What makes a capture a good photograph? There might be a thousand answers, many of them even conflicting. And in the end “good” anyway is always in the eye of the viewer. Some like, some dislike.
But one thing for sure will give your photos a big push: Instead of capturing it all focus just on the essence of a scene or a moment. Or better than “the” essence I should say “your” essence.
Easier said than done. What could this essence be like? Certainly there cannot be a general answer. It will depend on each scene or subject in front of your lens. But if you see a picture you want to take, there must have been a reason why you had stopped to take it.
The main difficulty now is to figure out what exactly caught your eye.
Take your Time
When discovering a scene don’t immediately raise your camera and shoot. Think about your subject first, if necessary even sit down a little while. This will take a few minutes for each shot in the beginning. But I promise if doing it for a while one day you will get a natural feel what the essence of the moment is. Getting there is simply lots of practice.
Often the essence is an emotion – one of the most tricky things to shoot. Sometimes it is a story you want to tell. And another time the essence of a place simply might be structures and lines. But before shooting immediately, make yourself aware of what the essence of your scene is.
Question yourself: Why do I want to shoot it? What do I want to tell the viewer of my photo in the end?
There are a few techniques how to get closer to the answer. The names of the approaches are purely made up, so don’t even start googling for them as fixed terms.
The Title Approach
The “title approach” I imported to photography from my previous job as a writer. If you don’t know the final point you want to make in an article, then starting to write even just the first line is more or less impossible. Therefore the abstract of the abstract of the abstract has to be known first. And the shortest and most dense and compact summary in any case is the title, which of course can be altered in the end. It’s just about making yourself aware of what you want to say.
When having stopped for shooting a scene of your favor step back for a second and give your shot a title. Not just “Landscape” but something very specific to your scene. Giving your image a name will automatically let you know which kind of impression you want the viewer of the photograph to have. Well, the rest is “simply” shooting it this style and then hope the viewer of your image to have the same impression in the end.
The Intellectual Approach
Of course any other process leading to the answer why you wanted to shoot the image will work as well. Once knowing why you had decided to pull your camera, take a second thought of how to best capture the essence you now have figured out. If it is about colors look for the best combination of colors to make them pop or feel as soft as you want. If it is about emotions make sure to capture those. The same scene with an aperture of f2.8 and 16, shooting against the sun or with the sun in your back, focusing on the foreground, mid-ground or background will each create different emotions. Don’t make it happen by chance, shoot intentional.
That means: Be aware of what you want to shoot an why, then take some time to think about the camera settings and best angle of capture to really carve out the essence in your photo.
The Iterative Approach
The crop of your image definitely has a very strong effect on the image’s feel. It makes a big difference whether you shoot a mountain with a wide angle having the mountain far away and tiny in the background with plenty of plain field in the front or shooting the same mountain as a frame filling detail with a telephoto lens. Neither is right nor wrong, it depends on the story you want to tell with your image, depends on the emotion you want to make the viewer feel.
During my photography workshops I discover that most people tend to shoot too wide. The result is having their preferred element they want to focus on cover just a tiny fraction of the frame. Well, if it’s tiny with plenty of other subjects around it might not immediately catch the viewers eye. Zoom in!
Once having said that I discover people to often zoom in too much, now cropping out some interesting parts of the story. This already shows how difficult the process of cropping in camera is.
In general one can say a frame to be perfect if you cannot crop any tighter without losing elements telling your story.
Again you will have to know what you want to tell with the photo and which crop will best achieve the effect. Is it about a detail then zoom in. Is it about the whole scenery including the sky and lots of foreground then zoom out.
The iterative approach works best with zoom lenses. Try to zoom in and in and in step by step to check whether the effect you want to achieve improves. Once you think to be in the right spot, cautiously zoom out again step by step to see whether the elements moving in again really are not necessary to the story – just in case you might have cropped too tight before.
Why not crop later in post processing software? A bit of cropping is no problem at all. But if you end up with just a quarter of your file or less your abilities in printing the picture in reasonable size and quality will be quite restricted already.
At best you combine these techniques. Starting with giving your subject a name, then making up your mind about how to tease out the essence of your favored subject. As last try to crop in and out until having the very best frame. With fixed focus lenses you’ll have to switch to zooming by feet if possible. Often walking in and out is the better approach in photography anyway.
In the beginning, I know, searching for the essence will take some time for each shot. No snapshots anymore. But after a short while already you will discover not to think about it anymore actively. Usually I personally know my essence of a capture right away already when approaching a scene.
But it is the same questions I go through in mind. While approaching then I often already know the settings and angles to achieve the result I want to have, the story I want to tell in the image. As well as the crop, which is very often done in my head.
But if I am not sure I will take my time to figure it out, even if sometimes it takes an hour or more of walking around.
No camera triggering without an answer to the “why” and the correlated “how”.
Once you start shooting more intentional you will on the one hand most probably shoot less pictures, especially in the beginning, because the process will take some time. But on the other hand you will end up with much better photos most likely. Sounds familiar? Probably from one of my earlier posts of shooting less but increasing the quota of keepers.
Isn’t that what we are all looking for? There is no award for the photographer having triggered the camera most often or faster than others during a trip. Don’t we want to be acknowledged as the photographer who’s pictures are worth to see? The whole series, not just one out of thousand?
Give it a try: Focus on your subject. Capture just the essence of each scene and take your photography beyond randomness!