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October 24, 2009


The thing that has improved my photography the most has been learning what to leave out. Once I learned how to fill the frame with my subject, and leave out elements I didn't want, my pictures took a jump in approval from people I showed them to. Basically, for me, it has become fill the frame, and scan the edges. After that would probably come the basics of composition and technique.

It will be interesting to see what everyone else has to say.

Indeed this is a hard question to answer. One could say it's the cultivation of your inner eye, but that is likely to be no more helpful a suggestion in the moment than any talk of technique. The other day, when asked i said that i was a photographer to which i was told 'now everyone is a photographer'. With out thought i said that no most are just snapshot takers. But this is a problem as well. For instance my wife, who takes some wonderful pictures is a far better snapshot 'artist' than I. Now i know she has an 'eye' she just does not pursue it. And when it comes right down to it what seperates the best street photographers from snapshotist. The pure snapshot is a reaction to something that presents itself to us or the impulse to document any and all events. They seem to me to be very external or at least the internal connection that gives context is invisible and lacking Perhaps the advice then is to practice looking for, anticipating, pictures, everywhere, with no preconceptions. Its a subliminal interaction with, rather than merely a reaction to the world. Now comes the part that most snapshot takers don't seem to consider to judge from Facebook and much of Flckr and the like, namely editing, looking for the images that actually convey what you saw in something what you felt when you saw it and adjusting your technique, your approach, what have you, so that you get more images that give you the feeling that led you to take the picture in the first place and less that are in the 'well you had to be there' category. The great street shot then is when the roving inner eye, intuitive technique and a situation meet and recognize each other, just in time.

I think the first thing that we need to realize is that photography, like anything else, is a gift to some, but not all. I think that there is this unrealistic expectation that because the tools are better and more affordable that consequently we should be able to take better images.

I think that most of who have found ourselves having a gift for something would agree that our "style" emerges over time. Whether it's someone wanting to play music, cook, paint or whatever. We can and should "woodshed" to get a sense of what we could do, but don't really know what we "will" do until we have applied ourselves to trying.

I think in photography it's begins just like John Taylor states. With an "inner eye" to knowing when a moment is worth capturing. I think that the next step is getter a better sense of composition, then light. All the other things you mentioned, shutter speed, aperture and so forth are things that add to the potential of the photographer to record their vision, but you need to be able to "see" it first as the camera will record it.

I would suggest to her to read Freeman Patterson's Photography and the Art of Seeing.

Start shooting... the rest will come, if it matters

Most important thing? Learning how to see a good photograph, if you can't see or visualize it in the first place, no amount of technical knowledge will help you.

This point was driven home to me years ago when my daughter wanted to do a B&W photo project for school. I handed her an OM-1 showed her where the aperture ring was and told her to move it until the 'needle was in the center of the marks' before taking any picture. After this short 'technical' lesson we spent the weekend photographing together.

I was astounded by what she came back with! We went out together and shot in the same places, and usually similar subjects. At the time I had been an avid photographer for over 20 years, and yet she came back with photos that blew me away!

My daughter is a born artist (who will be graduating college this year with a fine arts major) and has an eye that sees things I miss.

One can train oneself though, after this experience, I have spent a lot of time, both with and without a camera observing and learning how to see and my photos have improved because of it.

In the words of Sherlock Holmes: "You see but do not observe. The distinction is clear."

Learn to see, the rest is easy.

Something that has been very valuable (and not just in photography)for me is to leave the comfort zone: if you are into landscapes, go to a street photography workshop, if you are a manic photoshopper, take a class in old darkroom techniques...
You will end up with a wider perspective and feeling much more comfortable with what you do.

Here I am with a miserable cold and what do I find for comfort, another interesting piece and question from Shutterfinger. Difficult at that.

When I first started, I said the same thing as your friend: How can I take better photos? I became fairly good at photography and started winning simple competitions; after a while I decided that competitions no longer interested me as a main goal. I came to this point after a few years. Gradually I came to realize that I really enjoy photography not because of any competitions but because I can express myself using a camera. Most of us serious photographers, at least all the ones I have met, most not professionals, are very passionate about photography. Why? I think, precisely because it is medium for expressing ourselves and we enjoy it and may be good at it, and then the camera becomes an extension of our visual and other senses. Expressing ourselves is at the heart of the question.

If your friend asks that of herself, then she will learn what she needs and will make her own way. On the practical side, as a start, the suggestion of reading Freeman Patterson is a good one. He is a renowned photographer and teacher of over 40 years and wrote that book about 30 years ago, well ahead of the digital age. All of his books are about the art of seeing and expressing oneself.


Put the highlights on zone VII/VIII and let the rest of the zones fall where they may. Fred Picker's Zone VI Workshop and his newsletters, Ansel Adams's Camera, Negative and Print trilogy. There are many other books out there but these were seminal for me back in the 1980s. They are still good reads.

I have advised newbies forever that the most important piece of equipment for a photographer is a huge trash can. Throw away anything that is below your standards--that is almost everything. It will improve your photography greatly.


Good advice--but what about newbies that don't have standards or want standards but don't know what they should be? I would therefore modify your advice to start with certain minimum standards for retention (in focus, correctly exposed) and to gradually increase the standards over time.

Take lots of pictures and start narrowing it down to what subjects you yourself enjoy the most. Then take lots more pictures.

I'm going to quote Mike Johnston from an article he wrote about Jane Bown's book Faces. I think it's close in spirit to the advice you gave your friend. He say's "It may come as a surprise to some readers that some very good photographers — including some great ones — don't have much interest in photography. Rather, they are interested in what they take pictures of. Jazz musicians, sailboats, wars, abstract designs found in nature, whatever."

Gordon, I've been thinking about this one all weekend.

For me, the most valuable thing I learned is seeing light.

I think photography is mostly light and composition. Technique is a set of recipes to make certain pictures you have in mind. I photograph light, not subjects; the quality of light falling on a thing can reveal or conceal, but that's not as important as what the light itself looks like. If I was going to teach someone how to see light, I think I would start in B&W, or with some very specific limitations to help them find that insight.

Ask your friend for some photos she'd like to replicate the result and start there. She'll be stunned what a small digicam (hopefully with some degree of control) can do these days!

Jerry, standards are tricky, some of the most memorable and famous photos don't meet the two standards you give as examples. I'm thinking of Robert Capa's icon work from the Spanish Civil War for instance. So we need some sense of a qualitative standard (emotional, communicative, graphic or in some other way evocative) that can if compelling enough override the more obvious quantatative standards, like exposure, focus etc. I have some pictures that despite obvious (and annoying!) flaws i can't toss and keep coming back to trying figure out what to do with them. Many are in the near miss category (thanks to Mike @TOP for that category) and must go however painful. Then there are those that either you need to just let people see to find out that they 'work' and then the ones you need to just push a bit further, make the flaws work for you as it were, or that work in spite of the flaws. And of course learn your equipment so you have a better chance next time of pulling off that impossible shot..

It's definitely composition, as some of the comments have alluded to. Two years ago I decided to take photography more seriously and I noticed that after attending a single 1-hour presentation about composition, I could look at a photo and immediately tell you what works and what doesn't. After that I was able to tell which photos to keep, and the ones that I had to edit out.
My next jump in the learning curve is when my friend loaned me Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. Nowadays some P+S cameras give you the ability to control exposure, and with that understanding you can take more complex shots. These two impt lessons will take you a long way.

Gordon- I too have been one of those that came back several times to your post- just to re-read it and consider a response.
After reading the comments from others- theres not much i feel I can add.
In the fifties- my 'hero' was Henri Cartier Bresson- his 'decisive moment' knocked me out!
Every image had this tension- you had to look and be moved. I tried to emulate that spirit- probably not very successfully.
I would say- as others have said better already- look at the work of other photographers and allow yourself to be inspired.

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