Wow Your Camera Takes Really Good Pictures

I like to think that in my time on Earth I have occasionally taken a good photograph. Once in a while I get a really nice one and show it to people, and if that person is Pete then he taunts me with that phrase hated by all photographers: Wow, you must have a really good camera.

Now, it’s true that most photography dorks are also equipment nerds. Spend any time talking to most photographers, and the conversation will inevitably turn to gadgets, lenses, tripods and other miscellaneous items. I think in some sense taking pictures and buying things with which to take pictures go hand in hand. But, in this orgy of consumerism you have to keep one thing in mind: the camera has very little to do with the ultimate quality of the picture. The single good photograph comes from somewhere else.

As I have mentioned before, my two favorite books about photographic technique are Galen Rowell’s_ Mountain Light _and On Being a Photographer by David Hurn and Bill Jay. Each one of these books spends a lot of time discussing what goes into making a single excellent photograph, and I will try to summarize what they say here. My previous rumination on this subject was a more more general discussion about high level requirements for good photography. My focus here is different. The focus here is on the single excellent frame.

Assume that, following my previous instructions, you have found a nice subject and have situated yourself in good light. Here is what you do to get a single good picture:

Pick Your Frame

Composition is basically the act of cropping everything out of the viewfinder except that which is most important to conveying what you would like to show people about your subject. There are “rules” for composition that people will list. Compose pictures with your subject slightly off to the side. Get closer to your subject to reduce distractions in the foreground of the picture. Concentrate on details rather than trying to fill the frame with more information than the viewer can process. I think these guidelines are useful, but not while taking pictures. They are more useful to weed out the ones you shot badly.

When taking pictures, composition boils down to seeing something interesting and putting a good frame around it. If you take a lot of pictures, experiment a lot with different ways to frame things, and then critically evaluate what you get back and decide what you like and dislike, you can slowly learn what you like to point the camera at and how you like to frame a picture.

Focus and Exposure

Focus is important because you want the interesting part of your picture to be in focus and the boring parts to be blurry. Landscapes tend to want to be in focus from front to back, since the idea is to simulate the experience of standing on top of the mountain looking out into the distance. Pictures of people are different. You want the people to be in focus, but you don’t want the background to distract. There is nothing worse than having a tree pop out of your mother’s head like in some twisted horror movie.

What you want in focus also determines the aperture that you should use on the lens, since large apertures will blow out the background and while small apertures will keep more in focus. Having set the aperture, your light meter can now tell you what shutter speed you need for proper exposure. You will want to make sure that this shutter speed is high enough to not blur the picture due to either subject motion or your shaky hands. I have very shaky hands, so I always try to use short shutter speeds.

Push the Button

This is the last decision you have to make. Assuming everything else is set up perfectly, you have to choose when to hit the button. The world is not a static place, and what goes through your viewfinder is constantly changing. So, when taking pictures, the dynamic of the activity is to constantly evaluate what you see, and then refocus, reset exposure, or reframe the shot to come as close as possible to what you want to portray. This process is especially tricky if you have to juggle more than two or three variables at the same time. It doesn’t really help to just hit the button and pray with the motor drive. You’ll just get a lot of copies of the same bad picture.

But, this also doesn’t mean that you should sit, paralyzed, waiting for the “perfect moment” and then taking a single frame or two. In general, all you will get this way is one or two bad pictures.

A good photographer has a sense for when a good picture opportunity is developing in front of the camera. When one senses a good situation, one should naturally hit the button a lot more than when nothing interesting is happening. I should say this again in more simple terms: when the going is good, you should take more pictures.

Developing this sense of when to hit the button is a matter of practice, experience, and knowledge of the subject. Using this sense well leads to the final important aspect of the single good picture.

Get Lucky

Suppose you are trying to take a picture of some interesting people walking down the street. The people are moving. The sun is low and coming in and out of clouds. Your distance from the people, and therefore the proper focus, is constantly changing. Finally, the background behind the people is in constant flux. In order for this picture to work out, all of these variables have to come together in one shining moment of perfect coordination, timing and inspiration on your part. This does not happen often. Therefore, the final aspect of the the good single picture is the luck you need to hit everything in the right place at the right time. Do not feel self-conscious about getting lucky. All good pictures have an element of luck to them. Feel thankful that you got a bit of it.

The mathematician Paul Erdos used to say that God has a book of theorems, and every once in a while he lets you have a peek at it. I think this is true of good photographs as well. You do the same things day in and day out to take pictures, but every once in a while it just all comes together, and you get to reach into the Book of Good Pictures and pull one out. I feel lucky to have grabbed a few for myself, and it’s a lot of fun to go after more of them.