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We've all been there. You're clicking through the pages of a website like Light Stalking and you are bombarded with so many beautiful top quality images that you feel like giving up. A wave of pessimism comes over you as you convince yourself that you'll never take a picture like that. Either that or you remind yourself that yours are only inferior because your camera is obviously inferior. Well, both of these thoughts are wrong. You can shoot images like those but it's not going to happen without a lot of effort and practice.
First off, the most important thing to remember about top photographers is that they don't take a photograph, they make a photograph. What you've been told time and time again about it not being the equipment that makes the difference is absolutely true.
Learn to See Things Differently
Top photographers see things differently to most people. They notice things that most people don't see and are always looking for opportunities. I constantly drive along in the car with my wife saying “wow, look at the light on that field” or “that tree has great character, that would make a superb subject”. It must drive her mad because she has no idea what I am talking about, she wouldn't notice until I presented the picture to her on my MacBook, at which point she'd say, “wow, that's lovely, where is it?”, to which I'll reply, “it's the fence post in the back garden.”
Photography to me is all about capturing what other people don't see rather than what they do, even if this is simply showing that subject in a different way. Unfortunately this can't be taught but it will come in time if you just keep looking and thinking. Just open your eyes to what is around you, whether large or small.
Research and Plan
Top photographers take the luck out of achieving a great photograph by being prepared and knowing exactly what to do (or at least try) in any given situation. Sure they sometimes take advantage of an opportunity that happens to present itself and come away with a great shot that they didn't expect, but most great photographs that you'll see are a result of planning and not simply being in the right place at the right time. A typical landscape shoot for me will take the following path:
- Research – Before going away on a photo shoot I will research the area thoroughly. I will trawl the internet looking for the best images I can of the area I am looking to visit and make a note of exactly where they were taken. Once I have done this I wipe all the images from my mind. I am not looking to copy anyone, I am simply looking to find extremely photogenic locations that I can photograph my way.
- Scout a location – This in itself can take a while, however this is normally an on going process for me. As mentioned above, the best way to do this is to be constantly looking for opportunites. Having said this, if I am going away for a few days on a photography trip I will usually spend the first day driving / walking around looking for great locations despite having already researched on the internet. Although I say driving I cannot stress how important it is to get out of your car. Everyone and their Gran has photographed whatever you spot from the road, you need to get out of the car and explore the area. You don't necessarily need to go far, it's amazing how different scene will look just 50m from the road. You never know, you may find something that no-one has before.
Once you've done your research and planning you need to….
Take Your Time and Analyse
Once you have your location don't rush things, you're unlikely to get a great shot in 5 minutes. Make sure you can spend plenty of time at your chosen location. Walk around and view your subject from different angles, find the best, and then walk around and think about it again. Make the time to shoot from several different angles and see which is best. The longer you spend at a location the more the light will change and you'll find that the shots you take will alter dramatically. Next time you're out with your camera try spending an hour at the same location shooting every 5 minutes, you'll be amazed at how different the shots at the end will be to the ones at the start.
Learn to Post Process and Don't Over Do It
Now then, let's get something straight, post processing isn't cheating, it is an absolute must if you want to achieve professional results. If you want to produce images like those you see in magazines then you need to shoot in RAW and then process the image on a computer.
Unfortunately I know people who even now say that post processing (or “photoshopping” as they call it) is cheating. So let's debunk a myth for those people who still think this way.
Every photo, and I mean EVERY photo is post processed, even if you take it with your iPhone and upload it straight to Facebook. If you shoot in jpg mode on your phone or camera the process of turning the image into a jpg file involves post processing, the only difference between this and shooting RAW and then doing it yourself is that with the latter you are in control. You decide how much contrast to add, whether to bring out the shadows, etc rather than letting your camera decide all the settings.
Post processing is just as much a part of the creative process as taking the photograph in the first place and it is something that you must learn to do if you want to shoot like a pro and the most important thing you will learn about post processing is Don't Over Do It!
Now, it's important that you understand that you will over do it. It's inevitable. You'll spend the first year of your post processing life going mad with sliders and turning out over processed tripe that you think are brilliant but that make your friends feel quite ill. Don't worry about it, we all do it, especially when we first discover HDR, but eventually you'll learn to pull back and calm down and your images will take on that pro gloss look rather than being migraine inducing.
Listen to Your Critics, Not Your Mum
This is one of the most important ways to improve your photography. The only people who are going to judge your images impartially are those who don't have an emotional attachment to you or your subject matter. By all means show your pictures to family and friends but take everything they say with a large pinch of salt. There are so many ways to get good, impartial feedback, the internet being the obvious one. Flickr is great but be careful with it, choose the groups you post to carefully as some are full of people who never give feedback and others work on a “post 1, favourite 3” type system where people appear to just trade “awards”, hardly a way to get genuine thoughts on your photos in my opinion.
The current best place to get genuine feedback on your images in my opinion is Google+. It has many thriving photographic communities with some amazing photographers only too willing to point out both your strengths and weaknesses.
Remember, photography is an art form, it goes way beyond just understanding your camera and then clicking the shutter button. And whilst I am predominantly a landscape photographer these 5 tips are relevant to any kind of photography, so before you pick up your camera think about what you are doing and what you want to achieve. Your photography will be better for it.