Here’s a very common scenario for new photographers. You get a camera. You take some pictures. You eventually import those photos into your image editing program. . . and you’re immediately dismayed.
“But, it looked so much better in real life!” you exclaim.
Something’s not adding up—you experienced that moment completely differently. So what do you do?
Tip #1 – Remember that your camera doesn’t “see” like you do
It’s always worth remembering that a camera doesn’t see like you or I do. It may be obvious, but it’s easy to forget that when you take a photo, the camera you’re holding isn’t going to record your human impression of what’s happening in front of you.
We’re used to seeing without thinking about how we’re seeing—but as soon as you pick up a camera, you need to consciously think about how THIS MOMENT will look as a picture.
You can take a walk outside on a spring day, look at the sky and say, “what a nice day,” without pausing to adjust ISO, aperture, or shutter speed. You also don’t need to compose the shot or change lenses to see either the joggers on the running path or the leaves just starting to bud on the trees overhead.
But as soon as you want to convey any of these sights in a picture, you need to stop and figure out how to best do that. You have to translate what you see (so effortlessly!) into a picture that conveys it to others.
Cameras are just little machines. They take a picture when we tell them to, but they also only capture what we’ve told them to capture. As simple as it sounds, if you remember to consciously think about what you’re asking the camera to do, you’ll end up with better pictures.
Tip #2 – Remember to look at the bad pictures, too
We don’t need to love all of our bad photos, but those pictures are still worth looking at because we can learn something from them. After all, that’s part of being an artist!
Let’s say you’re a painter at the park, and you go to a hillside and sit down and start painting the scene in front of you. After making a sketch, you begin to paint and notice something’s not quite right. Since your canvas, paints, and subject are all right in front of you, you can stop painting, figure out what you want to do differently, and improve it!
And what if you’re not a painter, and you went to that same hillside with a camera and start clicking away? How do you know if something’s not quite right with some of your pictures?
By looking at them, of course! Just like if you were painting, you need to study your picture and see if your resulting image is what you were trying to capture originally. It’s simple, but takes a little bit of discipline. You’ll have to wait until you can go back to your computer, import your photos into your image editor and look at the full-sized image.
Look at your images as soon as you can. The benefit of doing this is that you’re more likely to remember the situation and what you did when you took that photo. Then, when you’ve got them in front of you, study them!
As humans, we forget things very easily. When we wait too long before we look at the full-sized image on screen or printed out, our memories of what steps we took when we were taking that picture are long forgotten.
Old-school photographers wrote notes about their photos as they were shooting to help them remember technical details later. You can do that, too, or you can use the EXIF data stored alongside digital photos much the same way. Each time you take a picture, the camera records the aperture, shutter speed, ISO and which lens was used. This information can be very useful later when you’re peering over your photos.
Tip #3 – Remember that good pictures successfully translate the world
With practice, photographers can start to envision the world from a camera’s viewpoint. We learn the way a certain lens handles at a certain aperture. We learn learn the differences between a DSLR sensor and film, and how one film handles light compared to another film. We start to learn how the camera sees. Then, we start to learn how to use the camera to translate what we see into pictures.
Taking the world in front of you and putting it into a picture is a kind of translation. You start with what YOU see, and then you have to figure out the best way to put that into a picture—using your camera as the medium of translation.
Meanwhile, looking at others’ photographs is a great creative exercise. Pay attention to good pictures wherever you see them and pay special attention to pictures that impress you with how they translate the world. You won’t have to go far to find inspiring images!
When you find a photograph that make you say, “Wow, I wish I could take that sort of shot!” stop for a minute. Let whatever it is you like about the picture in front of you seep into your memory. Ask yourself what the photographer might have done to capture that particular photo. Any great photo you see can encourage and inspire your own efforts.
Study your pictures. Study other peoples pictures. Ask yourself what the camera saw, and whether the picture in front of you conveys what it was meant to. Think about how to improve it. Then, go take some more pictures!