March 02, 2005

How to take Good Pictures.

by psu

The two best books that I've read about how to take pictures are Mountain Light by the late Galen Rowell and On Being a Photogapher by David Hurn and Bill Jay. The first is a book about landscape photography, while the second is a book about photojournalism. But I think both make essentially the same points about how to take good pictures. If you are really serious, put your computer down and go pick up those two books. They will tell you more than I ever can. But, here is a summary of what I think both of these books say.

The Big Picture

A good photograph is a compelling subject captured with good technique under the best light possible.

Subject Matters

This is the single most important aspect of good photography. My belief is that all of the best photography starts out with the idea of documenting a subject that is important to the photographer. That is, the photographer has an interest showing the viewer something about a particular subject matter. In Rowell's case, this interest was in capturing elements of the emotions that he felt while in the landscape. In David Hurn's case, this interest was in portraying the events of the time from a journalistic point of view.

What the subject is is largely irrelevant. Edward Weston started an entire artistic movement by taking large format photographs of green peppers. What matters is that you as a photographer is interested in showing me as a viewer something about the subject that I find interesting. Perhaps something I have never seen before.

It is no coincidence that the most photography happens on trips, or when we are with our children or pets. These are subjects that we can all relate to and which we all have a strong motivation to document. The challenge for the working photographer is to find other subjects that are similarly compelling to you, and make them compelling for me, the viewer. This is where knowledge, research, technique and hard work pay off. Knowledge and research are needed to put you in the right place at the right time to document the interesting aspects of the subject. Technique and hard work are needed so that when the picture is in front of you, you can capture it rather than watching go past you while you fumble with the camera. Good technique is not hard to learn, it's just a matter of practice. Finding interesting pictures to take, that's hard work.

Galen Rowell spent a decade taking snapshots of his rock climbing trips through the mountains of California before finally landing an assignment to shoot rock climbers in Yosemite for National Geographic. In that time he developed his own style and technique of capturing his preferred subject. When he finally got his big break, he had the whole package: subject matter, knowledge, and technique, all ready to go.

Find Good Light

While you can take pictures in crappy light, it's much easier for the beginner or amateur to take good pictures in good light. Many otherwise marginal pictures can be saved because they have some interesting light in them. Here are some things to look for:

Directional light is good. The reason pictures taken with on camera flash look so flat and lifeless is because the light is coming completely from in front of the subject. Directional light from the side of the subject provides a more three dimensional look by molding the subject and providing nice shadows.

Low contrast light is good. Contrast is the enemy of the light recording medium. Whether you are shooting color slides, black and white or digital, the film or CCD can only record a limited range of values. In particular, your eyes can sense a much wider range than will be recordable by the camera. What looks like a group of people standing in the sunset to you looks like all white splotches and inky black shadows to the camera. You must always be aware of this.

Low contrast situations include light on a cloudy day (but don't include the sky), diffuse light coming in a window, flat fluorescent lights in an office, and so on. Contrasty situations include full sunlight mixed with dark shadows, interior light mixed with full sun coming in a window, the sky lit by sunlight mixed with the ground under clouds, bright light bulbs in a dark room, and so on. Look for flat light. It can be your friend.

Golden Hour. This refers to the window of time around sunrise and sunset when the sunlight is super warm and directional. This is the time to take pictures outside because you can get great mix of color while also really making the subject pop using the directional light. This is also when you can get great effects by mixing warm and cool colors in the same picture. Galen Rowell's book has dozens of pictures, all taken during Golden Hour.

Flash is no good. If it is so dark that you need to use the flash, then there are no interesting pictures to take. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it tends to be true. This rule could be restated as "there is no good light in the dark." The exception to this rule is if you happen to be carrying a whole studio lighting setup in your pocket. If that's the case, by all means, shoot away.

Shoot a Lot and Edit Well

This is not to say you should walk around with your camera shooting anything you see. This is to say that assuming you've done all the work needed to get in front of your subject with favorable light and in an interesting situation, you should take advantage of the situation by shooting a lot of pictures that you can edit down later.

Generally, people don't understand the scale of the number of frames you need to shoot to get the good stuff. Galen Rowell shot dozens of rolls of film for his first assignment for Geographic. The magazine said he should have shot more. Sports Illustrated shoots 16,000 frames during the Super Bowl for one magazine layout. Even Ansel Adams shot as much as he could, given the fact that we was carrying a 4x5 (or bigger) camera around in the mountains. When in a good situation, shoot more. This is especially true with digital, since editing digital pictures is so much easier and cheaper than film.

The flip side to this is to know how to edit the pictures and only show the good ones to people. This is not to say that you should throw away most of what you shoot. Just don't show it to people. If the difference between the keepers and the lousy shots are not immediately apparent to you, you need more practice.

There is a certain class of elitist cretin who will sneer at this approach as "run and gun" or "spray and pray" photography. The implication is that the only reason you would shoot a lot is to make up for the fact that you have lousy technique or are otherwise incompetent. These people like to think that Cartier Bresson just walked past that guy jumping over a puddle and shot that single famous frame off his hip. These people should be ignored. The idea is not to spray pictures praying that you get a good one. The point is to have your technique down and take as many good pictures as possible when the going is good so that you have as many choices as possible later.

Have Just the Equipment You Need, and Nothing More

Whenever I take a really good picture, Pete always goads me by saying "Wow, you must have a really good camera."

The general sentiment here is that for most purposes, you do not need fancy equipment to get better pictures. The fancy equipment just makes it easier. Whether you want to spend the extra money on all this stuff and spend the energy to carry the stuff around is a different question. Generally the camera you have is a lot better than the one you left at home.

There are of course, exceptions. If you want to shoot architecture, or make huge prints, you really do need a large format camera. If wildlife photography is your passion, in general you will need longer than normal lenses. If you want to work for Sports Illustrated, you probably want that huge digital SLR that shoots 15 frames per second for 5 minutes along with the bazooka sized telephoto lens.

But, these are all rare situations. A single camera with a single lens will be enough if you know how to use it. It's up to you to figure out the size and shape of this camera. My personal feeling is that these days, a good point and shoot camera with a reasonable lens is generally adequate for most purposes. If you are good with computers, the digital point and shoots are even more excellent. Whatever camera you buy, buy a good tripod before anything else.

Of course, it's generally the case that most "serious" photographers are equipment freaks. You can't really cure this affliction, you can only minimize its effects. I myself have a fancy digital SLR that I don't really need, but you'd have to pry it out of my cold dead hands. This is in addition to too many other film cameras that I never use anymore. So, do as I say, not as I do.


LensWork is a nice magazine about photography. They are a bit pretentious.

The Digital Journalist is a nice web site about the modern state of photojournalism. is a good all purpose photo web site, although it's mostly about shopping and bizarre forum posts these days.

Mountain Light is where you can buy Galen Rowell books and pictures.

Posted by psu at March 2, 2005 08:28 PM | Bookmark This

Well done entry. I particularly like how you talk as a discerning viewer of images. I believe this is the first time I've ever seen someone write as a viewer of photography. Most people prefer to speak as a photographer. It's nice to see someone say, "shoot this way if you want my attention." Thanks for your candor.

Posted by Mark M. Hancock at March 5, 2005 06:24 AM

Great article with lots of good advice.

But here are some (minor) quibbles I had with above:

1) great section about light but I must respectfully disagree with the "Flash is no good" part. In general "built in" flash is no good (but is still ok for fill purposes). An external, moveable-head flash is not only good, it's *essential* equipment unless your goal is to completely forgo indoor photography. I'd paraphrase one of your own lines from later in the post thus:
"Whatever camera you buy, buy a good external flash for it before anything else. If the camera doesn't accept an add-on flash, don't buy the camera."

I know that sounds a bit extreme but trust me on this. If I get a chance later, I'd put up some links of photos taken indoor with an external flash (and we can play an interesting game of "spot the use of flash" with some such pictures).

2) is mostly about browsing great photography by an inspiring collection of amateur and pro photographer of the day. The photo postings and subsequent discussions are (and have always been) the most important aspect of that site (at least for me).

Posted by Chetan at March 26, 2005 03:38 AM

I made a specific exception for a "studio flash setup"... which would include external flash, although it's still hard to do well with only one flash IMHO. You can get a nice flat overall light but it's hard to duplicate the directional light that you see in movies without using at least 2 flashes.

The reality is that most people have point and shoot cameras with crappy flashes that they shouldn't use. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Posted by psu at March 26, 2005 08:25 AM

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