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The Seven Essential Elements for Improving Your Photos

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There are different opinions about what makes good photography. Many suggest it’s a single ingredient; they are wrong. If we want to grow in our art, it’s by combining seven elements that we have any hope of improving.

I have yet to meet a successful photographer who doesn’t want to improve. Consequently, we writers often create articles about aspects of photography to help us to get better. Inevitably, someone will read it and misunderstand an article’s intention. With steam emanating from under their collar, they will rant and deny that it has anything to do with good photography and that something else is the sole component of a good photo.

However, these articles are rarely prescriptive, and what they are suggesting is just a single component that, combined with other factors, helps us to get better at what we do.

If you think that one aspect of photography is of no importance, or that another outweighs everything else, then you are, of course, entitled to that opinion. But it might not be true for other photographers. The beauty of any art is that we can approach its creation in so many different and unique ways and apply our unique subjective judgments when we view it. Here are seven major areas that make a difference to our images.

Choosing the Correct Camera

I am going to start with what is probably the most controversial topic. I can already hear lots of people screaming that it doesn’t matter what camera you use. “The best camera is the one you’ve got with you!” Meanwhile, others will be jumping up and down insisting that unless you shoot with a (insert brand here) full frame camera, you are not a serious photographer. They are both extremes, and neither is correct.

Most camera brands are quite different from each other. They all feel different in your hands, and the menus vary. The images they produce are not the same, either.

There are two questions you should ask yourself when choosing a camera, and there is no right or wrong answer to these. Firstly, do you want to take photos that look like those that most people shoot? If so, your choice is likely to be one of the bigger brands, as they will enable you to do that more easily. It’s an understandable path to want to follow.

However, if uniqueness is more your thing, then shooting using one of the less ubiquitous makes is more likely to be a better choice for you. Cameras like those from OM System, Fujifilm, Pentax, Lumix, and Leica all have unique image qualities that are unlike those of the bigger brands.

Secondly, does any camera model give you features that are unavailable elsewhere? For example, one of the reasons I choose the OM System is that I find the computational features particularly useful; no other camera will allow me to watch a long exposure slowly develop on the Live View screen. Also, the smaller size and weight of the equipment, and the crop factor are hugely advantageous to me. Meanwhile, Fujifilm users have a penchant for the ability to emulate different film styles. You may have other priorities, and perhaps those are met by a different type of camera.  

Selecting the Lens You’ll Use

One of the questions I am asked the most in workshops is which lens should be used for different situations. The answer I give is to use the one that gives you the result you want to achieve. There are obvious choices, such as choosing a long lens for bird photography. However, that isn’t the only way to go.

Some lenses are not generally suited for certain jobs; I wouldn’t usually employ a 25mm lens for photographing birds because they would appear tiny in the frame. However, that isn’t always the case, as in the photo above. The glass you choose will affect the look of the images you take and it’s up to you to decide what focal length best achieves the images you are after.

Of all the fields of photography I dabble in, the one that has the most dictatorial attitudes on what lenses you should use is street photography. According to the gatekeepers of that genre, if you shoot with the wrong focal length, you will be condemned to burn in the fires of the underworld. It is, of course, poppycock. If you want to use something different, go for it.

Many beginner photographers are tied to the limited range of focal lengths that come with a standard kit lens, so shoot images best suited to that lens. Photography often works best when extremes are employed, so expanding your equipment to include other focal lengths will help you get better photos.

Mastering The Camera’s Settings

Successful photographers show the world in ways that most people don’t see it. Part of being able to do that is having the ability to control the exposure, focus, and depth of field, plus to show or stop movement. That requires mastery of the camera’s controls.

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Cameras are technical machines, and understanding the f-number and shutter speeds isn’t intuitive. How to precisely control depth of field using the aperture and proximity to the subject, and understanding how the focal length, cropping the picture, and how large you display the image change the appearance of a picture all require learning. Once learned, you can then apply those settings effectively to achieve the effect you want.

Getting to Grips With Composition

Composition is another important factor. It’s about the placement of the subjects within the frame. It’s not the be-all and end-all of photography, but it is something that can make or break a picture. It can work with the subject matter to add balance or tension to an image. Great compositional choices often go unnoticed by the viewer.

There are dozens of rules of composition. Many pedants are riled by the word “rule” because it sounds rigid and therefore should always be shunned. However, that too is an unnecessarily restrictive approach. I think of the word used in the sense of “as a rule,” meaning it usually works, but not always.

Making the Most of Lighting

How your subject is lit is an important aspect of your photography. The color, angle, direction, and intensity all change the feeling of the photo. Discovering how light works on your chosen subject, and finding out what looks good and what doesn’t, is an important aspect of improving your photography.

That might involve picking the time of day, the studio flash setup, the position of the subject to a lamppost at night, and so on.

Finding a Narrative

With every picture, you are telling a story to the viewer. The story can be literal (this is a person alone on the beach) or one of many metaphorical interpretations (loneliness, or the joy of solitude).

What is important to remember is that the narrative of a photo isn’t going to be the same as the one that the viewer reads. Recently, someone asked me what I thought of their photo. So, I gave them a long explanation of what I thought it represented. Afterward, they said, “Thanks! I hadn’t thought of that.” Similarly, because nobody else has your life experiences or intelligence, you can create a photo with a specific meaning and the viewer won’t see that at all.

I’ve seen a street photographer’s work one week depicting a group of far-right protestors holding placards with xenophobic motifs. The following week, it was anti-war demonstrators. In each case, both he and his photos were attacked verbally because the viewers thought he was supporting the subjects of the photos. But he was just telling the story of the protests. I believe that in both cases, as an artist, he succeeded because great art is about telling stories that evoke emotions.

Stretching Your Creative Style

Do you want to be the next David Bailey or Ansel Adams? Give up on that idea; they’ve already done it and lots of people have already copied them and been less successful. Nevertheless, it’s fabulous learning from other photographers and discovering the ways they work.

No creative work is wholly original. It is all derivative, built upon what has come before. For example, if you take any of the albums by the Beatles, their music is a mixture of different styles and influences. That’s what creativity is. Stretching your creativity means finding different techniques and approaches and mixing them up in new and exciting ways. Sometimes, you will find a photographic equivalent of “A Day in the Life,” or maybe “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” but it will be your photo and not a pale copy of someone else’s style.

Style is also about continuity. Similarities between subjects, lighting, equipment, camera and lens settings, image processing, lighting, composition, and method of display will all help you find yours.

Your style does not have to be universally popular. Recently, I posted the following pictures on Instagram. Shot within seconds of each other, they showed the same scene, but one was a long exposure, and the other was taken with a fast shutter. The majority preferred the version I didn’t. The important thing for me, though, is being true to myself by shooting in the way I want, and not kowtowing to popular opinion.

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There is no rule that you must stick with one style, although it is perfectly ok if you do. Many top photographers stay doing the same thing throughout their careers, while others change direction several times.

How to Improve Your Photography

Whatever genre or subject matter you shoot, these are all factors that are necessary for us to choose or master. Perhaps there are additional elements that you think are essential for a good photo. Or, do you consider one of them to be more or less important to your photography? Or do you balance them all equally? Perhaps you disagree with me altogether about any of them? It would be good to discuss your opinions in the comments.

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