You might have already considered the subject of your photo (your child, your vehicle, a statue, a flower, etc.) but before you start racking up those pictures on your SD card, take a few minutes or more to consider where the subject is with respect to everything else in the area. Are there buildings, houses, or man-made structures that you could use to help make your subject stand out? Are there natural elements, like trees, shrubs, or rock formations that you could use to highlight features or colors of your subject? By pausing to consider everything else aside from your subject, you will be able to make better decisions about how to get the moments you are really striving to capture.
When I took this picture of Saint Francis on an overcast morning I had to consider not just the bust itself, but what else might help frame the photo. The quickest and most convenient option would have been to point my camera down and snap a picture, but by slowing down and taking time to consider everything else besides the statue it resulted in a much more pleasing image. I ended up crouching down low to the ground, and using the background elements to give the viewer a sense of space and context. By considering the environment and using that to inform my choice about how to take the photo, I was able to get a much better picture than I would have otherwise.
2. Wait for the light
You might not have a giant flash, or studio-style strobes and softboxes, but you can still get amazing pictures by using the best source of light anywhere – the sun. The downside is, you have to be patient if you really want to use it to its full potential. It might not be easy, but one of the best techniques you can utilize to take advantage of natural light is be patient and wait until it suits the needs of your photograph. Bright daylight is often not the best time to be outside and shooting, as the sun’s direct rays can be too harsh and create too much contrast especially if there are trees, building, or other elements casting big shadows.
Instead, take the tortoise approach and wait until the sun is lower on the horizon. An hour or so before sunset is one of the best times to be out taking pictures, as the low angle of the sun creates a much more pleasing source of light than when it’s directly overhead. Another good time to be shooting in nature is right after sunrise, as you still get the low angle and warm colors. I had to get up early to take this picture of a bronze pedestrian whom someone had bedecked with a bit of garland. But by waiting for the sunlight to be what I needed, rather than what happened to be available, I was able to get a much better photo. It might not have been the quickest option, but it certainly yielded a much better image.
3. Be part of nature
Taking photos of wildlife does not always require a telephoto lens, but it does require patience. If you want to get good pictures of the animals around you, whether it’s in your backyard or on a hike up the mountains, it’s often best to be patient and let nature come to you. Animals will hear you coming and quickly scamper off, but if you stake out a good spot to wait for them you can be rewarded with some compelling photographic opportunities. A few weeks ago I wanted to get a picture of a squirrel, so I started chasing this one around while he looked for nuts and acorns. I soon realized this was an exercise in futility, as he kept running away from me! So instead I picked out one spot and just waited. After a while he crept back and started poking around near me, and I was able to get a decent picture.
Nature can be a fickle mistress, and will often refuse to comply with what might seem like quite reasonable requests (“Hold still, little birdie! No, don’t fly away!”). But if you take time to be part of nature, and even let nature come to you, you will often be rewarded with much better photos than you could get by rushing into things.
4. Let kids be kids
Trying to get a good picture of children can take all the fun out of a birthday party or an afternoon at the park. For many of us, our instinct is to be in control: “Look here everyone! Now say cheese!” Inevitably one kid will be smiling, one will be blinking, one will be staring off to the side, and one might even be crying. It might seem like getting a good picture of kids is almost impossible! Thankfully, there is hope. Instead of rushing like the hare to construct a greeting-card-worthy photograph, try taking the opposite approach and just let the kids play. Keep your camera ready, and use it to capture the kids just being themselves. The catch is, you could be waiting quite a while, but you (and the kids) will have much more fun in the process.
I took this photo of my friend’s daughter while she and my son were playing around in the dirt, and even though it took a while and I got myself rather muddy in the process, I ended up with a picture that was far more interesting than all the posed ones we took earlier. Another advantage of this approach comes months later when you are looking through your pictures. Posed photos of children smiling at the camera might seem like a good idea at the time, but afterwards you will often find that these are not nearly as interesting as the ones where the kids are just playing around and acting natural. But if you are not willing to be patient and wait for these moments to happen, they will often slip by and be lost forever without you ever even noticing.
5. Learn one new camera function, and learn it well
Cameras today have so many options, buttons, and dials it’s no wonder so many people shoot in Auto mode, and I can hardly blame them for doing so! Learning to operate your camera can be a daunting task, and if Auto takes pictures that are generally good enough, why bother with all the menus and knobs? I have seen so many people try to learn how to operate their cameras to take better pictures, but give up in frustration because it’s so overwhelming. The trick is to pick one thing and learn it thoroughly, and in doing so the various elements of exposure and photography will slowly start to come together.
For example if you shoot in Auto, try choosing the Aperture Priority mode (Av or A on your camera) and learn how to control the aperture of your lens to get better shots. Don’t worry about shutter speed, ISO, white balance, AE-L, or anything else just yet. All that is important, but it can wait. Once you spend a few days, weeks, or even longer getting the hang of adjusting the aperture, then move on to something else like the Shutter Priority mode (S or Tv on your camera) where you control the shutter speed and let the camera figure out the rest. You will soon start to see how the various elements of exposure (Aperture, Shutter, and ISO) affect one another, and how to control them to produce the amazing shots that have somehow always eluded your grasp.
By sticking with just one new camera function at a time you might not learn everything about your camera as quick as you would prefer, but you will likely avoid the frustration and burnout that often comes with trying to learn too many new concepts at once. After all, the hare might have gotten off to a quick start but we all know how that turned out. In photography, it pays to be more like the tortoise: slowing down might not seem ideal at first, but it will help you produce brilliant results in the end.