I don’t write much about taking better pictures simply because I am not a professional photographer. However, over the last couple of years I have been improving my photography. It is this process of learning that I want to share with you. I have read everything there is regarding what makes a better picture and I have applied what I have learned over the last couple of years. At first, the results started to show very quickly and I was very surprised by how little effort it took to improve my photography. The results were quick at first because my old pictures were just very bad. Once I made the first steps to improve my photography, the next steps were much harder. Read on to find out the principles I have learned to make my photos better.
How do I know my pictures are better? Or what makes a great picture?
It’s pretty simple. If I look at one of my pictures and I can say: that’s nice, or that’s a very cute smile of my daughter, or what a beautiful landscape shot, or this picture reminds me of what I felt at that time and place…then I know that my picture is great. It is this simple. On the other hand, if my picture makes me ask: why did I take that picture? Or those 20 pictures of the same scene?…then my picture should probably be deleted.
However, taking pictures that impress you or others is not easy. This is what I think separates bad photographers from good photographers.
So, how do you become able to take pictures that capture not only what you see but also some of the emotion you feel? Let’s step back first and get a bit philosophical.
What is the purpose of photography?
We usually take a picture because there is something we want to remember. Whether it is the smile of a child or a beautiful sunset, it is the emotion we experience that we want our cameras to capture so we could re-live these emotions by looking at the picture. This leads me to come closer to defining the purpose of photography.
The purpose of taking a picture is to to capture with the camera what I see with my eyes and what I feel with my heart.
This is both the purpose and challenge of photography. It is a simple purpose that is hard to achieve practically. The better I can capture both image and emotion the stronger a picture becomes.
So, how do you take great pictures?
Three simple principles for taking great pictures
Over the years, I have collected the most important principles for taking great pictures. There are many lists available with tons and tons of tips and tricks, mostly technical. However, I created a list with the most important photography principles rather than technical photography tips. These photography principles have a lot more to do with your intent as a photographer than they have to do with what kind of camera and what settings you use.
1. If you want to take a picture ask yourself why you want to take that picture
This is probably the simplest principle but it is the most powerful and it is the most ignored by photographers. In other words, when you want to take a picture ask yourself what is it about what you are looking at that made you think you want to take a picture. The more specific you can answer the better your photograph will be.
Monterey, California – Beautiful beach house on the California coast at Monterey
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This is one of my favorite travel pictures taken on the beach at Monterey. Yes, everything was beautiful but this house really caught my eye and was just gorgeous. The rocks in the foreground were leading my eye to the house so that’s what I was trying to capture.
For example my son just got up from a nap and he looks very cute. I want to take a picture of him…but why? Is it his face that’s really cute? Yes, but actually his hair is really crazy! So, that’s what I want to get in my picture, so this will make me focus on his face and hair and maybe ignore the rest. This will probably make me zoom in on his face and hair. Why? Because that’s what impressed me and made me want to take a picture.
This thinking helps me focus on what impresses me and helps me frame my picture according to what I like.
So is it the colors, or maybe a building or the way a child smiles that impresses you? Find out what impresses you and capture than and make sure you eliminate the rest.
2. Be patient and look around when taking pictures
This is the first principle that I started applying when taking pictures. Most people, myself included for a long while, take pictures something like this: Oh that looks nice, click! Or, Oh that looks nice, let’s all stand in front of it and ask someone to take the picture…click! Then you look at the pictures at home and you’re disappointed…if we would’ve moved to the right it would’ve been much better. Or look at that brightly colored trash can…looks bad!
Flock of birds flying near Leeds Castle in Kent, England
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Here I decided to wait a little before leaving this spot that had a great view of the castle. I only had to wait one more minute to capture the flock of birds flying low next to the castle which makes the whole picture a lot more interesting. Being patient is probably one of the most powerful principles of photography.
Now I take pictures differently, and the difference is an extra 20 to 30 seconds of thinking and looking. Now I go something like this: Oh that looks great! Hmmm…what’s great about it? Oh, the color is nice on that building…hmmm…what if I move closer…or further…or to the left? Maybe I can find someplace higher for a better view. Oh…that’s better…click!
3. Pay attention to the background
This principle goes hand in hand with the patience principle. Once I started applying this principle my pictures became much cleaner and interesting.
It’s simple…when you remove distractions, your photographs will become much more interesting. If you don’t remove distractions from your pictures, those distractions will be subjects in your photo whether you like it or not.
Is there anything distracting, like people, trash, cars, etc? During last couple of years I really tried to consciously pay attention to the background. The results were almost immediate and I continue to produce cleaner and more focused pictures.
And all this was taking an extra 30 seconds most of the times to let the cars or people pass. Also just moving a few inches to the left or right would hide a garbage can or a brightly colored street sign. If you just a bit more patient with yourself you will have time to look at the background. And when you do, you will love your pictures!
What helps you improve your photography?
Leaving the technical details aside, did you find any principles that helped you improve your photography? For me, the three principles listed above represent the first and most important steps towards better pictures. In my next article I will also share some simple rules for photo composition that will support these three principles.