Sunday, April 27, 2008

10 Best Methods to take Great Photographs

In this article, I will list tried and proven techniques to improve the photographic images you are capturing and to keep the momentum going. These are not my original ideas but a compilation of proven methods by many of the great artists and photographers who have shared with their communities.

Each theme below is unique in one perspective but is definitely tied to the other themes and is best when it is an integrated package of practices.

There is no magic solution where you perform a task and voila, you are now a better photographer.

It is only by spending time with your passion and learning about ‘you’ as the artist that improvements will accrue.

Stand in Front of Great Images

This may seem totally obvious, and really there is a lot of truth in this, but the catch is that you must believe that what you are seeing is great.

In the simplest approach, it is somewhat easy, except for travel costs and any restrictions in place within the country of visit, to stand in front of great scenes. We all know those 7 wonders of the world, the seven man-made wonders and any other list of wonders.

While these great views are breath-taking when you are standing in front of them, they have also been photographed into oblivion at least to the sense that we have seen them so often, that we take them for granted. The challenge with these wonders is how to capture some of that grandeur and majesty in a new frame/view that will allow people to see them as new wonders again.

There are all sorts of wonders around us. I love the intricate spirals created by just opening up fiddlehead ferns, the soft translucent leaf-like casing that run down the stem. The challenge is to move this object from the ordinary to the spectacular.

How To Tips
Hire the best guide money can buy (I wish).
Look at travel or geographical magazines.
Look at the winning images from competition sites such as Fred Miranda -FM , dpchallenge , , etc.
Take a travel excursion photography course.

Understand Art and Composition

It is important to understand the works of great artists, photographers and sculpturers and how through colour or lack thereof, composition, form and contours they were able to convey the mysteries and majesties around us.

By looking at the works of great artist both past and present and not just those related to photography, you will be able understand how the artists through their chosen medium, were able to convey the emotions and feelings through their use of light and colour.

While looking through art books is useful, there is nothing quite like looking at the original works of art. Books cannot always convey the true colours and subtle tones that are contained in original art works. There is something special about the size and texture that adds to the image. I always find a well-printed image far superior to any screen display unless you are trying to over saturate the colours.

Understand Light

This is probably the most important of all and is also probably the hardest and longest to master. There are so many variables and so many subtleties that the permutations are almost unlimited. Light separates object from the background, provides focus. It can bring objects into clear focus or hide them in the background. Light can lead you in a direction or scatter you about.

Understand how light influences the scene and subject before. This can be hard light, soft light, colour of light and even the absence of light. There is no photograph without the presence of light. Even with night vision imaging the object is emitting infra-red light.

The photograph is all about light. From the intensity, angle, diffuseness and colour they all help to enhance and set apart the subject.

The types of lights all help to tell a story: from the soft wrap-around light of fashion industry; the harder light to give you more rugged manly features; the late evening warm light creating added texture due to the deeper shadows; and specular backlighting giving us the impression of what is there.

The use and control of light is all about creating contrast, which in real terms means creating lit items or edges to help differentiate the subject from the background or other objects.

Light should be a standard tool for your use and not as a preset condition to the shooting environment. What I mean by that is that when you plan to take an image, before you actually get to the location, you should already have in your mind the type of light that would make this image perfect. That way, you will either know which days and times are best to shoot images and when you get to the location, which light modifiers you might need to overcome the lighting limitations present that day.

Light can be natural as with landscapes or fully controlled as in a studio setting. More often than not it should be a mixture of both, where fill flash, reflectors or diffusers are used to provide more control and separation within elements. This should be in your standard kit along with your lens.

The human eye is able to capture an extremely wide dynamic range of tones, some 14+ stops. The Camera and its associated output devices can only record about 6-8 stops. We therefore need light-control to translate real-life scenes into images that are able to be captured by our imaging devices. We can control this blocking or diffusing light, increasing f-stop number for brightly lit parts or some fill light or reflected light for the darker shadows. With High Dynamic Range (HDR) images we now have the ability to control some of the light after images are taken.

How To Tips
When looking at an outdoor photograph, try to determine time of day and lightning conditions.
Look at the angle of shadows and the softness or hardness.
For areas with good texture what angle is the sun.
For Studio photos I recommend Strobist and Lighting Mods .

There is also a good photography reference book – Light Science & Magic, focal press.

Take B&W Photos First

When you have the time, take a digital B&W photo of your image first. This will allow you to better see the elements in the image how the light is creating depth and focus. Colour rarely makes a B&W image better. It only adds more confusion and initial punch.

Also, some images are better in B&W. By looking at the display in B&W first, you may realize that there is an area in the image which you could improve and would not show up now in colour.

How To Tips
Set your digital camera to B&W mode.
If you are a film person, buy a cheap digital with B&W display capability.
Convert some of your favourite Colour image to B&W and compare. You will develop new ways of seeing images.

I am 4th from the right

Hang Out with Artists
Originally I wanted to state ‘Hang around better Photographers’ but in actual fact every artist or photographer has the ability to give you something new, even to the most experienced photographers, while not technical can be a new way of seeing that it is unique in itself.

Occasionally do hang out with photographers who have better skills in areas you are trying to improve.

How To Tips
Join local Camera Club
Join On-line Forums
Join a Facebook local city photography group
Join or organize a photo walk-about
Take a course with a good photographer/artist with a good track record.

Undertake Projects

It is one thing to go out with no real plan in mind and shoot interesting images like flowers, buildings, landscapes etc. Over time, you will improve your ability to take better images of these subjects. To truly progress as an artist you need to have projects that challenge the way you think about your art.

It is only by exploring every facet of a subject and trying to render the feelings and impression in photographic form that you truly come to appreciate how the camera can enhance and accentuate this experience and expressions of life.

I have joined the SoFoBoMO project (Solo Ph(F)otography Book Month) which was started by Paul Butzi and began officially on April 1st and can start as late as April 31 (that’s me). For the one month period, you must have at least 35 images printed in a Book form of your choosing. This for many will just be PDF and some may actually have it printed in a book. The challenges for me are having such a tight timeframe and picking a suitable subject and then layout the pages of the book. If lucky, I may add a few corny words.

How To Tips
Have a good friend give you a project theme.
Explore in nth detail one of your favourite subject in all conditions.
Participate in one of the web projects such as Neil Creek .

Be a Critic

Learn to be a good critic. Learn how to critique the most mundane to the stellar best.
I encourage you to spend time on the many critiquing and critiquing others. The ‘Wow great image’ doesn’t quite cut it as a critique. When you do critique someone’s image spend a fair amount of time with analysis and a detailed review. Discuss what works and what areas might need improvement from your perspective.

Take these skills and objectively critique your own images, preferably after a period of time so that your own memory of the event doesn’t cloud your judgement.

Examine a shoot or series of images to better understand your shooting style, as we are all able to have at least one winner within a set. Better to focus on the images that don’t work as opposed to giving you praise for the few.

Take notes, as these over time will help you identify consistent areas to focus in order to make improvements.

Even a year or 2 later, go back over some of the series you reviewed (don’t look at previous notes) as you will find that you have improved your skills and abilities and you will be able to find new subtle areas for improvement.

How To Tips
Supporting elements
Tonal range
Focus (control of DOF or clutter)

Learn the Capabilities and Limitations of your Equipment
You can make an image with almost any tool. How about using a stick in the sand while slowly drawing the scene in front of you. This is just a very low ISO but good grain.

A better camera and its associated equipment will not by itself make you take better images. I guess if you still have plastic lens or poor colour rendition these would be good cases.

Learning the capabilities of your camera will help you understand the types of images that are easier to record and understand which settings will need some camera adjustments from shutter to lighting. Make a review of images that did not record well and note the shutter speed, f-stop and lightning conditions so that you can identify the problems, locations and settings.

By understanding your camera, there is more time for creativity and there is less concern with how your camera is going to perform. You now know this and adjust your style as the shoot unfolds.

How To Tips
Slower shutter – tripod
Shutter Lag – pre-focus
High ISO noise - more light
No zoom – learn to position yourself closer

Buy Btter Equipment
By understanding the limitations your are having with your current camera you will now be able to focus on buying better equipment because you are focused on specific goals and problems that you are encountering and not just chasing better technology because its better. If feels great when you do get that new piece of equipment and it delivers exactly what it needs to.

How To Tips
Review your current list of limitations with your equipment.
Review the EXIF data for you images to determine if there are particular lens settings you use.
Read good equipment review forums like dpreview , Seve’s Dgicams ,
Imaging Resource , Megapixel , DC Resource

Rent the equipment, if practical, to confirm it meets your needs.

Listen to the Twinkle in your Eye

This especially applies when you are moving along (Bus, Bike, Car) and out of the corner of your eye you think you saw and interesting image.

Stop and go back, as that brief flash you caught in of the corner of your eye has a good chance of being correct. This is an area that still troubles me as too many times I do regret not going back, but I have made some improvement and I do stop more often. While its not quite 50/50, it’s still high enough with good images that I find going back like a treasure hunt. Occasionally some gems.

Going back another day may be a possibility, but I find more often this doesn’t happen and then the weather has changed. Part of what caught your eye was the light and that’s gone when you leave the scene.

Be Kind
Simply, just be kind to all those you come across in your photographic endeavours. Even those who may be giving you grief. Most people are just working for someone and you never know the day they’ve had. Some people may feel threatened by the camera and even when it’s within your rights to take a photograph, it is a lot better to be friendly and see if it can’t be worked out first.

Share you passion and knowledge with others as it helps to focus and sharpen your skills in the process.

These are just a few of the possible many ways to help you improve your ability to capture great moments.

If you read the writings of many great photographers, you will notice the same tread they all re-iterate and that is that learning never stops and it is important to give back to your community as a method to re-fresh your own skills.

If you have any thoughts on these themes are have tips please do post a comment.

Niels Henriksen


Anonymous said...

I think my favorite is "Hang out with other artists". There is a lot to learn from every artistic person you meet. Especially if their area of expertise isn't your own. Intergrating new skills and techniques into your own arsenal is paramount in increasing your ability to overcoming obsticles in any path. The classes I took in drawing, composition, painting, and sculpting have all contributed to my abilities as a photographer. This is a great article.

Lynda Lehmann said...

EXCELLENT and informative post, Niels! I'll have to come back and read this again. Very well expressed. And thanks for the useful links.

Also, I want to thank you for mentioning my site in a previous post!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the kind comments Damien.

I agree with you that when you hang out with other artists, even those in different mediums there is excitement that builds from their passion and sometimes there are ideas that can lend itself to photography.


Unknown said...

Thanks again Lynda for your support.

I always find it a challenge to provide the right amount and level of material that you will find it useful.

Its good to know that I may not be too far off the mark, but deep down I feel a need to write a brick to cover all of it. I guess one piece at a time.


D is alive said...

I really am enjoying reading your posts and have a question for you. It is here:

I hope you will take a moment to read it and write back.


D is alive said...

I got up at dawn yesterday and went down to the river. Took a photo of a giant bird carrying a fish home for breakfast. The sun reflected off his scales. This is why photography makes me so happy.

Unknown said...

IF you have a link to this image I would would like to see it.



Unknown said...

Niels, I agree that honing your craft takes time. It's all about studying the things that you loved the most and being an expert at them. I really liked the 10 methods that you mentioned in your post since they would be able to develop the skills of aspiring photographers.

At my cousin's wedding in Irving, photographers were hired to cover the momentous event. They really got me fascinated about the art of photography. That's why I am starting to learn a few techniques today. I was looking for some great tips when I came across your blog.

Very informative post. Thanks!

parking at heathrow said...

I think my favorite is "Hang out with other artists". There is a lot to learn from every artistic person you meet. Especially if their area of expertise isn't your own. Intergrating new skills and techniques into your own arsenal is paramount in increasing your ability to overcoming obsticles in any path. The classes I took in drawing, composition, painting, and sculpting have all contributed to my abilities as a photographer.

Airport Parking said...

EXCELLENT and informative post, Niels! I'll have to come back and read this again. Very well expressed. And thanks for the useful links

jkar said...

Great info here Niels. Very direct to the point. I am a budding photographer and the new knowledge that can be found in the internet is quite overwhelming because they are somehow more technical and it lets me feel that I am inferior in terms of equipment. Thanks for this.

Unknown said...

Thanks jkar.

If you have love of photography then never feel inferior to anyone.

Your vision will be good enough. With practice your more keepers will be found.

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