There's a Reason They Call it a Viewfinder
People take a lot of pictures these days. Yet they don't always know where to look for the best images.
Some people approach their picture taking as a way to record and remember the moments and places in their life. A lot of these folks make use of the camera built into the mobile phone they carry in their pocket. They develop the habit of pulling out that phone and firing off a few shots before returning it to their pocket. It doesn't ever seem to involve a great deal of decision making other than the obvious matter of pointing the thing in the right direction. No doubt only some of these folks have ever given much thought to the concept of "composition." Granted, for them, there may not be much need for it. So long as the resulting images recognizably capture their intended subjects sufficiently to recall the experience, they have done their job.
But while such photos may bring back fond memories for those were there that day, in the place and at the time they were shot, they probably will have less impact on those who weren't. These photos tend to serve mostly as mental "triggers" to aid in recall for the participants. "Oh yea, I remember that summer trip!" and similar expressions tell the tale. People not on that trip though would have no way of remembering it, and unless the pictures stand on their own, they will likely have only modest impact. And let's face it, most of us fall into this second group. Even a trip with a large group no doubt leaves out many more people than were included. Put simply, most images that like this will have a limited audience. Yes, the tourist lucky enough to someday take a clear photograph of bigfoot will find a huge audience, but that's obviously the exception.
It's an entirely different thing to approach photography with this limitation in mind. It's an entirely different thing to intentionally try to convey not just content but context. It's a different thing to strive for emotional impact.
And yet even among photographers who realize this, many don't know where to begin. They look at the work of other photographers and wish they could emulate it, but feel they aren't capable. They recognize good images when they see them, are unsure as to how to go about taking them themselves.
The best place to start is by breaking the habit I referred to at the outset here. You have to take a bit more time looking for a good shot. Whether shooting with your mobile phone or something a tad bulkier yet more sophisticated, the place to start is the same. You have to actually look.
First, spend some time wandering around in order to get the lay of things. Don't immediately reach for your camera, whether it's in your pocket or your pack. When you come across something that looks interesting, check it out from various angles — not just different positions but different heights as well. Once you think you're in the right place, then grab your camera. Camera in hand, it's time to acquaint yourself with the viewfinder.
You say your cell phone doesn't have a viewfinder? I beg to differ. No, you probably don't have a hole or a little window you can look into to compose your shot, but you certainly have the LCD display built into the phone itself. That's your viewfinder. Some digital SLR cameras feature a similar "Live View" capability allowing you to see what the camera sees as read directly off the image sensor. But whether you rely on the traditional penta-prism viewfinder atop your SLR (digital or film) or you rely on the LCD display on whatever kind of digital camera you may have, your viewfinder is more important than people generally give it credit for. Whether you look through it or just look at it, the viewfinder and help you, well ... find a view you like.
When I first started out, my trusty Kodak pocket guide to photography advised that I should keep the subject in the center of the frame so as to minimize the chances of cutting off someone's head or inadvertently cropping off some other important part of the image. The emphasis was entirely on getting the shot, not on capturing a compelling version of that shot. There was a lot of questionable advice in that book, but this was right up there.
Instead, my recommendation is to use the viewfinder to improve your composition. You've already realized you can recognize an image you like when you see it. It's time to start using that skill for what your viewfinder tells you before you press the shutter release. When you're wandering around to scope things out, looking for a shot, remember to use the viewfinder. Depending on your choice of lens, the world can look rather different through the camera than it does to your naked eye. That's in part why such a wide variety of lenses exist in the first place. Don't get lost in the viewfinder image so much that you neglect where you step or what's in front of you of course. There's an old expression that you have to suffer for your art, but don't hit your head on a tree limb or walk off the edge of a cliff. There are limits. But do stop periodically to check things out in the viewfinder before committing yourself to a specific vantage point and framing.
Granted, what I'm discussing here is only one piece of the puzzle. Not only is it necessary to find and see compelling images, there's at least some degree of skill required to capture them. Practice, practice and more practice is probably the only real answer to this part of the puzzle, but you first have to see the potential for a great image.
There's a reason they call it a viewfinder.