A series of columns on outdoor photography
The f-Stops Here
Getting Past Basics
Standard advice for taking better photos includes:
by Sharon Watson
Use quality lenses
Get closer to your subject
Hold the camera steady
Donít center your subject
Avoid face shadows
Keep horizons straight
Use fine-grain film
and, so on.
The following suggestions are less obvious, but just as vital. Applying even one of them will make a major difference in the quality and impact of your photos:
1. Shoot only in "good light." I donít mean bright light, an evenly dispersed light, or adequate light. Youíll know this "exceptional glow" when you see it. It is usually the low-angle light of early morning or late afternoon, but not necessarily. Iíve seen it happen at noon on a cloudy day with a peek-a-boo sun through a tear in the clouds, and in all kinds of other weather. Many pictures canít wait for this light, but if they did they would nearly always be fantastic "Idaho keepers." This special glow on the world and its objects and inhabitants is often called "the sweet light."
2. Think before shooting. Donít settle for the self-evident picture -- or get it over with, and then -- Improve on it. Try a different angle, a different lens, move the subject, or place something in the picture with the subject. Help your viewers to see it as though they had never seen it before! A trick used by some photographers is to shoot a "warm-up roll" with no film in the camera. That gets all the cliches out of the way.
3. Get out there! Great photos canít happen unless you "do it." Do it while you still can. Do it while you still want to. And, do it in "good light." -- which may mean getting up earlier, or sitting in the snow a little longer.
4. Camouflage yourself. I wore a white suit today and a dozen chukars came within 15 feet of me, scratching for food in a snowy draw. Even if Iím just taking scenics, I dress in seasonal colors. Creatures are less alarmed and if I go about my business slowly, they will sometimes stick around. The feeling of oneness with and reverence for my environment makes me a better photographer.
5. Focus -- not your lens so much as your mind. Zero-in on whatís happening so you can shoot at the right moment -- when the action is perfect, with no unwanted elements, and when your lens is also in focus. Yet stay alert to happenings off to one side that might warrant camera attention. Hunters know about this sort of concentration. Shooting a gun or bow accurately is nearly impossible without it. Shotgunning becomes sloppy if the shooter isnít focused -- and also alert to other elements in the line of fire. Photos fail for the same reason.
6. Keep camera equipment packed and ready to go at all times. Photos are "happening" all around you all the time. If your cameras are loaded and go whither thou goest, your pictures will be better. Youíll get more of those that normally get away!
7. Shoot more film. I donít like it either, but it works. There are about 568 things you must remember at every shutter punch. The more you shoot, the more these things become second nature.
8. Buy some new piece of equipment at least once a year -- even if itís just a different kind of film or a $15 filter. Experiment. Or, learn something else your present equipment will do!
9. Think photography. Read about it -- a lot. Tear pictures out of magazines and try to take photos like those you admire. Take a photography class. Share your vision, verbalize it, donít leave it in the subconscious realm of "feelings." More progress is made if ideals, visions are "on the table." If you donít shoot often and think about it often, you get rusty. Going back to square one is discouraging.
10. Study your own photos. Decide what would have made them outstanding instead of merely good. Jot down things to remember. Note your weaknesses and your strengths. Discover your style. Find your primary interests. Upon categorizing all your photos, you might find, for example, that the largest proportion are of hunting dogs, or of horses, or jumping fish, or abstract scenics. This realization may be important. Discovering and exploring a hint of unique photographic style can also lead to more incredible photos.
When you think you have something really unique in a knock-out "sweet light," maybe youíll want to start looking for photo contests to enter. Start small and local and work your way up. Hereís one I happen to know about, but youíve got to be pretty good: Check out The Nature Conservancy Photo Contest.
They will be picking one winning photo a month beginning in June, 1998 through May, 1999. Be sure to read all the Contest Rules carefully. There is no fee, but you can send only a total of 5 color prints or duplicate slides. The contest is open to only amateur photographers. Submissions will be accepted from January 1, 1998 through December 31, 1998. Your five photos will be considered for publication each and every month from June through May, as mentioned above, if it hasnít already been chosen. Prizes are provided.