5 Tips for a Powerful Picture Every Time


Play-At-First.jpgYou see plenty of landscape, portrait and commercial photographs every day on the web and in magazines. You can tell by the lighting, staging and seemingly overall perfection of everything in those pictures that days, maybe even weeks of planning were needed to pull of such amazing photographs.

With that much planning, all that is left to do when it is time to take the picture is press the shutter. The photographer behind the lens probably even knew exactly what time she was going to press the shutter. In short, the photographer did everything necessary to prepare for the picture.

But what about the other side of photography?

You have also seen equally powerful pictures that captured something spectacular in the spur of the moment. These are the kind of photographs that you may think you could never plan for because they present themselves with no prior notice or warning.

Van Wreck

Have you ever heard the saying that “luck favors the prepared”? No truer statement could ever be said about photographers and photography.

It’s true that luck can find anyone at any given time, but if you want to be able to pull off amazing photos with just a moment’s notice you need to be as prepared as a studio or commercial. But this approach to photography takes a completely different type of preparation.

Here are five photography tips for a powerful picture every time. These tips will help prepare you to perfectly capture once in a lifetime pictures time and time again.

1. Always have a camera

A prepared photographer needs to have a camera close by at all times. It sounds elementary, but any good top five list is going to start off with the basics first. If you don’t have a camera with you, you will not be able to capture that picture of a bald eagle in your backyard. Without your camera, you are left only with your story of a bald eagle. Odds are you have already have a camera on you or near you right now. Your phone! The first tip in photography preparation; always have your camera (any camera) close by.


2. Study light

Photography is all about light (and having a camera). Without light there is no photography. But there is so much more to light than just having it. As a photographer you must become a student of light. What color is the light? How strong is the light? Where is the light coming from? How long until the light changes? Where can you find more light right now?

Cowboy Lights Up

As you move through your day (camera at your side), take the time to notice the light sources around you. If you are in a meeting, look around the conference room. Is there light coming through the window? What kind of lights are in the ceiling? Are there desk lamps? What about the light coming from everyone’s computer screens? Could you open the curtains to let in more light?

By reminding yourself throughout the day to recognize and understand your lighting situation you are learning how to master light rather than have it master you. Then you are on your way to taking better pictures at a moment’s notice.

3. Visualize

While you are studying the light around you take a moment and pretend that you are taking a picture. While in that same theoretical meeting, look across the table at your colleagues. Imagine taking a picture of them. Which side of their face has more lighting? Are they backlit? How would you overcome that? Would your picture be better if you moved across the room? Is there a ray of sunlight that, if you could, you would ask your boss to step into because it would highlight her hair color so well?

By taking the time to play pictures out in your mind you are actually training your mind to think like a photographer. You are preparing your mind to be ready. It’s called visualization and athletes do it all the time. Ever wonder why a golfer takes so long to hit the ball? It’s because he is envisioning his swing, and the ball going where he wants it to go before he hits it.

Photographers and photography are no different. Train your mind by constantly imagining that you are taking a picture.

4. Think ahead

This tip goes hand in glove with tip number 3. You should always be thinking ahead, be it five seconds, five minutes or five hours. To be ready to take a photo at the drop of a hat you have to put yourself in a situation that has yet to happen.

Fire Chief On Truck

It’s like the pre-flight safety instructions you hear before a plane takes off. It does no one any good to get that information when the plane is in distress. Knowing where the exit doors are ahead of time saves lives. Knowing what ISO setting you will need if your kids break out in a song and dance routine for the grandparents can save Christmas.

Always be thinking ahead and absorbing your surroundings to better anticipate action that hasn’t yet taken place. Sports photographers may do this better than anyone. The better they understand how the sport is played the more likely they will be to capture the key moments in a game. A photographer covering a baseball game recognizes that there will be a play at first base and he will instinctively put his focus on the first base bag and wait for the play to get to him.

Play At First

To always be ready to capture a picture at the drop of a hat you have to be a student of life, and a student of movement and moments. Learn to anticipate and not just react.

5. Practice

The final tip is one that combines the other four and that is to practice being ready at all times. It may sound silly, but why do you think golfers, baseball players and airplane pilots practice? So that when it comes time to hit the ball, catch the ball or avoid a crash they have already placed themselves in that situation and performed the needed mind and body movements over and over again. Come game time (or in an emergency) instincts take over.

Luck favors the prepared and trust me, if my plane loses an engine I want a pilot who has already thought through what needs to be done to prevent the plane from crashing. I don’t want him fumbling over buttons and dials trying to figure out how to keep the plane in the air. I want him to instinctively know what must be done to save the plane.

As a practical matter, have a friend change your camera settings so that you have no idea how your aperture, ISO and shutter speed are set. Have your friend point at something (it doesn’t matter what because this is practice).Then quickly grab your camera and adjust your settings to best capture that object. Then, do it again with another object or person or passing car. Take your camera on walks with you and have your friends constantly test your skills. Make a game out of it until you instinctively know what to do.

Men In Dresses

To be ready to take a powerful picture at any moment you literally have to be ready to take a picture at any moment. Keep a camera near you at all times. Be aware of your light because it is always changing. Constantly visualize taking pictures. Always be aware of your surroundings to better anticipate action, and to perfect all of this, practice.

Remember, luck favors the prepared. Luck is not a strategy. Do you have any other tips you’d like to share? Please do so on the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Scott Umstattd is a travel and documentary photographer and author of Fighting The Evils of Darkness: A Low Light Photography Survival Guide. His ultimate goal in photography is to capture undeniable photographical evidence of a UFO. In the event he is not able to do that, he trains other photographers to always be prepared in the event of an alien invasion. To that end, he created Picture Power, an online hideout for photography superheroes.

  • These are some awesome shots Scott, and great tips. I love your suggestion to make point and shoot a game. I am going to try that with my budding photographer (he’s 13), he thinks he knows everything already, so let’s see if he really does? Thanks!

  • Thanks Kathy. As you and he progress in the game, you can keep score by counting how many shots it takes for him to get the right exposure. Like in golf, a low score is better.

  • Great article! I’ve always thought of it as good luck, rather than given myself credit for a little preparation – but you’re right! I recently photographed a GT race where a car got a little airborne in the second corner – I chalked it up to good fortune, but really, I realized that would be a place prone to bang-ups and set myself up for a good shot. I need to realize that more often!

  • Excellent point Diahn. I do the same thing. Thanks for reminding me that it’s OK (and necessary) to give myself a little credit.

  • @scott_umstattd:disqus this is such an awesome article. I love the idea of thinking ahead. The thing that I need to do more is take my camera with me everywhere. Thank you for the refreshers.

  • Glad you liked it! I’m looking for a smaller camera (maybe 4:3 or mirrorless) so that I can heed my own advice and always have a camera with me (other than my GoPro, which is always with me).

  • Justin Donie

    Excellent advice that will begin paying back results immediately. My wife and I are rarely without at least one camera, and on those rare days we decided to leave them behind, we almost always wish we hadn’t. And understanding and working with light is so essential and so easy to overlook when we get overly focused on either the subject or the gear. All, very good reminders. One more tip I’d add … get into the habit of always allowing yourself to form an emotional connection with/response to what you’re seeing before you push the shutter button. That moment when your heart jumps in your chest is the one you want to capture.

  • That’s an incredibly keen point, Justin. As a street/documentary photographer waiting until you feel your heart beat makes the process much more fun and engaging as opposed to seeing something and rattling of twenty shots hoping that one hits the mark. I often remind myself to shoot like a Jedi. One swift move rather than a myriad of missed shots. Precision over pixels…

  • Justin Donie

    Nicely said! 🙂

  • Kiley Warren Lindsey

    Tip number 1 is my favorite.

  • Without #1, it’s all a moot point. Thanks Kiley.

  • Roland Bogaerts

    Good article! One tip I give to my students (yes, they love to shoot in the manual mode because it’s ‘better’;-) is to set your camera in P-mode after a shoot. The next time you need your camera and ‘point and shoot’the exposure is probably right. Do you follow?

  • This is excellent advice and a good habit to get into before laying your camera down. Who knows what the lighting will be like when that UFO lands 😉

  • Chris

    Great article. It’s all about the shadows as well. Yes I know without light there would be no shadows

  • John S Iacono

    Tip 1) I can not leave my house without a camera, it just drives me crazy not to have a camera with me. Tip 2) This is why my go to lenses are constant 2.8, there are just too many times when a strobe is not your friend. And I have always made steps 3,4 and 5 a habit

  • And without shadows, light would never end…

  • Ankit

    Point no. 4. Visualization always keeps on going in my mind, whether I am carrying my camera or not. Ever since I started clicking, I find some story in every other thing I see and need to click at that moment. Point no. 1 comes into play here as one needs to have his/her camera ready.

  • Chuck Nardo

    Scott… thanks for the tips…but, what do you do/recommend for those pictures that you need to take immediately? When the camera is by your side/or in the car/ or in a indoor/outdoor public place, what camera settings do you leave your camera in? You can’t be setting your ISO, Tv, Av and focusing method for that shot that is in front of you NOW but will be gone in next 2-5 seconds. For example, the bird picture required a fast Tv. So what do you do? Auto ISO? f/2.8 or Auto ISO and Tv1/1000? or no auto ISO? Roland below suggest P mode. So what do you recommend. BTW… what lens do you use every day.?

  • Thanks Chuck. I shoot with a Canon 60D. If a UFO were to land outside my window right now I would set my camera to Auto w/no flash. I have programmed my 60D to automatically allow ISO 6400 as the highest ISO available in auto mode. I would rather have some noise in my pictures than have them ruined because of a slow shutter speed. Noise can be fixed. A blurry picture cannot. The higher ISO pre-set will help to ensure a faster shutter speed. I don’t use the green auto mode because the flash could pop up and I don’t like that as a default setting. And it could scare the aliens. As for my everyday lens, my Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens is on my camera 85% of the time. I love this focal range. Its picture quality is not as good as the Sigma 17-50 f/2.8 (which I sold to get the Canon 15-85) but the focal range is better for my needs and I have to pixel hunt to see the difference in image quality. Here’s my review of both of these lenses http://www.picture-power.com/canon-lens-reviews-canon-ef-15-85mm-f-3-5-5-6.html and http://www.picture-power.com/sigma-17-50mm-f2-8-ex-dc-os-hsm-lens-review.html

  • Chuck Nardo

    Thanks for the prompt reply and the advice. Agree… noise can be fixed… blurry pictures can not. I will experiment with the same settings. I am shooting with 5DIII and a 24-105L f/4. I was thinking about AUTO ISO @ 12,800max and leaving in P mode so the only thing I need to think about is Tv..fast or slow? Reasonable? Plan now is to start visiting picture-power .com on a regular basis 🙂
    regards… Chuck

  • That’ll work to capture that UFO when it lands or as it flies by. I considered the 24-105, but it wasn’t wide enough for me. Thanks for your kind words and your visits.

  • Cheryl Garrity


    Thanks for writing the article. I photograph landscapes most often, but it is good to know how to take advantage of unplanned opportunities. That is a challenge for me. Having a friend change camera settings and having to reset them quickly sounds like a great way to practice.

    Visualizing how the light is falling on the subject in a given daytime situation is not easy for me. I think that is why I prefer photographing at dusk, dawn and at night. There is always so much to learn.


  • Costin Adrian

    It happens to me all the time while driving on the high way..fast and in a hurry to reach a meeting. Most of the time I have my camera bag in the trunk….but…it’s not easy to decide to stop….get out of the car…search for the bag, take out the camera, change the lens…make the adjustments…shoot!… Sometimes you get it right….sometimes you miss it….but, for sure, you get more and more trained for the next best shot. And there are also times when you realize that’s no chance to catch the moment on photo card….and you relax and feel happy enjoying just the photo in your eye and in your mind….

  • Zalira

    I always have my tiny Lumix in my handbag, I take my Nikon Coolpix when I need a light camera and then my Nikon D600 goes with me whoever we are touring by car. Such a great article Scott ! Love your ideas on anticipating the light with subjects in meetings etc. Thanks.

  • Vince Stephens

    To take a spur of the moment shot, there will not always be time to mess about with exposure settings. I always carry my camera set on full auto then its just up to the eye, compose and shoot, that is, if there’s time to compose , sometimes you just have to guess !
    Otherwise, if the situation allows you can reset your settings to suit.
    A very good article and something to think about.

  • My brother in law shut this in Austria

  • My brother in law made this beautyful photo in Austria

  • My husband loves to play

  • freshte

    the air-travel analogy worked best for me! i used to be a cabin crew and that made all the points be extra clear for me!

  • Costin, this is how I got my start with quick shooting – seeing great shots while driving and only having time to grab the camera and literally point and shoot. These days, if my wife is driving, she will often ask if I want her to turn around so I can get a shot of a barn or whatever. I always tell her No. That ruins the fun. Anyone can hit the bulls eye of a target standing six inches away from the mark. The fun is in the challenge. It I miss the barn picture, so what. But if I get that barn while driving past doing 60 mph with a no-look shot, that makes me happy. Thanks for sharing your picture.

  • Thanks Cheryl….”There is always so much to learn.” This is what keeps me engaged in photography. At its essence, photography couldn’t be more simple. But start peeling back the layers just a little, and you can see a lifetime of questions that need to be answered, techniques to try and discover and styles to play with. For me, I need to spend more time working on my landscape photography. I need to work on my peaceful photography…Knowing that there is another layer of photography to explore in my future let’s me know I will be doing this for a long time to come.

  • Costin Adrian

    Thank you, Scott! That’s exactly the spirit! Keep in touch.

  • baltazar

    really good tips.thanks for that

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