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You may be at a point with your photography where you are comfortable operating your camera and are capable of taking a good picture. You can work with exposure, you understand composition, and can even enhance your photos in post-processing. You should be pleased with this, as this puts you ahead of the vast majority of other photographers. But at the same time, perhaps you are not seeing the elevation in your results that you expect. You are beginning to wonder why you aren’t getting more stunning pictures. Are you doing something wrong? Is there some part of this you’re not getting?
We all go through a phase where we feel like we know what we’re doing but are frustrated by a lack of great results. In fact, for some of us, it always feels like this. You’ll never go through a time where you’re hitting magical shot after magical shot. It just doesn’t work like that. You are after something extraordinary, and by definition that is rare.
How do you maximize your chances of finding these great shots? The short version is, “through a lot of effort,” and – while true – that isn’t very helpful. So here are some areas where I focus my efforts and perhaps they will help you too.
We all seem to want to take our cameras down to the local park or take a stroll around a nearby lake and then come home with stunning pictures. For the most part, it just doesn’t work like that. You typically need a great location in order to end up with a great picture.
You have likely heard that “you can take a great picture anywhere” – and that is true. But just because it is possible doesn’t mean it is probable. Magical lighting or sheer genius may allow some to get great shots in ordinary places, but it is extremely unlikely. To put the odds in your favor, you need to start with an extraordinary location.
How do you find such a location? There are lots of ways. If you are going to a well-traveled place such as a large city or a national park, some enterprising photographer has likely done the work for you. They will have written a book on how to photograph that particular place. These guides are invaluable and often all you will ever need. Beyond that, there are a plethora of online resources. I personally start with the 500px World Map and look at where great shots have been taken. I also like to check out the work of photographers who specialize in whatever I am going.
These resources will help you pick out good places to go. But they will also help you pinpoint specific spots to head to once you are in the area. None of this is to say you should slavishly copy any of these people, but rather that you should let their work inspire you and give you an idea of great locations that might serve as a backdrop for your upcoming stunning picture.
A great location alone will not result in a stunning picture. I’ve been to countless areas of great natural beauty or stunning urban environments only to walk away empty-handed. To create the stunning picture you are after, you are also going to need great lighting.
Some of you will create your own lighting through the use of flash. In that case, you’ll be able to create your own stunning lighting – and the whole thing is up to you. But that doesn’t work for me since I am always out and about photographing scenes, which aren’t as conducive to using flash.
Assuming you are like me and are relying on natural lighting, you just cannot guarantee great lighting. We all have to deal with bad weather and occasionally things don’t work out. That said, you can put the odds more in your favor.
The first thing to do is make sure you are photographing around sunrise or sunset. I cannot tell you the number of times people have asked me how to elevate their photography and when I look at their pictures I find that they were all taken in the middle of the day. Usually, that’s just not going to work.
Photographing at sunrise or sunset has a myriad of advantages. The sky will often be very colorful. You will also not have to deal with the extreme contrast created by bright light and dark shadows. The diffuse rays of the sun are more pleasing as well. Think about it this way: there is a reason people sit outside and watch the sun come up or go down. Take advantage of that.
Keep in mind that bad weather can often lead to the best shot. It is very much a risk/reward situation. Most of the time, cloudy hazy conditions result in failure. Sometimes, however, the sun might peek through or do something interesting such that you get magical rays in your photo. Typically, nice weather will result in nice pictures. Dramatic weather can result in dramatic pictures, and that is what you are going for.
A great scene does not necessarily make a great photo. You’re probably familiar with rules of composition such as the rule of thirds. That is great, but this alone won’t result in the stunning photos you are after. To get there, you need something more. Here are some ideas to think about.
The first thing you need is a subject or center of interest. Again, simply capturing a scene in front of you might create a nice picture, but not the shot that will cause people to say “wow” that you are after. You need something to hold the picture together. I cannot tell you exactly what that is since there are so many different things to use in this world, just be on the lookout for that.
Another thing that will help you is if you think about leading the viewer’s eye. You might immediately leap to the concept of leading lines, but it goes further than that. Think about where you want the viewer’s eye to start in your picture and then the route you want them to travel around it. Many times this is done in the post-processing phase. Remember that the eye is attracted to areas of brightness and sharpness. You might darken areas where you don’t want the viewer to concentrate while sharpening areas where you do want their eyes to go.
While you’re setting up your picture, be sure to think hard about the foreground. Think of your pictures as consisting of a background, subject, and foreground. The background is already largely set by your choice of location and lighting. The subject might be the thing that caused you to raise your camera to your eye in the first place (or in any event, you will already have thought about it). That leaves the foreground as the final variable. Don’t give it short shrift. Very often, getting low to the ground gives a sense that the viewer can walk into the picture and really enhances the image.
Finally, be sure to think about the mood of your picture. A great picture stirs some emotion in your viewer. Therefore you’ll need to think about the emotion or mood as you are creating it. In the field, you might underexpose a bit to add some drama to your shot. Later, when you are on your computer, you will have time to consider this further and tweak your photo with an eye towards setting this mood.
There are photographers who shun the use of post-processing and devote all their time and energy to getting the shot right in the field. I’m not one of them. I have never taken a shot that I didn’t think could be improved with the use of post-processing.
Of course, there are a million things you can do to enhance your photos in post-processing. It is not my intent to walk through them all here. Rather, I just want to stress the importance of taking your time and thinking about what you want to accomplish with your picture when you sit down with it at your computer. When you are sitting down in front of your computer, you have time to think it through and work on it. In the field, you may have been rushed – dealing with a moving subject or fleeting light. Now you have as much time as you want.
Think about what your picture is about. If a part of your image does not support that idea, crop it out. Use some selective sharpening and brightening/darkening to lead the viewer’s eye. Set the mood of your picture using brightness values.
The point is not to take a mundane picture and try to post-process it into some masterpiece. Rather, selectively take a few shots and enhance them with an eye towards both (a) what you were trying to accomplish and (b) what you want the viewer to think/feel when they are looking at your photo.
Finally, it is important to have realistic expectations. You aren’t going to go out and come home with a stunning picture every time. I fail all the time, and to avoid getting frustrated about it, I think about the words of Ansel Adams. He once said that he got about one great picture a month. Only one a month! If this master of photography was forced to settle for that kind of hit rate, then who am I to think I can do better? I ought to be happy with one shot a year.
This all takes time and effort. In a lot of ways, it is like waiting for the stars to come together. There is no magic formula for going out and getting a stunning picture every time. If there were, we would all do it. Again, the whole idea is that you are looking for the extraordinary – and that doesn’t happen all the time.
Of course, these factors all work together somewhat. You can have magical lighting at a mundane location and end up with a stunning picture. Or the right post-processing can take a B+ picture and turn it into a winner. The point is not to get you to wait around for perfect conditions. Rather just to keep moving forward with the mindset that it isn’t always going to work, but when it does it is magic.
These are the things I look for in trying to create a great photo. But that’s not to say there aren’t other – even better – ways to go about it. What do you look for in trying to elevate your photos from the mundane into something magical? Please let us know in the comments below.