How to make better photos

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Big Sur

I was on a workshop one time and someone asked the great photographer Bill Fortney, “how do I make great photos like the ones you have?”  Bill replied, “well I guess, first you have to go to great places four or five times a year for twenty years and hope you have some good weather.  I think you’ll get a few good ones.”  I might add, practice being a photographer for 50 years like Bill.  You could also try this.

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Finding the composition in a mess

Mary and I were talking about this today and she said it is all about being intentional.  Namely, creating a high degree of quality outcomes by correctly applying known principles to the task.  What does that mean when applied to photography?

Planning – I think it starts with a plan for what you want to photograph – when, where and how?  It takes time to plan, but it will save you time in the field.  Time in the field is invaluable because you want to be shooting, not figuring out where you want to shoot.  I do not mean being rigid here, either.  Planning should include options so that no matter the weather, crowds, or conditions, you will have a plan to shoot.  When Mary and I go on a trip we plan out each sunrise and sunset, as well as, where we could shoot during the day.

Show up – Woody Allen is right in saying that “Eighty percent of life is showing up.”  This reminds me of people who want to win the lottery, but never buy a ticket.  You can’t make great photos if you are not in the field shooting.  If you want a great photo of the Huntington Beach Pier (I do), but you never go to Huntington Beach (me), how are you ever going to get one?  Two months ago, I almost missed a spectacular sunrise in Zion, because I was waffling abut getting up for sunrise.  I am glad I did.  See Planning above.

Look, See, Imagine, Create – Mary and I have many blog post examples about this process we use for making a photo.  Look means being open to what is in front of you and stopping to consider it.  I have passed on good subjects and regretted it.  If you see something interesting, photograph it.  I think the most important step is not figuring out what you want to shoot, but figuring out how you want to compose it.  Sometimes it is straight forward and sometimes you can get really creative.  Landscape or portrait orientation?  Color or monotone?  Bright or Dark?  As shot or stylized?  This is a process you can use to mentally review your creative options, even if you are just setting up to make a photo.

Ask the classic John Shaw questions: 1) Why do I want to make this photograph?   2) Have I chosen a  good subject? 3) Is there good light for this subject? 4) Is there a pleasing background? 5) Is it a good composition?  6) Am I sure about my choices?  7) Did I get want I wanted?  I know this seems like a lot.  However, the more you practice answering these questions in the field, the easier it gets…almost second nature at some point.

Sharply Focused and Properly Exposed – This should go without saying, but I will say it anyway.  I can’t tell you how many times someone (me) has a great subject with great light and I hurry so much that I forget the basics.  Am I shooting in my desired aperture? Is my focus area correct for depth of field.  Is the camera focused?  Are my highlights and shadows properly exposed?  How does the histogram look?  Modern cameras have all the tools to make a well focused and exposed photo.  Don’t forget to use them.  Our friend Jack Graham, tells everyone to “SLOW DOWN.”

Practice – This is not the same as planning and showing up.  This is getting out or staying in and working on things you do not do well.  For Mary and I, our photography trips are “game days.”  Shooting at home or going to a local garden is about practicing our skills and honing them.  I ask myself, what do I need to work on and then I figure out a regimen to practice it.  Here is our popular blog post about Practice.

Learn how to process – I know there is a thing on Instagram about #nofilters, but I think this is an inappropriate backlash against “over-processed” stylized photos that makers want you to believe just came out of the camera.  All photos could use some processing.  Most people like photos that are 10% brighter, 10% more contrast, and 10% more color saturation.  When photos are over-processed our brains send off an alarm that says “that is not real.”  You can make a big difference in the look and feel of a photo by just making a few tweaks.  For my iPhone I use the Snapseed app for basic processing and Retouch for removing unwanted objects.  On the PC, we use Lightroom and Photoshop.

See my blog post about basic processing.

Get Feedback – I don’t like to use sports metaphors, but here goes anyway.  If you want to get better at playing golf, you need to take lessons, get feedback from a coach, practice at the range, and then go play some rounds.  It is really hard to work on something at the range without someone looking at your swing, who knows what they are doing, and giving you feedback to make you better.  Becoming a better photographer is no different.  I am so fortunate to have Mary, who is not only a great photographer, but she sees and thinks differently than me, which gives me a very different perspective.  I don’t always agree with her feedback, but I always learn from it.  I highly encourage anyone to go on workshops with professional photographers and get feedback and hear feedback on other peoples’ photos.

To some it up, here is what Galen Rowell advises, “You only get one sunrise and one sunset a day, and you only get so many days on the planet. A good photographer does the math and doesn’t waste either”.

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