A mistake that a lot of us make as beginning photographers is being convinced that new gear makes better photographs. In some cases, the added capability will allow greater creativity. However, many times putting the camera down is the answer. In this article we’ll explore how to take better photos by slowing down to define your subject and create a basic composition. No camera required.
***Note: The sample photos included are not meant to discredit the claim. They are included to help with the discussion. You can use all of these tips with the camera still in your bag or pocket.
Tip 1: Ask yourself, what caught your eye? (This is the subject)
Before worrying about composition rules, camera settings, etc. Answer the question above. Whether you are a beginner photographer or more experienced, this is a crucial question. The wonderful thing is the subject can be whatever you want it to be. Here are some examples:
- Person – friend or family member
- Place – Once in a lifetime excursion or a sunset from your front yard.
- Thing – animal, hot air balloon, etc.
- Moment – sunrise, sunset, birthday, etc.
- Emotion -happiness, surprise, sadness, etc.
In the following photo, what is the subject? Remember, at this point we are not concerned with composition or camera settings. This was the first picture I took when I walked to the shoreline of a lake in Oregon. I wanted to share this example with you in the article as a starting point.
Tip 2: Think about your vision – the “why”
Why do you want to capture this photograph?
- Telling a story
- Sharing a message
- What do you want people to see, feel, think about, etc.
Using the subject of Mt. Hood above (answer to the question in Tip 1), I wanted to incorporate a person enjoying the view. I made this choice because there are many photos from this location, but not many with someone doing what we would all be doing. Admiring the beauty of this place.
The following photograph was the first photo I captured of my model with Mt Hood in the background.
Tip 3: Take your time – develop your composition
I was going to add the caveat “time permitting” because you might find yourself wanting to photograph some fleeting moment. Some examples might include; a child blowing out birthday candles, or an athlete scoring a goal. However, I would say that in both of these instances you probably still had a bit of time before the event to find a good position. The lesson here being, practice taking a little bit of time to evaluate the scene and how your subject fits.
Walk around the scene
As a landscape photographer, “around” is relative. With our example of Mt Hood, it would take me several days to walk around the mountain. But, with a defined subject and rough idea of your vision, you can start to work the area to come up with a composition.
When you start to move around your area think about the following:
- Framing – Are there natural features that can frame your subject?
- Location – Where do you want to position your subject to meet your vision? How do you put yourself in a position to accomplish your goal?
- Perspective – Don’t get stuck in the rut of taking every photo standing up. Consider changing your angle for a different look and feel to a photograph.
- Composition – What are things you want or don’t want to include in your photograph? How do you want to draw attention to your subject?
- Look at where everyone else is – consider not being there
The last item of looking where the group is and not be there is one I added from experience. There are places where people congregate to get “the shot” of a place they have seen on social media and that’s it. I often find that there are unused perspectives, sometimes only a few feet away from the action.
If that is the subject and vision you have the particular location, great. Take that shot. However, take a little time to explore a bit just in case.
Example of taking time
In the previous photos, we’ve captured an initial snapshot of our subject, and started to rough out the vision of a person enjoying the scene. The following frames show some behind the scenes work used to create the final photograph.
You’ll notice the model is repositioned in this first frame from her last location.
I had seen this log sticking out into the lake, which made for an interesting foreground. When my model went out to the end of it to sit, things started to really come together. The fallen tree had been there for a while as noted by its smooth surface from all the visitors who had walked on it like we were.
I thought this was an interesting way to show that this wasn’t quite a remote destination, but had been visited many times.
I liked the above composition, but it wasn’t quite right for what I had envisioned. The subject wasn’t standing out quite like I thought it should be. This led me to wade into the water on the other side of the log to take the photo from a perspective that made me happy.
As a side note, it’s good to travel with people who are patient. In this case, my model had just set up her phone to capture a time lapse of the sunset. She was happy as could be to just sit and enjoy the view. This is exactly, what I wanted to capture with this photograph.
One more example
I wanted to include one more example of this approach. The following photographs are from the same waterfall. The first was taken from the vantage all the hikers had set up to eat lunch and take their photos. The second was roughly 100 yards away and down a small hill.
What do you think of the two different perspectives?
Until next time
I hope you enjoyed these photography tips and stories. Please let me know in the comments whether you found this information helpful. Also, I’d love to see some examples of work that you created as a result of this article.
Take care and see you on the trail.
Matt is a creative fine art landscape and commercial photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He stepped away from a successful engineering career in the midwest and moved to California to chase his dream of becoming a full-time professional photographer. Over the last two years, Matt has traveled the world chasing light and capturing one-of-a-kind landscapes.
He enjoys sharing his adventures with family, friends, and strangers along the way. When he is not hiking to a remote location, Matt enjoys volunteering for local and national conservation organizations. His mission is to share the world with people, inspire a sense of adventure, and to make a difference for the planet.