A very simple way to improve your photos
This week we are launching a celebration of super simple ideas that will a create super-sized impact on your compositions.
One abidingly strong concept in all of my teachings is to help people get beyond the ordinary in their photos, beyond the obvious shot that everyone else is taking, and into the extra-ordinary.
Over the years I have developed several different techniques to help people and so over the next couple of days I want to explore some of these techniques in more depth. My desire is that you can walk away with some really awesome ideas to practise with straightaway (maybe even this weekend!).
And this is because – as my regular readers know – I really believe that prioritising your creative practice is something that significantly contributes to having an awesomely interesting, amazing life. Although you might regret those delicious beers you knocked back at that fun party last night, or the abundance of hours spent working last week so you missed your kids’ bedtimes – no-one regrets going out with their camera to explore, to examine the world and to let their creativity have free rein. It’s like money in the bank for a happy life.
So anything that motivates you to get out the house (even on a bitterly cold morning) is what I most want to do for you.
And now to the first of my great techniques, which I am going to explore in depth today.
Have you ever had those moments when you’re perusing the back of your camera (a.k.a. chimping) and wondered why that amazing shot that you thought was going to be, well, AMAZING, just isn’t.
Your exposure was right – check; white balance – check; aperture – check; shutter – check. Lens…hmm. Let’s see. Lens? Yes, I shot with the right lens. If you are shooting competently and things are still not working out like you would want them to, I have a great piece of advice for you.
There is a tool in your kit that people rarely use to full advantage. You may not go out with your camera some days – but you will always have this tool with you. I’m talking about your feet. At first they may not seem like critical kit but let me assure you – they are. And here’s why.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” – Ansel Adams
If you ever had the awesome experience of watching a pro shoot, you will notice a common character trait they all share. They move, a lot. They are trying to get their movement and positioning just perfect. Now we all move and position ourselves when photographing but what a pro knows and you may not, is the exact spot to be for the best shot. (OK – so maybe we can’t all be as elegant as this guy, but you know, just keep it moving).
Knowing where to be is part of creating an attractive background, of getting a great angle in a portrait, and something of interest in a landscape foreground. These can all be fixed by your position – where you are in relation to your subject.
It can happen like this (and I see it happen on almost every workshop of mine). You spot the shot and think great, that’s a great shot, hurrah! You raise your camera and capture the moment. Then you bow your head to view your prize and …what the hell happened? That’s not what I saw in my head. What I have is, well, a dud. Boring and not quite what you literally had “in mind”.
So what went wrong? It is highly likely you were in the wrong spot. Think of it this way – for every image that you “see” there is going to be one, and just one, perfect spot to get that image. And finding that sacred spot requires you to move your feet almost every time.
Positioning mistakes and cures
1. When you see a subject at a distance
Ever done this? You’re walking along and up ahead you see a really interesting subject sitting on a crate smoking a cigar against a red wall, a beautiful cliche and you must have it (I would). You are still approaching and still haven’t passed her yet, and better still, she hasn’t seen you! What a opportunity, you think.. You take the shot before she notices. Later your chimping and thinking “eh…It’s ok” but not what I saw.
So what happened? Position happened. And this time your position was wrong due to – fear. You let your fear get the better of you and you made a panic shot. Think of the shots you would be able to take if you’d engaged her and started to chat or just smile and point at your camera. You could stand in front of her and kneel, you could get close ups of her face and expressions. The possibilities are endless if you overcame your fear and got closer.
Robert Capa said – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.”
2. Zoom zoom zoom
If you constantly put your camera to your eye, then zoom, you are almost certainly not in the right spot. That’s not how to use a zoom lens in my opinion. A lot has been said about primes vs zoom lens regarding quality, weight, coating and other tech stuff, but what I find is the biggest failing of the zoom lens is they make you lazy. They don’t demand you move. It can bring your subject to you. Right? Wrong. Most of the time this is just wrong. It is one of the reasons your great shot was a dud. Seeing an image in the mind’s eye is the image you want to capture. It is. Trust me. When you zoom perspective is changed, the angle is changed, along with depth and supporting environmental elements. The list is long. I’m not saying zooms are bad, they just can make you lazy.
I own one zoom and I love it. But I probably don’t use it the same way as you do. I have a really good understanding of focal lengths. What 35mm will get me. What a 17mm is going to capture. So when I am using my lovely zoom I don’t go through the whole range of focal lengths (17-40m) when I put it to my eye. I know which one I will need and leave it there. Then you know what I do? I move my feet to the position I need to be in.
3. Not taking your time
This happens to us all, believe me. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a situation where things are static and not moving, or going to fly away, take your time and try to see things from all angles. This will make your photos much better if you are making the effort to deconstruct a scene – break down the elements, change the relationship between them using perspective or just stop and THINK about it for a moment. Figure out where you need to be, how high you should be standing and how to eliminate clutter from the background. Make it simple.
4. Just being lazy
Again, this happens a lot. I’m guilty more times then I’d like to admit (good thing I put so many hours into my photography, huh!). It happens like this. You’re tired, bored, hungry (this is the one that gets me), or whatever it is that is making you lazy. But you still want to take photos to make you feel at least you got something, even if it’s just “eh..”. So you come to a scene and you start snapping away, uninspired and restless for some food. Either you should quit for the day or just stop and think and ask yourself: “what if I went over there to see?”
Now for some examples
People spend acres and acres of time and words trying to explain what makes one picture more special than others. Maybe someone has a formula, but I don’t. To me knowing that something is special, getting to that point where you think – oh wow – that is something that a combination of your heart and soul and eyes is telling you. This is something that is just not ordinary any more.
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
There is nothing mathematical or technical about that deep stirring inside you that says – yes! – when you see something beautiful or wonderful. So although you can rely on some pretty mathematical and technical concepts to help you get there – rule of thirds, fibonacci numbers, leading lines etc. – in the end it comes down to you pushing yourself to finding a photo that when you capture it on camera, makes your heart pulse that little bit stronger.
So here we are in Paris. It was a beautiful spring morning, lovely light, and I found myself behind Notre Dame Cathedral where there was an array of cherry blossom trees in bloom. Very pretty. So this was my first shot. Pretty nice. But the bench, the sandiness, somewhat lacking impact wouldn’t you agree?
It’s too dark under the tree, it’s like is a vacant hole of un-interestingness.
So here’s my next shot.
Again, perfectly lovely and pretty, but nothing wow about it. Why? There is nice light but there is too much shadow. There is good contrast there – one that I use in a lot of my photos – of contrasting materials. The pale sandy brown permanent solidity of the church against the delicate, pink, joyful impermanence of the flowers. But this contrast is sort of spoiled by the railing and the low angle which brings in too much of the dark path.
And now to the shot I liked. I decided that bringing in other elements wasn’t going to work – I just had to go full on into the prettiness of the trees. That’s where the light was (always follow good light!). And so I like this shot a lot because you have all the loveliness of the flowers contrasting with the dark, strong, old branches of the tree, stretching outwards. Of course there is also the lovely element of the light.
So these three photos are a perfect example of what to do when you’ve found a great subject but everything around it that you are trying to bring into the photo won’t play ball. And so you have to go full on into examining the main subject and see what you can make from that.
These things aren’t always obvious – not even to professional photographers – so always be thinking around your subject – think in 3D!
Let’s now head to East London. Another dawn and I come across this lovely light on this building. Isn’t it pretty? It’s all dappled over this cool looking wall.
But that wasn’t a compelling shot, the building was just not interesting enough. But I don’t like to waste nice light so I went closer.
Oooooh, I liked that much better. I love a wall with interesting textures. You’ve got the paint, the graffiti, the different shades of brick, the glass, the pipes – all these interesting things made quite touchable-looking by this lovely light. Now I could have stopped there..
But one very important thing to know about light is that if it’s doing something interesting to what you are looking at – it’s highly likely to be doing interesting things to many other things around you. Don’t get dazzled by the first bit of lovely light you see, go further and explore.
So I went around to the front of the building and immediately I got a much much better shot.
The low light that had made the back of the building so pretty was now creating a totally different sensation from the front. I love the low shadows of this shot, and there is enough light so that you have this nice cool blue thing going on at the front of the building, with this warm diffused light coming in to contrast it.
I was hanging out with these guys in Istanbul. I liked the dynamic between them, and they both had interesting faces
But I couldn’t get a shot of the two of them that worked.
I decided to focus on the younger man as he was more animated. I felt like that there was further to go with him. So I went in closer.
Almost….am liking the intensity of his eyes.
And then bang, there’s my shot.
When you get the feeling that people are really comfortable in front of the camera (and these people do exist I promise you. I am in fact married to one and my son is one), then just let them be themselves and go for it. Move through any uncomfortable feelings you may have of pointing your camera at them – and remember that most people loved being noticed. It’s a compliment.
One thing I love about London is the random craziness of very old next to very new. And that is often what I’m looking out for, especially in East London and The City. It’s really extreme there.
I was walking around and saw this particular contrast of old church and one of those new ‘temples to business’. And I thought that’s my subject – that old/new contrast. But this came out pretty boring.
And then I tried this:
Better, but still not great, and I am starting to notice that actually there is a better subject in this scene. Can you spot what it is?
Lines and shapes! The church is almost irrelevant. Not quite, but it’s not a subject at all now, but a slightly supporting element.
And you know what? I have been to this particular spot a zillion times and never noticed these cool lines leading up to the cool shapes of those tall shiny buildings.
And now a question for you – do you think the trees enhance or detract from this photo?
One wintry morning I am in Venice on the northern edge of the Island. It’s a beautiful morning, as you can witness from the sky. I am looking out at these interesting things in the water – lights and a little jetty. But so far nothing is striking enough.
I turn my camera inland and start to see more potential. Some nice looking shapes in the water. I can sort of make out that there is some pretty coloured glass in the top of that building. But everything is in shadow, so pretty dull.
I am now seeing that with more light not only would we get something interesting happening on the water, lighting everything up that’s currently in shadow, but there is also that lovely coloured glass. What I am doing here with this scene is anticipating what the light will do, once it rises a bit higher and comes out of the cloud.
About ten minutes later – wowwee, the sun changes everything!
This is a building near my office in Waterloo. I like the boring, repetitiveness of the windows. I saw this shiny piece of building near it and I thought, hmmmmmm……I wonder. But this photo, erh! Too much going on. I see immediately that the tree doesn’t fit with the other elements.
So I try it this way:
I was pretty convinced that I needed to have the criss cross of the railway line in the photo. But now that wall beneath, too much, it doesn’t add. I remove it.
Now I thinking, – no, not quite right either. Do I have to lose that lovely criss cross? It’s too heavy.
But I’m liking the blue of the sky against the little box window shapes. And so finally I arrive at this…
Simple! So you can see the process of refining and removing elements here is really important. If you find an element or two that you like – stick with it. Keep removing things from your composition, keep moving around your subject until you get to something that fits the impact that that element had on you in the first place.
I hope that’s been a helpful demonstration on the importance of always moving, always searching for that killer angle.
It should be an exciting thought for you because it shows that even when you have a great subject and you haven’t got a great photo, there is still buckets of potential to work the scene and find something special.
I would love to know what you think – and if you found this helpful – please comment on my blog below. And of course – please share with anyone who you think would find this useful. Sharing is super useful!
I’ve got another super simple but really impactual idea for you tomorrow! Until then…
Anthony (photo man and ideas) and Diana (wordsmith and Anthony’s concept explainer extraordinaire)
09/02/2020 @ 1:40 PM
It was very helpful to see your initial shots and the gradual changes you made to focus on what you found to be the most impactful and expressive of what you found most interesting in the scene. Your explanations of the process of your decision-making made the photos even more meaningful. Thank you!
06/04/2019 @ 2:19 AM
Thanks so much for teaching us! I didn’t find where anyone responded with their opinion on the trees in the London photo. I personally like the trees included. After studying all the strong geometry in the photo, the trees provide a nice contrasting color and texture, offering my eyes an inviting place to rest.
09/01/2019 @ 7:05 PM
I just want to say thank you for your articles. They are so inspirational and so nice feeling that you pass across.
I feel grateful that you are a teacher and a friend!!
Thank you so much,
Wish you best.
Dr D. Lamproulis.
22/04/2017 @ 4:37 AM
We are going on a trip to Ireland, so I bought a book from a Montréal photographer, to get some ideas, prior to our trip. He basically said the same thing, change your point of view, try a different focal length, etc. Mode around.
So a lot in this article, is foot for thought.
The most important one, not beeing lazy.
13/01/2017 @ 3:23 PM
Anthony, you are an exceptional teacher. The best part of what you are presenting is your incredible “talk-me-through” of the creative process, step-by-step. Very informative and instructive!
02/01/2017 @ 2:24 AM
Hi Anthony …. many, many thanks for your simple yet explicit explanations and examples in this article … the sign of a true teacher. Of late, I have found myself re-thinking and re-working scenes that have grabbed my attention … trying to capture what it is that grabbed my attention/what I feel. Your article has really helped me to define what this exercise is all about. Great food for thought!! Much appreciated! Andrew
21/04/2016 @ 4:53 AM
Great article thanks Anthony. Much food fro thought. I do tend to do this but to have it reinforced by another photographer is helpful to me.
05/03/2016 @ 3:07 AM
Very helpful article Anthony, I want to thank you for continuing to take the time to teach others. Your articles always inspire me! I particularly love the photo of the city from across the water with the dark clouds approaching and the photo taken in the early morning of the front of the brick building with the sun coming up behind the trees. Beautiful.
07/03/2016 @ 6:24 PM
I love teaching. I’m just bursting to share all I know. Thank you for reading.
04/03/2016 @ 9:33 PM
Hello Patrick, Thank you for your comment. I re-visited Anthony’s images and re-considered taking into account your explanation. Personally I continue to prefer the second last image with four sections as it has more going on and holds my interest longer. I can see that the final image is simple with impact but one glance and I’m finished. (I agree, the trees in the railway criss cross are distracting). We are continually growing, and I appreciate the thought provoking that is happening with this article. Kind Regards
04/03/2016 @ 9:49 PM
The great thing about photography (or art) is that there is no ONE right way. We all have our own interpretation Angie, and that’s the beauty of this.
04/03/2016 @ 4:29 PM
I loved your thought-provoking article, Tony. Clear and concise, with very good examples of the points you are making. I have forwarded it to my amateur photographer friends! Thank you.
03/03/2016 @ 11:30 PM
Hello. Thank you for putting your time into sharing great knowledge. I thought I would comment that in the last example I actually liked the second last image over your chosen last image. I liked the portrait view of each of the four elements including the heavy railway criss cross. I found more to look at than in the simple lines of your final choice. Kind Regards
04/03/2016 @ 9:31 AM
I’m not sure I agree Angie. I like the way it was winowed down to finally the glass at the bottom (glass divided by a line) mimicks the windows in the building (glass divided by a line). With the train tracks and the tree–too much going on that while interesting, don’t give that final juxtaposition.
07/03/2016 @ 6:31 PM
I understand your preference for the portrait image. It’s not my favourite, but I understand -there is more to examine and it is a more curious shot. But, my ultimate goal is, mostly, to simplify and reduce the obvious (to me) when I can. Sometime I overdo it and find my image a bit “clinical”, That said, I still love them!
03/03/2016 @ 10:29 PM
Wonderful article, So well written conceived but more importantly the message of “how one sees” is much more important that “what kind of camera you have” and this article really says that. I like how ou think.
07/03/2016 @ 6:31 PM
Thank you Patrick. That is music to my ears! I like how you compliment!!
03/03/2016 @ 8:54 PM
Hello Anthony. There is a lot of text to find on the internet of how to make better photos. But a very few with clear examples like you did in this article. It was ver helpfull for me Thanks a lot for sharing. Gert Schmitz
07/03/2016 @ 6:32 PM
You are most welcome Gert. Thank you so much for reading.
03/03/2016 @ 8:29 PM
Thank you for the great ideas regarding positioning in photography. Very well explained and the photos showing the different angles were great. So helpful!
07/03/2016 @ 6:33 PM
I will try to do this more – where I use photos as examples. Thank you for reading Jean.