When I was little, my mother took some phenomenally bad photos because she never learned how to close one eye, which you had to do to see through the tiny viewfinders on pre-digital cameras. As a result, her pictures showed miles of background – often the asphalt of our driveway – while we kids would be jammed into the lower left corner, with at least one of us and half the dog outside of the frame altogether. Working in graphic design in my twenties and thirties, I learned the basics of lighting and composition from pros working with bulky, technically complex equipment. Nowadays, I feel wildly lucky to live in an era in which I can get high-quality results using a Nikon that fits in the back pocket of my jeans and a laptop that’s practically the size and weight of a magazine.
As an amateur, I’m always trying to learn from “real” photographers. Here’s what I’ve picked up so far.
1. Always have your camera handy. Ansel Adams said,
“Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.” I figure if God’s ready to go, I should be too. Once, when I was writing about people wearing pajamas in pubic, I spotted a woman in an airport dressed in a blanket. I was racing for a plane and didn’t have time to dig my camera out of my luggage – and I’ve regretted it ever since.
2. Take lots and lots and LOTS of photos. As Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism, put it, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” I always try to get multiple shots of each subject; I've found that sometimes even a subtle shift in the angle, composition, or the subject itself can change a shot from “uh” to “ahh.”
3. Remember the background. Going out to shoot Seville’s spectacular annual processions, I’ve had countless photos spoiled because I didn’t notice the glaring Burger King logo or gaudy billboard behind the Virgin. That can make for a good irony shot, but really undercuts the mood if I'm going for somber majesty.
4. Study the light. I love slanted light, because it adds so much dimension and radiance to a shot. It can turn a simple object, face, or outdoor scene into an image as gorgeous as a classical painting.
5. Show respect when photographing humans. I try to be careful not to treat anybody, no matter how exotic or peculiarly dressed, like a zoo exhibit. I do snap candids on the street if I can do it discreetly; when it feels comfortable, I ask permission to do a more carefully arranged shot. At a café in Napoli, I was entranced by the large, slightly misspelled tattoo on our waitress’s arm. When she took a cigarette break sitting on her motorcycle, she seemed pleased to let me photograph it.
6. Edit your photos. No one, not even Ansel Adams, takes perfect shots every time. That’s why God gave us computers equipped with photo editing software. I run every shot through iPhoto, cropping, enhancing, straightening, boosting the yellow a smidge to warm up the light, sharpening the definition, bringing up detail in shadows and highlights, and so on. I often radically crop images, for instance, to create horizontal headers on Facebook and my website. That’s why I use a camera and not my iPhone; at least for now, my camera still gives me higher definition, so that even a detail can remain clear and sharp.
Why go through all that? “When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice,” said photographer and film director Robert Frank, I’ll never be in Frank’s league, but I’m going to keep on trying to produce photos that (unlike my mom’s) include the subject, the whole subject, and nothing but the subject – and if possible, capture a glimpse of the delight I felt when I saw that subject for the first time.
To see more of my photos, please check out other pages of this website, especially the best images from my recent train trip through Central and Eastern Europe, and my Facebook page.
11/13/2013 09:10:51 am
Thanks for an interesting blog post. I too am an amateur photographer (just for fun) and enjoy taking pics in Morocco where I'm currently living. (Feel free to check out my blog.) Love to hear about other peoples' travels too. Look forward to your next post. Thanks for taking the time to write.
11/14/2013 09:16:39 am
Kathy, the photos on your blog (http://tahannaout.blogspot.co.uk/) are gorgeous! Looks like you are making excellent use of your time and camera in Tahanaout. Keep in touch!
11/13/2013 09:37:37 am
I'm an avid travel photographer (my first book has 110 images from a Paris trip), and your tips are rock-solid. With regard to people, I take some care to ensure they aren't in landscape shots, but sometimes including people allows the shot to illustrate the size and scale of a space. The contrast of the nuns against the colorful produce in your photo is fabulous!
11/14/2013 09:33:20 am
Glad you like the tips, and the photo of the nuns. I live near several convents and love to catch the odd shot of the sisters about town. I must say, your photos in Bonjour 40 are wonderful. My very favorite, though, is the one your mom took of you at 14 months sitting at the typewriter – no doubt because my mom's old Royal was my favorite toy as a child. And here we both are, all those years later, writers. I guess our mothers knew what they were doing!
11/14/2013 12:00:56 pm
Thank you so much. I love that photo at the typewriter, too. So fun that you had a Royal as a child, and that you're now writing as well. Seeds were definitely planted.
11/13/2013 11:16:24 am
Great write-up, Karen. It's nice to see a simple, easy-to-use list of things people can do to improve their photography. A nice change from the technical madness of some photography-improvement posts. Also, your style of writing always helps. :)
11/14/2013 09:42:35 am
Thanks, Ryan, glad you liked the post. I had to keep it simple; I can't grasp all the technical gobbledygook that's out there. I just like to take pictures.
11/13/2013 05:09:15 pm
Beautiful post, Karen. My personal fave!
11/14/2013 09:44:08 am
Thanks, Traci! I'm so glad you liked it!
12/7/2014 10:54:01 am
Reading the comments to your helpful post I am reminded that your mother advised us to keep a stack of postcards nearby while reading the newspaper, making it nearly effortless to comment, chide, encourage, or whatever seemed warranted by the news.
12/8/2014 12:49:37 am
Honey, that's a wonderful story about my mom. I never heard her say that – or if I did, I was probably a teenager and just tuned her out. It sounds so like her! She was never one to let an injustice slide or a good deed go unrecognized. I, too, think of her when I send off emails in response to news. How she would have loved the Internet and the ability to dash off notes so easily!
9/13/2017 02:16:54 pm
I try to make thematic photo albums from every vacation, so as to enjoy the memories in the viewing.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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