I get a lot of compliments on the pictures I put up here, which makes me happy and which I appreciate. I also get questions about how I make pictures like I do. Since I like sharing information, here’s a brief run down of what to do if you’re interested in making pictures like I do.
Note well: I am not a professional photographer, nor do I pretend to be; I’m at most a moderately-versed amateur. Note also that I’m not fronting this as “how to take good pictures,” just “how to make pictures like me.” If you don’t like my photography, then this will probably not be useful to you.
Also note I talked about my photo tools recently, including cameras and software, so I won’t be covering the same ground in depth here. Finally, I assume we’re talking digital photography here. I know next to nothing about film cameras or processing.
1. Do try to get yourself a decent camera, “decent camera” in this case meaning a camera with a reasonably large digital sensor, with a reasonable amount of resolution, and with a reasonably large lens, which can take pictures in a RAW photo format. The first three give you the best chance of getting the most amount of information for your pictures, the last one gives you the best ability to fiddle with the information you get. I say “reasonably” a lot here because unless you are a pro or genuinely committed enthusiast, you don’t need to spend thousand of dollars. I use a midrange dSLR (the Nikon 5100) with the kit lens. Right now, it goes for $580 on Amazon. Other cameras with similar capabilities are available at or below that price. Not cheap. But not stupid expensive either.
If you are interested in picture-taking beyond the occasional cell phone shot or vacation shot, I really do recommend picking up a dSLR. DSLRs have two benefits: one, at this point in time dSLRs are still the best total package for digital picture taking; two, they offer you the option of letting the camera do everything for you (aside from taking the actual picture) but still have the capability of letting you level up in terms of control if you want it.
I think it’s important to note that even if you have a dSLR (or other such camera) on full automatic, you can still get some decent shots. Nearly all the Nikon shots I post here are taken with the camera on full automatic, with the flash off. The camera is smart enough to take a decent photo in most cases, and in any event, as I have the camera record the data into a RAW format, I can go in and fiddle with the picture to tweak to where I want to be. Which brings me to the next point:
2. Invest in a decent photoediting program (one that can work with RAW files) and learn how to use it. As I noted in my piece about my photo tools, I use the latest iteration of Photoshop and I am happy with it, enough to recommend it. In particular I like how it allows me enough control of the RAW data that I can draw out detail and massage the picture in lots of ways. Sometimes I want to pull back some shadows, sometimes I need to bring down the exposure, sometimes I want to make the image more (or less) color saturated. Photoshop allows me to do that. Knowledgeable photographers can do a lot of what they need with the camera itself, but in my case I usually find it easier to to keep the camera on auto and then fiddle in the software.
Aside from RAW manipulation, Photoshop also is very good with touchup and editing. I don’t do fashion-shoot levels of photo manipulation, but I do some editing; for example, I will occasionally take contrails out of my sunset photos, or zits out of my self-portraits (yes, I still get the occasional zit at 44. So will you, probably).
As an example of what a decent photoediting program can do, here’s a recent sunset picture right out of the camera:
And the same picture after I’ve fiddled with levels and taken out the contrails:
Note that all the information for the second picture is in the first — a good camera records a ton of stuff, and it’s up to you to decide what you want to use. If you have a good photoediting suite (and the picture in RAW format), you have more options in that regard.
3. Don’t worry too much about “realism.” With regard to those two sunset pictures above, the first picture seems like it is more “real” than the second one, but I would say that I don’t think it is really, from the point of view of the human eye. The camera’s sensor (and the processor inside the camera) is not equivalent to the human eye — it makes different choices and has different priorities. The first picture has all the ground vegetation silhouetted out, but when I shot the photo my eyes could very easily see all the flora around me. The camera chose to highlight the sky; my eyes took all of it in. My apprehension of the sunset was somewhere between the first photo and the second one.
When you recognize and internalize that the camera and its brain are not in fact equivalent to your eyes and your brain, it frees you up to recognize that photography — to the extent that you are taking pictures for your personal enjoyment, rather than as a form of journalism — is meant to evoke a feeling as often as (and sometimes more than) it reminds you of reality. That being the case, why not fiddle and see what you get.
As an example, recently I looked a little shaggy and went to get a haircut. This was the picture I took of myself just before I left:
I look goofy and unkempt, but (accurately) mostly harmless. It’s a fairly realistic picture of me. But then I fiddled with the picture and got this out of it:
And suddenly I look like an ax murderer. Seriously, I’ve shown this picture to people and they have actually recoiled from it, which of course delights me immensely. The first version is more “realistic” but the second version is better, I think, because it evokes an emotional response. When I’m working with my photos I will often value the emotional response over the realistic portrayal — “realistic” being a not quite accurate term in the case of what the camera sees anyway.
Not everything needs to be fiddled with, to be sure: Some pictures work right out of the camera, for what you want them to do, and there’s no point doing anything more with them. But if you want to fiddle, do it and don’t feel like you’re letting photography down by going for an effect.
4. Don’t be afraid of shortcuts. In addition to Photoshop, I also use Camerabag 2, a photo program that comes stacked with filters I can apply in about a second, and which will often accomplish what I would want to do but would take me hours in Photoshop. For example, here’s a picture of Athena from the other day, out of the camera:
And then after running it through Camerabag 2’s “Burst” filter (with some cropping):
The filter does a fine job of getting the emotional response I want for the photo, and I didn’t have to do anything but port it into the program. Sweet!
Now, any filter can become overused and trite — this is the Instagram effect — but on the other hand if it works for you, it works for you, and you don’t need to apologize for it. Use ’em and don’t feel bad for not slaving over a photoediting program for hours. You have other things to do with your day.
5. Take lots and lots and lots of pictures. This weekend friends came to visit and I took pictures of their visit. When they left I went and made a photoset of the weekend. It was 42 photographs. However, over the course of the weekend I took 329 photographs. What’s in those other 287 photographs? Lots of blurry pictures, pictures where the camera focused on the wrong thing, pictures that were almost but not quite well-composed, pictures where people were blinking or otherwise caught in unfortunate facial expressions, pictures that were boring, pictures that were ill-timed. Pictures like this, basically:
Which is fine, because digital cameras mean you can take hundreds of terrible pictures with no real penalty, and that eventually blind luck is on your side: Take enough pictures and one of them is bound to be good.
My weekend ratio of roughly eight crap pictures to one picture I’m willing to share feels about right over time; I take a lot of bad pictures. My saving grace is that a) I don’t subject other people to the bad ones (mostly), and b) I can generally tell which ones are, you know, good.
6. Don’t stress about getting the perfect picture. If you have a reasonably good digital camera, know your way around photoediting software and take lots and lots of pictures, you’re going to find out — or at least I found out — that waiting for or trying to compose the “perfect picture” becomes much less of a problem. One, you can fix and fiddle a lot with pictures after the fact to make them better — in some cases substantially better, and maybe even the picture you wanted. Two, digital cameras mean that if you miss the “perfect picture,” relax, another opportunity will come around real soon. Then you can fire off ten shots in a row and one of them is likely to be something you can work with.
Three, digital cameras mean you can just let things happen, and be there when they do. And at the end of the day, in my own experience, a lot of “perfect” picture moments are the ones you didn’t know were coming — but that you were ready for when they did. Kind of like perfect moments generally.
And that’s how I make pictures. Your mileage may vary, but I think it’s all good advice.