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SEPTEMBER 24, 2010

Taking Great Photos

Filed under Photography @ 4:48 pm

I’ve been a commercial photographer for 30 odd years now and I often get asked, “What’s the secret to a good photograph?” There’s a lot of subjective opinion around that question, but two things keeps coming back to me as the most important tools to help get that great image. This has nothing to do with exotic technique or expensive equipment. You might use a cell phone camera or an expensive one. It doesn’t matter.

Walter Hodges Photo

One of these answers is actually a statement and it comes from a guy named Winfield Parks who was a National Geographic photographer back in the 60’s and 70’s. This was in the film days when you had to get the image on film and there were no second chances or retouching. It all had to happen in the camera “right now.” A reporter asked him what made him better than so many other photographers. His reply has become an icon and has actually been falsely attributed to a number of other photographers. He simply said “F5.6 and be there.” It means persisting in the face of repeated failure. It means getting up early or staying late. It means being there when everyone else is drinking scotch or sitting on the couch. Being there is more difficult than any other discipline I’ve ever tried to learn. I have to work at it constantly, and often enough I miss the critical moment. It means nothing else matters but getting that photo, and nothing gets in the way. If you don’t show up, you’re not much more than a walking talking excuse. So being there is half the solution. The second half is actually a question.

You need to ask yourself “What am I trying to say?” Very few people ask that question, and very few people speak clearly with their images.

Here’s what I mean. Take a look at these two photos. Both of them are great shots, but what exactly is the message? They’re both the same shot, but one is cropped differently.

Snake River 1 Photo    Snake River 2 Image 

The shot on the left was described as “Gary with big brown trout.” That’s actually not “Gary with a big brown trout.” It’s a large river that’s very clear, and rocks, and green trees, and a gravel bar and mountains and a huge clear sky and “Gary with a big brown trout.” The image on the right is “Gary with a big brown trout.” Two completely different statements. One much more specific than the other. What’s the best one? Depends on what you want to say. It might be the shot on the left, or it might be the one on the right. What did you want to say? That’s a better question than trying to decide which is best.

The point I’m making is that too many amateurs or beginning photographers don’t take the time to think about what they want to say, and as a result they don’t speak clearly with their images. They get too caught up in the moment and forget that in order to communicate with a great photo, they need to only say what they want to say and nothing more. This isn’t rocket science and you don’t need to be an artist or a pro to take a great photo. You just need to ask, “What Am I Trying To Say?” Then you need to say it clearly by using your equipment and your head.

Less is often more in photography. Find an angle that gets rid of what you don’t need to say. Don’t get seduced by all the other stuff going on visually in your photo. Take a moment to see if there’s another way of looking at the shot that will allow you to speak more clearly. If you think you’re close enough, YOU’RE NOT. Get closer. I use that thought every single time I shoot a photograph. You don’t need to spend a dime more on equipment. You can literally apply this to a photo from a cell phone. Save the cash. You need to think. Then you need to speak clearly. My advice? Don’t write a paragraph. Write one short good sentence.

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