I’m standing at the Australian coast, looking out onto a breathtaking sunset. I pull out my phone and take a picture:
Pretty underwhelming, no?
I look down at my phone, puzzled — it was as if I had destroyed something beautiful. It’s an OK picture, but nothing compared to the sunset I that was right in front of me. The image on other side of the camera did not tell the same story…something happened when I tried to put a border on what I was seeing.
I hear my mom:
“Ug. I wish they didn’t put that ugly house right there!”
I look to the left and see a lone building sitting on top of a dock that’s jutting out into the sea. She had a point. The house did take away from the otherwise entirely natural view. On the other hand, the so-called docked-atrocity would probably make for a better picture. I walk over, camera in hand:
The Ugly Dockling made for a pretty alright photo. I’m surrounded by a seaside sunset over the distant islands, and this eyesore turns out to be my favorite photo. Herein lies the difficulty of photography: just because something looks good in person doesn’t mean it makes a good photo.
As a hobbyist photographer, this can be very frustrating. To better come to grips with this, I’ve created a personal distinction between a picture and a photo.
Now, in the traditional sense, a “picture” and a “photo” mean pretty much the same thing. To me, these two words illustrate the difference between the first and second image above. Taking a picture is seeing something with your eyes and capturing that moment with a camera. Taking a photo acknowledges the difference between being somewhere and seeing somewhere. Taking a photo is understanding that our fully immersive experience has no direct mapping to a 13" computer screen.
This is not to say there is anything wrong with taking pictures. I love taking pictures for the sake of telling stories. But, these same stories are told more effectively when we admit the difference between the images from a camera and the experiences themselves.
Here I present the five things I try to keep in mind when I’m taking photos. These are not hard and fast rules, but advice to myself so that I can better tell the story of a beautiful sunset even on the other side of a camera.
1. Pick a Tree — Don’t Photograph the Entire Forest.
It’s human nature. We’re surrounded by an incredible landscape, and we want to capture all of it in one image. Yet, some of my most underwhelming photography has come from the most beautiful places. These incredible places make it all the harder to acknowledge that what looks good in person doesn’t look good in a photo.
In most cases, the difficulty lies in subtraction. There’s some sense that we wouldn’t be conveying the full beauty of the moment if we can’t fit it all into one photograph. But we don’t look at photographs like we look out onto a countryside sunset. As a photographer, you need to make decisions about what is important to focus on. We need to pick a tree in the forest, and tell the story of forest from that tree. Taking a photo requires deliberate subtraction.
The two images below illustrate the difference between photographing the forest and picking a tree. In person, it’s often the 360° immersion which provides the beauty of a scene — yet we can’t pass along this perspective through photos. We have to acknowledge that we can only take a tiny portion of our surroundings with us. For me, I am much more effective when I dedicate that tiny portion to fully capturing a smaller scene, rather than being all-inclusive.
2. Get close and pick a side. Especially with people.
Sometimes I’ll come across a book with genuinely interesting ideas which have been organized in such a baffling manner that I can’t make heads or tails of what the author is getting at. The content may be fine, but I’m left overwhelmed and feeling uneasy. This is normally the result of the author lacking either (a) a clear focus, or (b) a natural order for presenting their thoughts.
Photos are no different — they need focus and flow. Getting close and moving the subject to a side forces you to make deliberate decisions about your focus and framing. It forces you todecide what story you’re trying to tell with the photo.
By getting close, we make the subject of our photos stand out. Not only does the subject take up more of the image, but the background becomes out of focus. The background doesn’t disappear — its presence is still felt — but there is no longer a fight for attention.
By moving the subject of our photo to the side, we create a natural flow throughout the image. There is no uneasiness about where we should look. No feeling of our eyes jumping around the image. No sense of being overwhelmed, worrying that we’re missing something.
Below there are two examples of this. In a 2-dimensional photo, we lose our natural sense of distance and context. The “before” pictures create a sense of uneasiness. This is resolved by moving close and putting the subject of the photo on the side.
Note: When photographing people, this sometimes requires getting almost uncomfortably close. This is especially the case when using a phone camera, which generally have wide-angle lenses. As a rule-of-thumb, get close enough so that the background is out of focus.
Professional selfies FTW
It’s the simple things that dramatically improve your photography
3. Make editing your photos fun enough that you’ll actually do it.
It’s no secret that editing photos can make a huge difference in the end result. Still, my disdain for Photoshop brought me to the point where I’d started to skip editing all together. Lightroom for desktop offers a more manageable alternative, but still requires a good bit of time dedicated to sitting down and working through photos (and plus it’s expensive!).
Luckily for me and the other Photoshop-haters, photo editing has become just about as powerful on mobile. I now do 95% of my photo editing on my phone — and I love it. If you’re on iOS, check out Mextures. If you have an Android, try Snapseed. You’ll be amazed what you can do within 5 minutes of opening the app.
Edit aggressively. Personally, I had to get over some feeling of guilt from editing photos. There was some sense that I was taking artistic liberties and artificially inflating some pretty average photography to make it look like I can take a decent photo. Sometimes I still have to remind myself that I’m editing photos for enjoyment — not doctoring security footage. Cameras simply cannot capture the dynamic range that the human eye can see. This results in dull looking and underwhelming photos compared to what we’re seeing with our eyes. Touch up edits are usually necessary to create a more realistic image. Taking it a step further, though, allows us to add our artistic touch and turn pictures into photos.
4. Be inspired
I am absolutely blown away every time I look at the photographs on Unsplash. There are literally thousands of people taking photos that will put mine to shame every time- and this is just wonderful. I have so much room to grow as a photographer and a constant flood of inspiration. I focus on two or three photographers whose work I like, and try to really understand why I like their work. I’ll explain this with two examples.
First, I want to bring up Laurent Dequick, a French photographer whose work I first saw in the popular Yellow Korner galleries in Paris. One picture of his, in particular, seemed to be grabbing everyone’s attention (below). His picture is a composite of many different photos, overlaid to create a unique feel. There are many things to love about Laurent’s works, but for me, it’s the high contrast with bold reds and blues. My photo below is a direct result of inspiration from Dequick.
This past month, I found Mike Poggiol’s urban photography on Instagram. I had never been too interested in urban photography, but the strong vignettes and orange highlights of his photos create a surreal feeling which I find very appealing. Below to the left is a sample of Mike’s work. To the right is some of my photography, drawing from his style.
I highly recommend Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. The book is about finding something you love and adding yourself to it. My favorite line from Austin: “validation is for parking”._
5. Create delight, not perfection.
Pictures capture pixel-perfect recreations of a moment. Photos aren’t supposed to be the perfect depiction of anything. They exist for delight.
There is at least one thing that bothers me about every one of my photos. Some of these are more obvious than others, but I’ve stopped letting the little things hold me back from enjoying the photo as a whole.
This is especially important when editing photos. It’s very easy to consumed in tweaking the finest details, and turn it into a chore instead of a hobby. I have one simple rule for myself: when I’m no longer enjoying myself — I stop.
Got your nose.
It’s no secret: people love looking at photos. Let’s see what you’ve made.
Check out my work on Instagram or follow me on Medium for more writing on photography and startups. I also have a selection of photos available on high quality prints.
And if you’re looking for more detailed and technical guides, these two books have been invaluable for me:
Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson: The best all-around introduction to photography for any camera. Intuitive descriptions of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focal length, and how to make them work for you. This is a great starting place.
Picture Perfect Practice by Roberto Valenzuela: This is the best advice I’ve found on creating photographs which capture people’s attention. Roberto is a wedding photographer, but his techniques apply to all types photography.