The Best Photography Tip – EVER!

I get asked all the time for photography tips, usually by people just starting out. They expect me to come back with some technical advice, or a suggestion about which camera to buy (hint, I’ll probably suggest Nikon, because I know which side my bread is buttered on!)

Instead I always give the same advice, and it’s just one sentence. Each and every time you take a photograph, ask yourself “What am I taking a photograph of?”, and then make sure you answer that question.

How simple is that?

Cue outrage – “well, of course I know what I’m taking a picture of – it’s that view in front of me/my child on the swings/the new car I’ve bought”. OK – I get that, and if that’s all you set out to do, what will generally happen (assuming you get all the technical bits right, which is fairly easy these days) is that you’ll create what I call a “record” shot. By this I mean you’ll simply record what was in front of the camera at the time you pressed the shutter. There will be no personal interpretation of the subject, no added artistry, and generally very little that draws the viewer in and makes them want to spend more than a second glancing at the image.

What I’m really driving you to do when you ask yourself “What am I taking a photograph of?” is to ask:

“What is it about this thing that attracts me/inspires me/interests me, and what do I want to communicate to the viewer (whoever they may be)?”

Now you can see why this is such an important question to start with.

The answer to your question may be as simple as choosing the right time of day to shoot, rather than just grabbing a snap when you’re passing at midday.  In this case let’s say I was trying to take a picture of how tranquil and beautiful Lochaline looks from the bridge.  A shot taken during the day is fine, but the question is answered much better if it’s taken at dawn or dusk.

So, rather than simply thinking “That’s a pretty view”, WHAT about it is pretty? Is it the way the light falls through the trees? The way the river snakes away from you towards the horizon? The way the sky reflects in the lake? Once you know what it is, you need to ensure that aspect you saw and were attracted to gets across to the viewer. This may require careful composition, exposure that’s biased towards one part of the scene or that emphasises/freezes movement, choosing lighting that flatters or shows off your subject, or taking a certain route in post-processing that accentuates a particular feature. Once you know the answer to that original question, you bring all your technical and craft skills to bear on it, before, during and after taking the picture, and draw it out so that the viewer(s) of your image sees what you saw.

Survival of the Fittest Manchester

Survival of the Fittest - Manchester
Bringing together composition (or cropping, in this case) technique (shallow depth of field) and post-processing (desaturation, contrast boosting, and a dab of high-pass filter) to answer the question better.  In this case the answer to the question “What am I photographing?” was “Celebrating with your team after finishing a gruelling obstacle course race.”  The original, untouched file at the top contains the raw elements of this, but it needs a little work to bring them out and get the message across more clearly.  Don’t be afraid to do something as simple as crop in to an image, or darken areas down to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular area.

Not being immediately able to answer this big question doesn’t mark you down as a failure, it’s simply part of the learning curve – with decent constructive critique of your images you’ll be able to identify where work is needed, and fill in those gaps in your technical and craft knowledge. As for equipment, well, the answer as always isn’t just to go out and buy everything there is, just to get a better idea of what kit you need to create certain images. On many occasions, the best answers to the question will not be immediately to hand – you may be in that location at the wrong time of day, or simply not be carrying the right equipment with you at that moment. So answering the question may require more forward planning, or returning at a later date with different kit or skills.

Sea Eagle
Sea Eagle in tree, from a recent holiday in the Scottish Highlands. I didn’t take any “work” kit with me, and the longest lens on my compact camera is equivalent to about 85mm. Even at close range (in this case less than 30 metres) a Sea Eagle still isn’t going to fill the frame with a lens like that, and rather than an image that says “Sea Eagle – OMFG!” the image I took says “Large bird sitting in tree.”  Since my only aim with this shot was to show just how close the Eagle was perched, this is an OK “record” shot, but obviously it’s not going to win wildlife photographer of the year award.

In the Eagle example above, if my aim for the week had been to get decent wildlife imagery, I’d have done almost everything differently. I’d have gone out earlier and later in the day, hidden myself in likely locations and waited for the wildlife, and rented a massive long lens or two. As it was, I was on a hiking holiday, and I’m buggered if I’m going to carry around a 600mm lens all day on the off chance I bump into a large bird!

Don’t get me wrong, from time to time you may get lucky – you may squeeze the shutter just as the sun peeks through the clouds and shines across the lake in the foreground, or you may catch your kids mid-leap with perfect expressions – whatever it may be that communicates your vision clearly and answers that question perfectly.  However, we’re talking seriously about photography here, and we need to start making our own luck. I think you can make your own luck by:

  • Accumulating as much craft and technical skill as possible, so that you know how best to approach whatever subject interests you.
  • Employing the right equipment for the job, which by no means has to be the most expensive.
  • Learning as much as you can about your subject matter – this may well include completely non-photographic aspects such as what time of day is best, or “soft” skills such as working with models.
  • Take time to occasionally disappear up your own backside and examine what it is about photography generally that interests you. A good place to start would be several of the creative exercises I’ve detailed on the blog – “No Excuses”, “Blackboxing”, “Creating a Sourcebank”. Doing this will help to answer the question “what am I photographing” on a broader scale, and will give more direction to your work overall.

So before you get tempted by the next lens, camera or accessory on your wish list, stop for a minute and ask yourself before you take every picture “what am I taking a picture of” and observe how much better your work gets without a penny of money spent.


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