Many beginner photographers, and some more experienced ones, fall into the trap of thinking a good subject will make a good photo. It’s not true. I’ve seen loads of terrible photos of fabulous subjects.
A good photographer makes good photos, no matter what the subject. I like how British photographer Martin Parr describes his work. He says his aim is to make the ordinary look extraordinary.
To make the best photo, whether or not your subject is impressive, you need to:
- Expose it well.
- Time it right.
- Choose the best lighting.
- Compose it carefully.
- Connect on some level.
Achieving all these five aspects of interesting photographs in a single frame is challenging. It takes skill, practice, and patience.
Being mindful of these pillars of good photography will lead you away from the snapshot trap when you see something interesting. Learning to keep these things in mind, you will gradually improve and be able to make the most mundane object look great when you photograph it.
Master your camera technique
Confidence in managing your camera is essential. Using your camera without understanding much of how it works will frustrate your creative growth. Learning what each of the main settings does on your camera is not difficult.
Control of the exposure is made using the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. Focus is either automatic or manual. None of these are hard to master when you put your mind to it and spend some time practicing. Figuring out what part of your composition needs to be exposed well and where the focus point needs to be are part of your creative choice.
Mastering the basic technical aspects of using your camera will free you up to become more creative with your photography.
Press your shutter at the right time
Choose the optimum moment to take your photo. Consider the action happening in front of you. Look at the colors as they change when the sun is rising and setting. Watch a flower blooming in your garden. Each instance you take a photo, make sure it’s the optimum one.
What determines the decisive moment for when you take a photo depends on many things. Each circumstance is different, so it’s important for you to observe what’s happening carefully.
Sometimes you’ll need to respond quickly. Other times you’d best be patient and wait, or come back another time. This is so for landscape and architecture photography where the right light and weather conditions are so vital.
Anticipating when the best time is will help you nail it more often. Think about what will happen next. What is the sequence of events that will unfold? How are clouds moving in the sky? Will they cover the sun before it sets?
In situations where you have some control over your subject and the action, timing is not so difficult to predict. You can ask the model to flick her hair back on the count of three. You could ask your kids to run and jump over the sleeping dog and be ready for them.
Timing is one of the key elements which influence good photos. Each picture you take is a short moment in time. Making sure you capture the right moment can often make or break your photographs.
Craft your compositions
Relying on your subject to make your photo interesting means you may not compose it well. Don’t just plonk it central in your viewfinder, focus and click. Everyone with a camera can do that.
Move around. Look for a better background without distractions. Take a little time to think through some rules of composition. Are there strong lines you could incorporate? Will using the rule of thirds make the photo stronger? What else is in the frame and is it relevant to your photo?
Use different focal length lenses to incorporate more or less background. With a wide lens, you’ll see more background. Using a longer lens will cut more of the background and help isolate your subject. Longer lenses also give the impression of compressed distance where wide lenses do the opposite.
Lots of the best street photography looks as if it’s been made in a hurry. People rushing past, glancing at the camera. Or absorbed in what they are doing. Mostly these photos are not snapshots. The photographer has planned well and anticipated the action. Then waited.
Action is more easily caught and composed well when patience and observation are applied.
Lighting for feeling
Hard light or soft light will create different moods.
Strong contrast when you have hard light is more dramatic. If you want a softer, more romantic feeling, hard light is not the best. Even with an interesting subject, such as a newborn baby or a flower, harsh lighting will not provide a gentle feeling in your photograph.
Matching the lighting to the mood you wish to create in your photograph will make the photo feel right. There are no fixed rules. You must decide for yourself with each photo. This is part of your creative expression as a photographer.
Think about the direction the light’s coming from. It is hard or soft? How is it affecting your subject? Is there too much shadow or contrast for the mood you want?
Connect with your subject
No matter what you choose to photograph, the more you connect with your subject the better photos you will make of it.
I always thought this applied only to people, and maybe animals. I’ve changed my perspective, and now think it can apply to anything you photograph.
I love flowers. My wife loves them more and loves to grow them. She takes much better photographs of flowers than I do because she has that passion. It shows in her pictures.
If you love the location you live in, or maybe where you grew up, you will photograph it more intimately than a stranger to it probably will.
How you connect with people you’re photographing will certainly make a huge difference in your photos.
Take your time. Be more observant. When you find your next alluring subject, consider how you can make the best photo of it. Don’t rely on its interest value alone.
Travel photography is prone to snap-shooting. When you travel, you always see new and interesting things to photograph. This is part of what makes travel so interesting. I often encourage people who take our photography workshops not to be travel snapshooters.
Ansel Adams said, “The most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Think about your subject and how you can treat it.
Remember, it’s the photographer who makes the picture interesting, not the subject.