Essential habit no.1: What are you shooting?

Here’s the video, read on for more depth.

The single biggest thing that will make the most difference to your photography is knowing what you’re photographing.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Deceptively so in fact. What I’m really driving at is getting you to ask yourself every time you take a photograph “What am I taking a photograph of?” I don’t mean the obvious answer of “This beautiful landscape” or “this sweet little puppy”. What I mean, and another way of phrasing the question would be – “What interests you about the subject? Now try and make me interested too.”

Photography is all about communication – you’re trying to communicate to the viewer what it was you saw when you took the image. You’ll use your technical and creative skills to actually realise this, but if you don’t know what the key aspect was that interested you in the first place, you’ll be fumbling around in the dark.

When you’re just starting out, the “how” of trying to answer the question “What am I photographing?” may present you with a lot of technical challenges, but as your technical skill increases, along with your understanding of photography in the wider context, you’ll find it easier and easier to communicate your message.

“Record” Shots

What you’ll find yourself doing is making “record” shots. By this I mean you will simply record what’s in front of you when you press the shutter. There will be no interpretation of the scene, no attempt to really drill down to the essence of what you saw, just a very basic shot. To take your work further, examine the frame each and every time you take a picture, and if you need to, re-arrange it to get your message across better. Crop in tighter around your main subject, or pull out to include more information. Shoot from higher up or lower down, wait until elements in the scene have moved, or the light has changed.

What are you shooting
An image taken during an adventure race around Mount Snowdon in North Wales. It’s an OK shot, but really nothing more than a “record” of what I saw in front of me at that exact moment in time.
What are you shooting?
The same event, 5 minutes later, and 100 metres further up the track. A much more successful image – what I saw at the time, what interested me, and what I wanted to emphasise to anyone looking at the image is how tough and extreme the race was. The first image shows people walking up a hill, clearly a bit out of breath, but the second image demonstrates how high they’ve climbed, how steep the hill is, how wet the conditions are, and the converging lines in the shot even help to further diminish the size of the runners in the landscape.

Developing your own vision

Beyond each individual image you take, the question of “What am I photographing?” extends right through your whole lifespan as a photographer. It can be very tempting when you’re just starting out as an amateur to try all sorts of everything, and shoot whatever vaguely interests you. You may cover a huge range of subject matters, and try out every technique and gimmick under the sun. All of this is perfectly normal, and usually demonstrates your new found enthusiasm for photography.

However, go online and look at the work of the best photographers out there. You’ll find lots of suggestions in the next habit on managing your influences. Browse their websites, or buy their plush hard back books, and you won’t see 19 images of moody dramatic portraits, then one bright still life image. What you’ll see will be a consistent theme and approach, and this will be obvious even across different subject matters. The best photographers out there (and this includes amateurs, not just those who make a living from it) know what their work is about, they know where their passions lie, and they produce work that is recognisably theirs.

Now, I won’t lie to you, finding out what this passion is can take quite a while – if I’m being honest it’s taken me more than a decade, but then I’m pretty stubborn! Hopefully you’ll start to get a feel for what drives you the more and more you shoot, but some 3rd party input may be very useful. Take advice and critique wherever you can find it – you’ll soon learn to filter what’s good advice and bad.

Don’t get hung up on subject matter or genre. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for getting in depth knowledge of a couple of subject areas, but what matters more is your overall approach. A landscape, still-life or portrait can all be “intimate” for example, a sports shot, reportage image, or architectural image can all be “cinematic”. Don’t be surprised if your theme isn’t immediately obvious, or doesn’t come neatly packaged into a word like “drama”. You may end up with something that sounds terribly pretentious and arty-farty, but that’s not a bad thing, trust me!

A theme or approach cuts right across genres and subject matter. Once you know what your theme and passion is, whatever you shoot will begin to feel more and more like your work, rather than simply “record” shots, and we don’t do “record” shots anymore do we?

Action Steps:

  • Before you take every picture, stop and ask yourself “what do I find interesting about this scene/person/thing?” and then make every effort to get that thing across. Remember – What interests YOU?, now make ME interested too.

30 Second Summary

Knowing what you’re photographing, before you start shooting, will make a huge difference to the images you create. In the short term, spend just a little time thinking about why you want to take this exact picture, and in the long term, invest some time in self-examination about what it is about photography itself that excites you.

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