“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
— Don McCullin
“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”
— Paul Caponigro
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
— Dorothea Lange
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
— Ansel Adams
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
— Elliott Erwitt
“Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.”
— Matt Hardy
“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.”
— Yousuf Karsh
Alongside and within the effort of finding one’s style, there is the challenge of learning how to see not only the world that is in front of you, but the photograph that is in front of you.
There is the scene, and there is the way you want to express the scene to others. There is what you see, and there is what you feel about what you see.
The difference between taking a picture and making a photograph is the act of capturing the latter in a frame. When you do that, your photography becomes a tool to influence how people see, how they think, how they feel, what they know, what they understand, even how they act.
Progressing from snapshots to crafted photographs is not rocket science, but it does take some understanding of technique and plenty of practice.
I’ve pulled together 10 strategies that will help you dramatically improve your images. Keeping these in mind while you’re shooting will make you more thoughtful about your photography overall, and they will quickly become second nature.
1. CREATE LAYERS IN YOUR COMPOSITION
Design a space for your subject in the frame, using the habitat that is surrounding it. With layers, you can transform an ordinary subject into something more extraordinary, create a mood, or provide a sense of place.
There’s a difference between a frame full of layers and a cluttered frame (and we’ll address clutter later). Rather that packing a ton of stuff into your frame, what I mean by “create layers” is to utilize the foreground and background to fill out the story of your subject and its environment, or to artfully anchor the subject within a composition.
Layers provide the viewer’s eyes and imagination with room to roam.
Female duck among wildflowers and grasses at a pond. This scene with a distant subject is given depth by layering the flowers in the foreground, the duck in the middle ground, and the fog-shrouded trees in the background.
2. USE LIGHT AS A SUBJECT
A photograph cannot be made without light, so it is worth considering light just as much your subject as whatever else you are photographing. Ask yourself: How can I give light a leading role in this frame?
For instance, you can position the subject with the light source behind it, called backlight, so that its edges glow. Or you can include the source of light in the frame for creative light flare. You can use dappled sunlight in the background to provide texture. There are endless possibilities.
The way you decide to invite light into your image can make or break that image’s impact on viewers – and just shifting position a bit to use light in a smart way can completely alter the mood of a photo and turn a snapshot into a photograph.
By moving around the scene until I could position the sun in a compelling area of the frame, and adjusting my settings so I could create sun rays, this image gains both dimension and storyline.
3. FRAME YOUR SUBJECT
One strategy for bringing emphasis to a certain part of the image or to the subject is to build a frame around it. Not only does this strategy highlight what you most want people to notice about the shot, but it can also bring other benefits, including adding interest, depth or dimension to a scene.
It is also an excellent way to bring attention to a subject that would go unnoticed without such help, such as an animal photographed small within its environment.
Framing is more than just having something on all four sides of a subject. A frame has to have a purpose, an ability to guide viewers’ eyes to the subject.
Keep in mind, framing doesn’t have to be done on all four sides, nor with objects. It can be done with light and shadow, with texture or color, even with lens flare. But it does need to have a reason to be there, to add emphasis and dimension rather than distraction.
There are many approaches to crafting a frame, including:
- using foreground objects to create a “window” into the scene
- using the chaotic patterns, textures and lines of a scene to draw the eye toward the subject
- placing your subject in the lightest or darkest part of the scene, using contrast like picture matting
The next time you’re looking at a scene that feels flat, or your subject seems lost in a chaotic setting, experiment with framing and see what creative compositions you can craft.
In the examples shown here, a great blue heron in a conifer tree at a distance would be a very flat, uninteresting image. By positioning myself under a nearby alder tree and using leaves shining in sunlight as a frame, the image becomes much more interesting and the subject stands out.
Meanwhile, I moved around slightly to position the gulls with golden grasses right behind them, using those grasses as a “frame” of color and light around the gulls. The pair become more interesting than they’d otherwise be in a big, brown landscape.
4. LOOK FOR PATTERNS AND LINES
A chaotic snapshot with no rhyme or reason to the placement of various elements in it is uncomfortable to look at. There isn’t a place for the viewer’s eyes to land or a way for them to easily travel around the frame. The trick to turning a busy snapshot into an organized photograph is to watch for patterns and lines.
A great photograph takes advantage of geometry. This includes using leading lines, S-curves, patterns, and even the golden spiral.
Patterns and lines allow our eyes and brains to make sense of scenes, especially when there is a lot going on within the frame. This is something you can seek out and arrange in landscapes, but often with wildlife, you have to wait for it to occur naturally and react when things align.
When photographing this Pacific wren in a chaotic understory, I took advantage of dark vertical lines of vegetation, and the “V” formed by bright vegetation behind the bird, to bring attention to this small animal in a big, busy scene.
Take advantage of patterns and lines to guide a viewer into, and through, the scene. Use lines to their best advantage by starting out in a corner of the frame and leading they eye to areas of interest, such as a subject or distant horizon. Consider the use of “S curves” and diagonals when composing.
5. PROVIDE CONTEXT TO ADD TO THE STORY
Robert Capa famously said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” This has been turned into a rule of good photography, and indeed getting closer is usually vital to creating intimate images that craft a connection between subject and viewer. But this “rule” isn’t always correct.
Sometimes a much more powerful image is created by backing away from the subject, making it a smaller component of the frame so that its surroundings become part of the story told by the photograph. A photographer can then craft an image that has a message that would be lost if the subject were isolated.
Instead of relying on a “get closer” rule to improving images, consider a “get farther away” technique as well. By providing context, a photographer can move away from just another portrait and instead make a photograph with a message.
This northwestern salamander adult is typically underground during the day but may be seen when accidentally dug up from its burrow during gardening or landscape activities. That’s what happened here, so I framed the animal with the house in the background to provide context to where it was located.
6. AVOID CLUTTER
Every element in your image should have a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to guide the eye without distracting from the subject. Clutter is anything that lacks purpose, and a quick way to improve any image is to cut the clutter out.
Clutter can often be removed from an image by changing your angle or position. By moving to the left or right, getting higher or lower, you can get a smoother background or get objects out of the frame.
You can also declutter an image by using a different f-stop for shallower depth of field, which results in a blurred background.
As you compose a shot, take a moment to look through your lens and ask yourself: Is there anything in this composition that distracts from the image? Can the image be improved by removing it?
If the answer is yes to these questions, consider moving and reframing to get a better shot.
I used a mix of camera settings that created a shallow depth of field, careful framing of the subject, and a low angle perspective to create as much simplicity as possible for this whimbrel that dug up and ate a Pacific mole crab.
7. CAPTURE MOTION
There are two ways to capture motion. One is by freezing a dramatic moment of movement, and one is by craftily using blur.
You can creatively freeze a moment of movement by looking for something that demonstrates action. For example, consider the drama created by splashing water, dust billowing up from under feet, or the movement of hair or feathers lifted by wind.
There is also the fleeting expressions of an animal in action, such as during a fight, a chase between predator and prey, or a courtship display. These split-second expressions or interactions can convey movement equally as effectively as wind or water.
A shot that freezes everything in a single frame can be beautiful, but sometimes it can feel static. Using blur adds the feeling of movement in an image, and along with it additional emotion and visual interest.
Typically photographers use pan blur, which means using a slow shutter speed while tracking the movement of a subject. This blurs the background and parts of the subject, while keeping a critical part of the subject, such as the eyes, in sharp detail.
Pan blur provides a sense of speed, and with it comes patterns, textures and other artistic elements from the blurred portions of the frame.
Blur is useful in situations where the emotion behind movement matters for the overall impression you want the viewers to get from the image.
A classic example of this is the feeling of peacefulness created in a waterfall scene by using a slow shutter speed to blur the water as it tumbles downstream. The landscape is sharp while the water takes on a smooth, dreamy quality.
While a perfectly sharp image is wonderful, sometimes an image with just the right amount and type of blur is even better.
In these examples, the speed of an American dipper diving is captured by freezing the splash of water over its back. Meanwhile, a Brandt’s cormorant’s flight across a cliff edge is made more interesting by slowing the shutter speed to capture wing blur.
8. CHANGE UP YOUR ANGLE
It is so easy to want to walk up to a subject and photograph it at your own eye level. But there is almost always a better angle than this. Often, a better angle is the eye level of your subject.
Getting down to eye level is a great rule of thumb when photographing wildlife, or even plants. But it’s not the only option. When it comes to landscape shots, often a high angle is best so you are looking slightly down at your foreground and capturing everything from your feet to the distant horizon. Often, but not always. It depends so much on the specific situation.
Whether you get really low, or get really high, always search for just the right angle to create a compelling shot. Use an angle for a reason, not because that’s where you happen to be standing.
If you’re able, practice getting low, low, lower to be at eye level with your subject. It will help the subject stand out from the background, help create a foreground, and provide a sense of intimacy with your subject by seeing the world from its point of view.
9. ALWAYS HAVE A PURPOSE TO YOUR PHOTOGRAPH
You can take a picture of anything. Just aim your camera at it and snap. But most photographers don’t want to go through life just taking pictures of stuff. We want to create photographs of people, places, events, moments that create an emotional impact.
To do this we must ask with every single image: what is the purpose of my photo, and how can I make sure that purpose is expressed in the frame?
It is not easy to remember to stop and ask this. It is even harder to come up with an answer. And the greatest challenge of all is creating a photo that reflects the answer.
Some photographers do this intuitively, and often they become the masters whose work changes the way we all look at the world. But this skill can also be gained through practice and through actively considering the goal of each frame you take.
When everything from your subject’s story to your artistic vision come together in an image, you’ll know you’re doing more than just snapping a shot – you’re crafting a meaningful and lasting photograph that just might change the way people feel, think, or even act. That’s something worth practicing.