The Three Steps of Good Photography
Sometimes a great photograph just happens. Camera in hand, you come across an awesome sight, focus and shoot to create a truly memorable shot. But if you approach your craft in a more methodical fashion you can significantly increase your odds getting what you are after more often.
The first step needed to get great shots may seem simple but often isn't. Simply seeing the potential in the first place can be challenging. No matter where you are in the great outdoors there are images to be had but it's all too easy to get hung up with looking for what you set out to photograph and ignoring what's right in front of you. Want to photograph mountain wildflowers? What about all the other plants you hike past on your quest to find those flowers? And that's only the tip of the iceberg.
Consider this for a minute. Wherever you are, there are countless things around you. Whether you are in the outdoors or sitting in your living room reading this blog posting, the situation is basically the same. How many of those things are you truly aware of and how many do you take for granted? Chances are, no matter how many items you can name from your surroundings, there are more that you have neglected. And for each of those items, the number of vantage points and distances you could look at it from are equally endless. There's really no way you could ever exhaust all the possibilities.
And yet I know you've found yourself on a photo shoot before, uninspired, with few images to show for your efforts. I know this because I have too. It's easy, and it's a phenomenon that happens to everyone at some point.
The solution is to simply slow down, sit down, and start becoming aware of your surroundings. When you're feeling more in tune with what's actually there, get up and investigate further. Don't get in a hurry. Take your time and stay in touch with your surroundings. Remember, the goal is to see what's there, not what you wish were there. At some point, you will likely discover a subject and a possibility you hadn't thought about before.
Think About It
After finding a promising subject, you have to decide how best to capture it. Your challenge is complicated by the fact that we human beings see our surroundings as a three dimensional space while photographic images are flattened into two dimensions.
To make things even harder, when you look at reality, what you think you see may not really exist, at least not quite as you thought. You're not only seeing what your eyes are registering in the moment. The brain augments that with what you saw a moment ago, and further adds impressions gathered by your other senses to create the total experience of being where you are. Previous experiences you judge to be similar also factor in to how you interpret your surroundings. All this is why first hand eye witness testimony can sometimes prove unreliable in court trials. It's a tricky subject.
On the flip side, the focal length of our eyes is a constant while that of our cameras can be varied. Most of us use zoom lenses these days, but even if you're a fixed focal length diehard you can still change things up by changing lenses. Focal length doesn't really distort what we see as many mistakenly assume. Instead, it merely serves to take in more or less in the camera's view. But because of this it dictates how close you have to be to your subject to see it adequately. And it's this changing distance that creates perspective.
If you find that your subject wasn't quite what you first thought, you'll need to determine a camera viewpoint and focal length to reinforce the illusion in a photograph of what you thought you saw. This isn't always possible, but by careful planning you can make a small patch of flowers fill the foreground, or line up one object with another complementary one to capture a relationship not obvious otherwise.
Shutter speed is another variable available to the photographer that allows us to go beyond pure documentary image capture. Moving subjects can look entirely different when shot at different shutter speeds. Being familiar with what your camera can do will help guide your deliberations on how best to capture your vision.
If you've done a good job of mastering the first two steps I've outlined, this should be the easy part of getting a great image. You've found a subject and determined how to translate your photographic vision into an actual photograph. Now all you have to do execute the plan you've come up with. But there are still crucial components needed to get the best results.
If you don't want the camera to move during the shot, you'll have to keep it steady on a tripod. If instead your vision requires panning the camera to create motion effects where not exist, plan your movements carefully. Regardless, you need to be in control.
Make sure you employ the best technique you can. To cut down on stray light, use a lens hood. Keep your lens clean. If you don't need all those filters on it, take them off. Every glass layer you have to shoot through cuts down the sharpness of your resulting image. Pick an appropriate ISO setting. Higher speeds may make image capture easier but generally do contribute more noise. This is where the rubber meets the road. There are a number of technical details that can help to optimize your results. Attention to detail go turn a good image into a great one.
If you want to improve as a photographer, you need to master these three skills. First you have to see it, then you need to decide how to capture it, and finally you're in a position to execute on your plan with care and attention.