How To Take Great Photos
I'm going to make a bold assumption here and assume that you're reading my blog because you want to get better at photography. Sure there are some people who are already great and just like to keep developing and opening up to new perspectives, but this one's not for them. This one's for the average Joe or Jane who isn't a professional; The type of person who is simply reading a photography blog looking for some magic way of taking great shots.
I'm going to break it down into 6 “rules,” and here's a huge spoiler alert: this is only the 90% answer. This won't make you a world-renowned photographer, or build a photography business for you, but it will do one very important thing, it will give you the best head-start out of the gate you can have to developing your photography.
These may seem like common sense to some, sure, but I assure you to many they're not. There are points that are relative to each shooter, their vision, their goals, their ability, and their budgets, so take each one and marry it to your own passion in a way that works for you. I can't promise it will change your life, but if you apply the suggestions I can assure you that it is very much the foundation of great photography.
In order of importance here are my 6 Rules of Photography:
Rule 1: Know Your Equipment
(It doesn’t matter what you’re shooting or where you are if you can’t get your camera to work)
Knowing your camera means so much more than being able to recite your camera model and lenses by heart. You need to know the features and functions, the possibilities and the limitations, and you need to know them, and more importantly know how to control them, without hesitation. You need to learn the common error codes, what they mean, and how to fix them ASAP in a pinch. You need to know how to adjust your camera for your surroundings, and to me that means familiarizing yourself with the metering modes, the focus modes, accessing and reading your histogram, manually setting your white balance, how to clean it, how to compensate for extreme lighting conditions, and on, and on, and on.
The best advice I can give anyone getting into photography, or even those just trying to up their game, is to master their equipment. You could be standing in front of the Queen as she pulls orphans out of a burning building, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference if you can't figure out why your camera is flashing "-E-".
Rule 2: Understand the Principles of Photography
(Sure you may know your equipment, but if the shot is horrible…)
Recognize that photography is an art, and the earmark of a bad photographer is a photographer who resists, rejects, or (hands-down the worst) doesn’t even know the artistic elements and rules of photography. Sure, there is value to photos that merely document (security, legal, and investigative come to mind), but if your business is to show these photos to people for personal or photojournalistic purposes then you need to be artistic to be effective. Let me be clear though, being artistic doesn’t mean using every technique you know in every shot, but rather knowing which one(s) to use, and how to use them effectively, to send the message you desire to your viewers.
If you’re unaware presently you should learn about composition. It’s all about what’s in the frame, how much of it needs to fill the frame for your purposes, where it sits, how it’s facing, where the light falls, how the lines and edges in the photo relate to your subject, the relation of different subjects, where you want to draw the attention of the viewer, where you want that attention to move across, what is in focus (and more importantly sometimes what’s not in focus), and the list goes on. If you want more information about some of the rules of composition feel free to message me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Rule 3: Be in the Right Place
(Your best Hail-Mary doesn’t matter if you’re not in the game)
This one is a little harder to control sometimes, but ultimately you’re not going to get the photo if you’re not there. So do what it takes (within legal reason) to get there. This means more than simply being at the event or in the place that you want to shoot, it means being at the exact spot you need to be in to compose the shot you have in mind. This ties directly into rule 2 as most times you’ll need to have a vision of the shot. That isn’t to say that you can only get good shots if you’ve planned where to be, sometimes great shots are a matter of sheer chance and sometimes it can be impossible NOT to get a great shot, but knowing where you need to be and getting there is obviously a huge part of the equation. I personally have absolutely zero dramatic portraits of the pope in the Vatican, and one of the main reasons for that is I’ve never been to the Vatican.
Rule 4: Be Prepared
(You know your camera, you know how to shoot, you’re there … but your batteries are dying)
Alright, so you’ve learned what you needed to know about your equipment, you know the vast and varying theories of light and photography, and you’re finally in the perfect spot for the shot that may define your career… but your sensor ate a bunch of sand on your last job when you were changing lenses, and you forgot to clean it. Come on now.
Look, you may not be a professional, but if you want to get professional shots you’re going to have to adopt at least a few professional habits. I personally have three rules for preparation:
1. Make a checklist
2. Use the checklist
3. Confirm it once more
If you’ve put in the time to learn as much as you should have by this point, and you’ve made the effort to get to where you need to be, don’t be lazy. Take a few minutes a couple of days before and make sure you aren’t setting yourself up to fail. Also, get into the habit of doing it between Monday-Thursday. Why then? Because when you’re in a country you’re not familiar with it’s crucial that you have one last weekday to race out to a retailer and buy anything you may need in an emergency. A lot of the professional quality equipment you’ll need is only sold in specialty shops in many smaller countries which are routinely closed on weekends (presumably to make your life horrible).
Here are a few things you should be sure to check:
- Batteries (Do you have enough, are they the right type, and are they fully charged)
- Memory Cards (Do you have enough, are they the right type, and are they cleared)
- Lenses (Do you have the right ones, backups, are they clean and functional)
- Bodies (Do you have the right ones, backups, are they clean, functional, and have they been set back to your default settings – Trust me on this one)
- Bags (Are they packed effectively, will your assistant(s) be able to find the equipment you’re likely to need at break-neck speed)
- Shot List with Names and Timings (MAKE ONE – PACK IT IN TWO PLACES – USE IT)
- Laptop/Hard Drive(s) (It's not safe until it's backed up in two locations, do they function, and has space been cleared)
- Project Registration (Have you registered the job in your registry for coding and/or write-up so you can apply IPTC information during the import process)
- Accessories (Is it clean, does it function, has it been set back to default settings, do you have what you need, and more importantly do you need what you have? Be prepared but don’t over complicate things)
- Security (Do you have what you need to secure your kit from walking away while you’re not with it)
- Assistants/Second Shooters (Have you touched base, are they comfortable/educated with their requirements, are they still confirmed, logistics, have your responsibilities for their food and finances been squared-away)
- Contract/Work Order/Request (Do you know the details by heart, did you pack a copy of any signed commitment for reference, do you have contact phone numbers)
- Vehicle (Top-up your gas tank, oil, and all other levels, you may be required to travel and you may be in unfamiliar territory, load all the kit prior to departure *VERY IMPORTANT*)
- Contacting Your Client (Put their minds to rest, and see if anything has changed last second)
Many of these may not be required for your specific type of shooting, but they should be included regardless to be certain that should circumstances change you’ll not omit these. (Ps. I’d really be interested in hearing if you think I’ve overlooked anything)
Rule 5: Have (Preferably Own) the Right Gear
(You can’t shoot without light)
I’m not going to shoot a wedding or a fly-by with a one-time-use camera. It’s not to say that I couldn’t, but rather that it won’t do what I need, and more importantly it won’t do what my clients need. Does that mean I need my D810’s? No. But, yes. No, I could take equal images on other equipment, and even possibly better, and some of that equipment may even be cheaper. But what I do need is security, responsiveness, versatility, and the technical specs of top-of-the-line equipment for what I do.
You need to know what you need and use it. That doesn’t mean you need to buy it, you may be able to rent it, but that presents its own series of challenges in setup, consistency, and familiarity. Bottom line: you can’t always make-do with what you have. Sometimes you may need to buy a new lens, a filter, a program, etc. I'm always looking to review equipment, feel free to message me and ask me to review something, or even just about my experiences with if, if I've used it I'd be glad to help!
One thing to be wary of in this is G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Be honest with yourself, and if you’re incapable of doing that ask someone else who will be frank with you. Don’t just buy stuff because you can, because you may not need it. Ask yourself a few questions:
- Is it in your budget? (Have one. Seriously.)
- Can you achieve what you need without it?
- Have you researched it enough to be certain? (This includes renting/testing it personally)
- Will you use it often enough to merit the purchase?
After those questions have been answered do yourself a favour and don’t buy it. At least not for a few days. Then take the time and honestly ask yourself the questions again.
Rule 6: Practice
(You’re going to forget)
Photography is a perishable skill. Get out and practice!
I’ll be blunt, it’s ridiculous when a “professional” (who may well have been a fantastic photographer in their heyday) assumes they’re still good and shoots something high-profile when they haven’t touched a modern camera in the better part of a decade. Myself included! I had a period in the past where I hadn’t taken a single shot for three months, and I desperately needed to brush-up on my equipment. There’s no shame in it, just brush up beforehand! Be sure that if you’ve had some substantial time away from a shutter-release that you don’t just assume and wing-it. I see it happen all the time, and it hurts my brain.
How do you solve it? When you’re done practicing, practice again. Make it different, challenge yourself to something new, force yourself to expand into areas you’re not comfortable with. When I first started I was only comfortable with zooms so I forced myself to use primes. After a while I loved being able to go to F/1.4 and F/1.2 and I avoided zooms entirely. Now I use primes for most of my artistic work, and zooms for most of my seat-of-my-pants and ceremony work. Find what works for you, practice that, then find what doesn’t and practice it even more. Just never stop learning and applying new skills.
Rule 7: Break the Rules From Time to Time
(The 7th Rule of a 6 Rule Set)
Even these rules are more of a guideline taken from my experience as a professional wedding photographer and a professional military photojournalist. These are meant to be a word of wisdom at best, and they may not work for you. Start with these, refine as necessary, and you'll be taking great photos in no time. The field of photography is always changing, who knows in a few years I may need to do a new set of 6/7, lol.