Three Elements for Great Photography

Picking up a camera for the first time is exciting. If it’s your first ‘proper’ camera, doubly so.

Your desire to take great photos has persuaded you to part with a fair amount of cash (usually via the credit card), buy the camera of your dreams and now you are set to release your creative genius.

But for most people the reality is quite different. Whilst you may now have a very competent tool, capable of taking stunning images, there’s one thing standing in your way… YOU.

No one reads instruction manuals

We live in a generation that no longer reads instruction manuals. Not just camera manuals, but any kind of manuals. Whenever we buy a new toy, albeit a TV an iPhone or one of those new Dyson hairdryers, we just switch it on and wing it. We wing it.

We assume that it’s going to work straight out of the box and we’ll figure it out anyway because, well… how hard can it be?

But here’s the thing. The camera is covered in buttons, most of which you’ve probably never seen before and whilst most of them are labelled, you have no idea what most of them mean.

I know from experience, that just about everyone I teach hasn’t got a clue (at first) what ISO, AE-L and TV means (the last one only applies to Canon cameras). So how are you going to wing it now? Hair dryers and TVs are one thing, but how do you wing it when you’ve no idea what to wing?

Well you do what most people do – you leave the camera on auto.

Years of Frustration Later…

It’s usually after a few years of shooting in the Auto mode that I get the call for help.

Let’s be honest, there are a lot of people out there who have a genuine creative flare. Some become artists working in oil or watercolour, some become musicians, other dancers or writers.

Some become photographers and a few, become damn good ones at that.

Their images inspire, they have the knack for taking an ordinary scene and making it look extraordinary. Their photographs get shared all over the internet, social media and sometimes even in galleries. Their landscapes are breath-taking and their portraits jaw-dropping. They are known and loved.

Wouldn’t we love to have half of their skill? Wouldn’t it be amazing if our images looked that good?

Fortunately, all you have to do, is pull out that dusty old instruction manual and go through it, cover to cover.

Yeah right!

Knowing how your camera works is only part of the solution. There are two other elements that play equally important roles.

On my one-year workshops I have the opportunity to teach photography at a deeper level. I spend a great deal of time working on the big three elements that will transform you as a photographer.

And that is what I want to talk about today.

Mastering Your Camera

I kinda joked about the instruction manual, I never read mine either. Well rarely.

But having a good working knowledge of how the camera functions and which buttons are there to help you take creative control is fundamental. It’s a must do. You cannot effectively control your final image without controlling your camera.

You have to know where the buttons are, what they do, how they do it and when you’re really good… you can do all that without taking your eyes away from the viewfinder.

Look at all the buttons – Eeeek!

Nothing would send a clearer signal to my clients that I’m a beginner, than me lowering the camera from my eye to start searching through camera’s controls in an attempt to make my adjustments.

Jimmy Hendrix was perhaps the greatest guitarist that ever lived. His Fender Stratocaster (electric guitar) was his chosen instrument. You have a camera – he had a Strat, and he pushed it to its limits.

Now he didn’t go out and buy his guitar and stick it on auto, he learnt to play it. Regardless of the musical theory, he got to know his guitar intimately. He used to carry it around with him everywhere. People would tell stories about him always having it hanging round his neck, playing it at every spare moment. He became intimately acquainted with it. And through all that, he built up his muscle memory, knowing how to get the best out of it without looking.

Now imagine how good you would be if you could build up your muscle memory to operate your camera. If you could become so connected to it that it was just like another limb, a part of your body. You would be like a Jedi Knight of your Canon or Nikon, Fuji or Sony. People would swoon in your presence and you’d be able to lift entire spacecraft… (hmmm, getting bit carried away, but you get the picture)

So that’s Element No. 1. Know your camera. No excuses, get to know it.

Mastering Light

Control of the camera is one thing, control of the light is very different.

“How can I control light?” I hear you say. “I can’t control the sun”

No, you can’t control the sun, but you can control how you shoot your photos so that they make the best use of the sun (and other light sources), and it is most definitely possible control the quality of light hitting your images.

When I say quality, I’m referring to how harsh the light is, how bright, what direction it’s coming from and what colour the light is.

Students often bring me their homework in their early stages of tuition where they’ve not paid attention to the sun’s direction. Faces in the photo are frequently squinting because the sun is in their eyes.

Other shots have the sun coming from the side, which means half of the face is brightly illuminated and half is deep in shadow. When this happens, every facial imperfection, every wrinkle, spot or blemish looks a zillion times worse. If the sun was behind them, the shadows and the imperfections start to disappear (see photo below).

Sun behind their heads, eliminates harsh shadows

Some of the worst offences occur when people are photographed in woodland. Dappled light can a photographer’s nightmare. I’ve lost count of the number of portraits I’ve seen seen spoiled by dappled light on faces – and it’s so easy to avoid.

Ever taken a photo of someone standing against a bright background like a window, and they’ve come out silhouetted? Knowing how to control the light in situations like this is ridiculously simple. You can’t do it in auto but in other shooting modes it is child’s play. When I demonstrate this on workshops you can see so many student’s jaws drop. Lightbulb moments all around.

Using Flash

And speaking of lightbulbs… then there’s flash.

Mention shooting with flash and so many photographers break out into a cold sweat. It terrifies most newbies. Flash is a mystery, it’s complicated, it’s for professionals.

Wrong. Flash is easy, it’s very, very easy.

Once people are shown how to shoot with flash, they usually fall in love with it and wonder why they ever thought it was hard. Flash opens up a whole new level of creativity, it’s exciting. Best of all, it gives you even more control of light. The family photo below was shot entirely with flash, no natural light at all (and it was shot around 11:00 in the morning)

Illuminated by four Canon flashes

Experimenting with flash can be genuinely exciting and nearly every student I’ve taught flash to, wants to run out to the nearest camera shop and immediately buy flash gear of their own. Not just flash guns, but brollies, soft boxes, stands, triggers… they get really hooked.

Control of light is so important to your photos. Get the light right and your images pop.

Mastery over your eyes

The third and final part of the puzzle is about developing a mastery over what you look for and what you see.

It’s the unusual light, the unusual angle, the unusual subject, it’s the colour, the pattern, reflection, texture, focus or juxtaposition of image elements.

And it’s the intangible element… on occasions, almost impossible to define.

The shot below of the bird was focused on its neck feathers with a very narrow Depth of Field. Under normal circumstances a strange choice. But here, the image takes on an abstract view and the muted colours together with the low angle help reinforce the impact.

Seeing with photographer’s eyes is easier for some than others. Some people seem to have a natural gift. They can point their cameras at almost anything and get a great shot. Other people struggle.

Being able to see with photographer’s eyes is where the creative rubber hits the road. It’s when you go on holiday and see a visually stunning tourist attraction… (It might be the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome or Times Square in New York City) the photographer with his/her eyes tuned creatively, avoids taking the shot that every other tourist takes.

There is no satisfaction in returning home knowing the shot you got was exactly the same as the one everyone else took with their camera phones!

Developing the photographer’s eye it arguably the most satisfying part of our journey. It’s the creative part of the process that fires up our endorphins and give us the greatest sense of personal achievement. It’s the part that drives us, enthuses us and compels us to keep pushing forward.

It’s also the part that gives us our distinctiveness.

Hidden Creative Potential

I’ve noticed time and time again as students come to me for tuition in their more ‘mature years’, that photography has been the catalyst that finally liberated their creative potential.

Their job or their family circumstances may have held them back all their lives and they may have had no idea that creativity was there, hidden inside them, waiting to come out.

But when it does – oh boy!

I’ve seen people in these situations unlock their creative potential and it’s just like releasing a captive animal. The new found freedom of expression is exhilerating.

In many cases it can be like a new lease of life.

The third element of creating a mastery over the way we see photos before we take them, seeing with ‘photographer’s eyes’ is the toughest of the Photographer’s Three Elements. But it also the one that comes with the greatest satisfaction and the greatest wins.

To Summerise

Knowing you camera, taking control of light and developing your eyes to see creatively are the three most important elements we need to focus on if we want to journey from simply being a camera owner – to that of a photographer.

If you’d like to know more about my one year Photography Masterclass click here

As always, if you have any questions or comments please post them below and I will do my best to answer them.

Learn Photography

If you’re looking for photography workshops, photography courses or photography lessons, check out our website at Hampshire School of Photography or call Tuesday – Friday 01252 643143

Kevin Ahronson

Kevin is a full-time professional photographer and has been teaching photography since 2009. He founded the Hampshire School of Photography where he runs photography workshops and gives one to one mentoring to photographers at all levels, from complete beginners through to those who want to turn professional

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: