My Best Tip for Better Photographs

I am generally a pretty friendly guy when out shooting landscapes.  Being friendly, I often get a lot of questions.  The questions range from “what camera do you use?” to “why do you have those filters on the front of the camera?”.  The former question will almost always lead into a discussion of why some other brand of camera is better than the one that I am using.  Frequently, this comment is followed by a long dissertation about equipment in an attempt to show off technical knowledge about cameras and lenses.  However, I was recently asked by a young fellow what single piece of advice I would recommend to a novice landscape photographer that would make a significant improvement in their photographs.

At first, I was tempted to throw out something about learning your camera, or taking a class or in-field workshop from one of the many wonderful landscape photographers.  Education is something that I highly value.  While I pondered my answer, I noticed that his camera was still in the bag.  I asked if he intended to take some photographs.  To my surprise, he said no, he was on his way to dinner.  I would love to be able to tell you that I gave him some inspirational answer before he wandered off.  Unfortunately, my brain doesn’t work that fast.

A few months went by before the question popped back into my head.  We were at a camera club meeting and I happened to overhear a conversation between two fellow photographers.  They were discussing the various merits of using filters versus high dynamic range (HDR) techniques.  The conversation went back and forth for a while before I realized neither had ever actually used either technique.  They were full of knowledge and opinions but had no experience.  It was at that point, the young man’s question came back to me.

The answer I wished I had given the young man to become a better photographer  was practice.  Take your camera out of the bag and use it!  I would add that there has to be intent behind the practice to make it really useful.  Shooting with intent means practicing specific skills in a wide range of conditions.  It also means critical evaluation of the results.  For landscape photography, this often means getting up before the sunrise or being out after sunset.  It means doing the work to put yourself in the best situation to catch the very best light and composition and practicing with the equipment you have to learn what will happen when you shoot with a variety of camera settings, elevations, angles and lenses.  Practice taking photographs from different heights, and learn how getting down lower to the ground affects the composition.  Practice with wide angle and telephoto lens to see what impact they will have on your composition.   Try out a variety of techniques, including using neutral density gradient filters and/or the methods for HDR photography.   Learn about focus stacking and try it out during a photo session and with the associated digital darkroom methods.

I am a big fan of education.  However, you gain virtually nothing if you do not go out to practice what you learn.  Having more knowledge without experience will not make you a better photographer! Perhaps your first attempt at a new skill will not yield great photographs.  This happens to me all the time.  However, don’t give up after one disappointing attempt.   Do some more research (e.g., reading or videos) and try the technique again and again.   With practice, the knowledge will yield greater proficiency and more satisfying images.

Another reason to go and practice a skill is that it helps you learn when it will be most useful.    You may know how but do you know when and will you recognize the opportunity when it arises.  In my experience, recognizing the opportunity only comes with a lot of practice.

So my advice to that young man is to forget about going to dinner.  Get your camera out and practice with intent, practice your skills and take more photographs, lots and lots of photographs under all types of different conditions and then critically analyze the results.  Then start all over again!

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What camera should I buy?

RockyShore_iphone-0044“I want to take better pictures.  What camera should I buy? ”  Corinne and I get this question a lot.  In most debates over what camera is better, we have little experience and as a result have little to contribute to this discussion.  However, we believe that for new photographers, this is the wrong question.

Let’s be very clear!  Every modern digital camera has the ability to take stunning photographs.  Every camera has its strengths and weaknesses and at a professional level there are some cameras better suited to certain types of photography (e.g., landscape versus wildlife photography).  However, for new photographers, the make of camera matters very little.

So when we are asked, “what camera should I buy?”  we turn the question around and ask “what camera are you using today?”  Frequently, they will hold up their mobile phone, a point-and-shoot camera, or entry-level digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR). We then ask what they think is wrong with their current camera?  Generally, we get a mumbled response that they aren’t getting the photographs they want and they believe the limitation is the camera.

Recently, in response I (Shawn) have been pulling out my mobile phone and showing a series of pictures.  I get the typical response of “aren’t they lovely” and “I can see what you can do with a really good camera”.  With the prey secure in my trap, I point out that all of the photographs they just looked at were taken with my mobile phone.

It’s only after that demonstration that I can address the real question, which is “what should I be doing to take better pictures? ”  Frequently, I ask if they have looked at their camera manual, watched any YouTube videos, or taken any general photography classes?  For most folks, self-learning from a manual or by trial-and-error is difficult.  So, we suggest they take some instruction, either from a professional photographer in the area of photography they like, at a local community college, or from an online class.

 

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Sometimes the problem is not with the camera that they use, but with fundamentals of setting up their shots.  When photographing people, consider locations where the light is not harsh (e.g., under a shady tree) or where the shadows on their features are minimized.   Eliminating or reducing the sky may prevent the subjects from becoming too underexposed in relation to the surroundings.  For landscapes, a little effort to review the composition can make a huge difference.  Moving to a better vantage point or stepping forward to “crop out” the distracting clutter may help.  Compositions that include some interesting foreground components (e.g., wildflowers, beach driftwood, etc.) as well as the attractive vista can be more visually appealing.

In short, education and practice are the path to better photographs.

And after our conversation with the budding photographer, we frequently get the follow-up question, “Is Canon better than Nikon?” <Sigh>

[All images in this post were taken with an iPhone 6 in the Pacific Rim National Park, BC]

Finding the Right Spot

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We take a lot of photographs in the remote areas of the Washington State and British Columbia.  We travel to a lot of these places on our boat, Salish Lady.  Our boating/photography trips usually involve challenges of selecting a general location, getting there by boat, finding a safe place to anchor, and then launching the dinghy to get to shore.

I think all serious landscape photographers know that getting just the right light is the most important factor in achieving a STUNNING photograph.  However, without some kind of interest in the composition, even the absolute best light and color can’t move a beautiful photograph into the STUNNING category.

Working in the wilderness of Inside Passage makes it doubly hard.  The environment here is beautiful and overwhelming.  Almost every place you stand feels like it should be the “spot”.  But it is also a very complex environment and our eyes do an incredibly good job at distilling the environment for us.  In a photograph, complexity can get in the way of creating the STUNNING image.

Finding the right spot to take the photograph becomes an obsession.  We spend hours and hours trekking across the shore, up hills, and wandering around on small islands.  Don’t get me wrong; we really enjoy this exploration and would do it even if we never had any intention of taking a photograph.  However, finding a spot with just the right “stuff” drives this process.

So how do we decide on the right spot? All the usual rules of composition apply, but the trick we have found that seems to trump everything is simplicity.  We drive to create a simple image, without distractions, but still something to capture the viewers’ emotions.  We like to allow the simplicity combined with the colors tell the story.  When we are really successful, the image tells a story and hints at the broader beauty of the area.  A goal we strive for but rarely achieve.

So when faced with an overwhelmingly beautiful vista, look for the simple composition.  Have faith that from a simple image the story will be clear.