How to Become a Better Photographer

It took 25 years of trial and error for me to be able to take good photographs consistently. And while I’ll never claim to be a great photographer, I’ve taken some photos that I’m quite proud of. Here are the most valuable lessons that I learned along the way:

1. Take the Picture

Sunrise in Daytona Beach, Florida. © 2001.

(Click any photo to enlarge it in a lightbox.)

Take the shot. So what if it sucks. If you’re not paying for film or processing, the cost of taking an extra photo is virtually nothing. Maybe you’ll come up with something workable. Even an over- or underexposed photograph can be salvaged if it has good composition.

This photo was taken five minutes before sunrise in Daytona Beach, Florida. I was carrying a Vietnam-era camera (without a tripod) loaded with ISO 400 slide film. I couldn’t get the camera’s light meter to work because it was practically nighttime. I didn’t even know what to focus on, but I did know that the sky was turning colors and something felt special. So, I started snapping shots. When I got home, I told the photo lab to process the film as if it had been ISO 1600 (a very sensitive type of film used for low-light photography). Nothing in the photo is in focus and when you zoom in, the film grain looks like golf balls. But still, I love it.

2. Don’t Obsess Over Equipment

A kindly old man in New Orleans. © 2003.

Photography is judged by outcomes, not equipment. Are expensive cameras more capable? Sure. Do they take higher resolution photos? Sure. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t take great photos with a cheap camera. I took some of the best photos of my life with a Mamiya 1000DTL that was made in 1970. It was heavy and clunky and the light meter didn’t work at low shutter speeds, but it took great photos.

I don’t know the man in this photograph. I saw him sitting on a street corner when I was visiting New Orleans and I asked him if I could take his picture. He happily agreed. I’m not sure that he would have been so open if I had a big, expensive camera around my neck. People question your motives when you tote around professional gear.

3. Use the Tools You Have Available

Catching a little sun in Agrigento, Sicily. © 2009.

You won’t always have the perfect equipment to take the photo you have in mind. Improvise! No polarizing filter? Try shooting through polarized sunglasses and see what happens. A big part of being an artist is finding creative solutions to the challenges that you face.

I was trying to photograph the sun above ancient Greek ruins in the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily. If I exposed for the sun, the stone columns in the foreground were underexposed. If I exposed for the temple, then the entire sky was blown-out and white. A graduated neutral-density filter is the right tool for this situation. I didn’t have one, so I picked up a dusty water bottle cap from the ground and used it to blot out the sun. It helped to even out the exposure between light and dark and made a fun photo.

4. Take Pictures, Even When You Don’t Want To

Reflections on the Hudson River. © 2006.

I can’t count how many times I’ve left home without a camera, only to be inspired by something or to see something amazing. It’s like getting punched in the stomach. That’s less of an issue these days, because everyone with a smartphone has a camera on them. The real challenge is motivating yourself to take a photo when you really don’t want to.

I took this photo from Weehawken, NJ on Jan. 15, 2006. It was 17 degrees out with gusts of 30 mph wind. Not exactly the best time to be taking long exposure photographs on the banks of the Hudson River. My hands hurt so bad from the cold and I had no idea what my photos would look like, because you can never really be sure with very long exposures. It was worth it in the end: This photo is one of the few that I have hung in my home.

5. Go Where The People Aren’t

Snowy trees in New York City's Central Park. © 2005.

I’ve never liked being amongst a crowd of other photographers. Sometimes you can jazz things up by drifting far enough away to include the crowd in your photo. Better yet, go someplace different altogether. You may stumble across something special that no one else is photographing.

There aren’t many times that you can be alone in New York City’s Central Park, but no one was around when I took this photo of the trees above the literary walk. That’s because everyone was preoccupied with seeing “The Gates,” an artistic installation of 7,503 vinyl flags that decorated the park in February of 2005. While mobs of people were on the fringes of the park, I was alone in the center of the park. It was pretty surreal.

6. Look for Something Interesting in the Mundane

My father's hands after changing a tire. © 2005.

Give yourself a limitation if you ever suffer from “photographer’s block.” For example, only take photos in your kitchen for a day. The limitation will force you to think creatively and will probably inspire good shots that you would have otherwise overlooked.

I once took 100 photos of my father changing a tire on his truck. Most of the photos are as boring as you would think, but this one really stood out. It’s one of my favorites.

7. Recognize a Happy Accident

Kodak Gold 100 soaked in cheap beer. © 2003.

I once read that Louis Daguerre discovered his namesake daguerreotype photographic process by accident. He supposedly put an exposed glass plate in a chemical cabinet and later discovered that it “developed.” It’s a cool story that may or may not be true, but the lesson of the story is important: Learn how to recognize a happy accident. Just because a photo turned out differently than you wanted or expected doesn’t mean it is bad.

My roommate spilled beer on one of my photo binders; I found my ruined negatives weeks after any hope of saving them was gone. But, instead of trashing them, I decided to run one of the negatives through a film scanner. It looked amazing!

8. Wait a While Before You Delete Photos

The World Trade Center seen from New Jersey. © 1999.

It’s tempting to delete a digital photo right after you take it. Avoid this temptation. I remember when the news about President Clinton’s indiscretion with Monica Lewinsky broke. My photography teacher philosophized that any film photographer who had a picture of the President together with Monica Lewinsky had that photo forever, but a digital photographer may have deleted the photo of Monica Lewinsky (to make room for a picture of the President with Bono or something like that). My teacher was more right than he knew. Boring photos can become interesting on a long enough timeline.

I’ve lived in or around New York City my whole life and I’ve taken more than 250,000 photos in that time. Yet, I only have three photographs of the original World Trade Center. Three. This is my favorite of them. It was hidden within a 24-exposure roll of terrible photos that I took with a disposable Kodak camera. It’s not a great picture, but it’s the best photo of the Twin Towers that I ever took and that I’ll ever be able to take. And I could have easily thrown it out.

9. Use “Magic Hour” to Your Advantage

Photographed in New York for Mecca USA. © 2007.

“Magic hour” is about 15 minutes of beautiful daylight that happens just after the sun goes down. I’ve taken plenty of mediocre photos in the moments before and after magic hour, but snapped a few great photos in between. The trick is to expose for the sky and use a lighting source to fill in the foreground. This will give you a moody photo with lots of rich colors. You can use a flash for your foreground fill, but you’ll need to diffuse it so it’s not so bright. A weak flashlight can work just fine.

I shot this photo for the fashion brand Mecca USA and it was used on billboards and in magazine ads. It was the first time my photography was used in a fashion campaign. But, shut the door, because I’m going to tell you a secret. I shot this photo with a cheap digital camera and a $10 flashlight. That’s it. All of the interesting lighting and texture in the background is thanks to being in the right place at the right time: New York City's meatpacking district at sunset.

10. Get Comfortable With Manual Settings

My nephew holding a fresh picked daisy. © 2005.

Almost every modern camera has some form of an “automatic” setting that decides the focus, aperture, shutter speed and flash exposure. This kind of automation should help you quickly get shots that you’d otherwise miss, at least in theory. My experience has been the opposite. Even the best digital cameras botch the exposure in a scene with extreme contrast (high or low) or struggle to focus well in a fast-moving scene. You can beat the machine with practice.

My young nephew was handing me this daisy at dusk. I quickly opened my aperture to f/1.4, set my shutter speed to 1/30th of a second and turned my focus ring as far to the right as it would go. This extreme way of focusing made the entire scene a blur, but then I was able to move the camera closer until the flower morphed into the only thing in focus. This allowed me to take the picture and live the moment, because I didn’t spend any time fussing over a misbehaving camera that couldn’t decide what to focus on.

Postscript

The photo of Positano, Italy at the very top of this article may be the best one that I’ve ever taken. Every time I’ve tried to “improve” the photo in Photoshop, it looked worse. The lesson is to leave well enough alone sometimes. The other lesson is that sometimes you get a beautiful shot when you put yourself in a less beautiful place. The photo was taken from a dark street corner in the neighboring village of Praiano, Italy. Here is the full panorama:

Sunset over Positano, Italy as seen from Praiano, Italy. © 2008.

Some of My Creative Projects