How to Take Good Pictures, Destroyed

And 5 Real Ways to Improve Your Photography.

Beginners’ Tips

Every once in a while, I’m drawn to click on an article about how to improve my photography — human nature, I guess. But, as you’ve already undoubtedly experienced, it’s nearly always the same recycled list of tips about leading lines, looking up, getting low, rule of thirds and the like. It’s not only disappointing, it’s cruel — and perhaps even inadvertently designed to keep you from growing as a photographer.

These are beginners’ tips that started appearing in photography books by Kodak in the 70’s and were repurposed throughout the 80’s and 90’s in nearly exactly the same way articles do it today. While all true maxims on general photography, they are truly thoughts for beginners which, if you muse on them too much, continue to get you to think, and shoot, like a beginner.

How many times must you hear about golden hour, compositional techniques and lens choices before you consider yourself well beyond the beginner status and start a more advanced path toward individualistic expression and professional understanding of the medium? Well, there’s a psychological reason that we continue to look backward instead of forward at things we already pretty well understand. Self doubt.

I’m a professional photographer and plenty of the shots I take are not great — even in controlled studio settings with a full crew. This is true of every professional I know. We take a bunch and select the best ones, that’s photography. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the book, Magnum Contact Sheets, where the works of high masters are shown in context with the rest of the images on the roll. Not even those giants we hold in highest esteem could nail every shot perfectly. It’s not actually how photography works.

But despite it not being a medium of perfection, we like to think of it as such — and, indeed, that one incredible image certainly has the flavor of perfection. The result is false comparisons of our own work to these singly incredible unicorn images, that cause us to look at our shortcomings more than our successes. This negativity bias has biological advantages, I’m sure. But for a photographer, it can be stifling. If you let it, if you focus on the negative (no pun intended), the imperfection of it, it can push you into a worrisome place where we come to define ourselves by what we can’t yet do. And that sends us headlong into drastic solution-searches of 11-point missives about the fundamentals of good photography. As though the answers to perfection are in the unassailable basics. My linguine with clams didn’t turn out right, time to learn to boil water again.

Do you want to take better pictures than you’re taking right now? Okay, let’s really get into it. These are the things that all pros have figured out on the way to becoming great. They may not all be the quick fix that temporarily makes us feel like less of a failure, but they are the guardrails by which consistent growth most definitely happens. And they are all designed to push you forward, instead of backward. If you really embrace them, not only will your photos get better, your confidence will grow and the need to fill some emotional hole with trite reminders about composition and lighting techniques will become a thing of the past.

It’s Not How You Shoot, It’s Who (And What) You Shoot

Every professional is well aware of this truth, though they rarely talk about it. There’s little technical difference between most photographers’ images. The best photographers have the best subjects. This is true whether you shoot for Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated or National Geographic.

Today’s street photography craze has put a premium on finding found moments and beautiful compositions. Likewise, urban photography has made location scouting its own field. But both of these genres of shooting are distractions when it comes to true growth in the medium, as both capitalize on techniques that do not scale. That is, no light/shadow street shooter is ever going to do it better than Fan Ho did it in the 50’s. And as incredible as one’s perspective and timing is out on the street, you’re only hoping it reaches the heights of those who did it before you. Surpassing them is not really an option.

Which is not to say that street and urban photos aren’t amazing — they are. But they are achievable by any amateur photographer now, so it simply doesn’t make you better to focus on subjects that don’t push you to do more yourself.

Nothing pushes a photographer more than a great subject, forcing you to deal with characters and context, elevating you beyond image-taker to storyteller. And in that world, the better the talent, the better the scene. It’s a hard truth to have to face, but the pretty up-and-coming model/friend you shoot as you build your book just will simply bring less magic to the lens than the world class model who struts for Vogue. Because modeling, working the lens, making eye contact, gesturing, posing, connecting — these aren’t just things you can ask anyone to do very well; they are the work of professionals and the better ones are better at it. And that most definitely shows up on the image. So, the most immediate impact you can make on your photography is in deciding what or who you’re going to shoot. Don’t just shoot professionally, decide professionally.