Photographic Lesson #1

Photographic articles on the Internet usually concerns the technical aspects of photography, such as the latest CCD chip technology of certain camera producers or comparisons of f/1.4 lenses and f/1.8 lenses, or (if they are at all concerned with teaching photography) aperture values, lighting techniques, how slow shutter speeds will affect handheld exposures and so on. They all lack what’s the most important aspect of photography and what makes the difference between the digital photographs in exhibitions and what you see in one of the millions of Facebook snapshot galleries; how to make a good photograph.


Firstly, I would like to kill a few myths. The equipment you use doesn’t matter a tenth as much as what’s between your ears. I tend to use what I call the Carpenter Example when explaining to people why this is. The carpenter uses a hammer to build a house, just like a photographer uses a camera to take a photograph, but the camera is merely a tool to the photographer, not the other way around. The photographer herself decides what should be pictured, the angle and (in most cases) the exposure itself. If you want to learn how to correctly expose a photograph, there are several sites on the Internet to tell you what aperture, shutter speed, ISO values and so on means, and how to use them accordingly.

So, as for the introductory part of this new column, I’m going to tell what I’ll be focussing on in the coming weeks/months/years depending on the success, appeal and overall workload this column will be. The first parts will be used to teach you how to see and read images. What makes a good image, what makes a bad image, where to place the centre of interest and so on, using mainly my own photographs in the explanatory process. Later on, I’ll explain where to find new subjects to photograph, how to compose pictures, how to get over mental challenges, how to present your photographs and at last how to make better images than you do presently. Just as with sports, photography requires practice. No football player, ballett dancer or pianist will be come a true great without spending time to improve their skills, and the same goes for a photographer.

People claim the best way of practice is to take as many photographs as is humanly possible. Travel afar to find subjects, walking in your own back yard and so on. This is, to some extent, true, but it is a much better method to watch other people’s photographs. Not necessarily just professional photographers, but other amateurs and enthusiasts as well. Looking at photographs is probably the most rewarding way of improving your own photographic skills. How did they photograph subjects different from how you would do it? What did they photograph? What in those photos appealed to you and make you want to have a closer look? Usually, the photographs you want to see have some kind of subject close to what you yourself are interested in seeing in photographs, or they’re rendered in an appealing way you might be able to adopt or at least try in your own photographic endeavours.

I was once told that ‘You cannot photograph things like this! You have no interest in the subjects!’ after having taken photographs an entire day in a tiny mountain village. And it was correct! I had no interest in what I’d shot, and of course the photographs weren’t any good at all. I stayed up far into the early hours of the night thinking about what interested me, thought how I could put those interests into a photograph, drew a couple of sketches to help me the next day, and then went out to take some of my best photographs to date. In other words, it’s a good idea to find out what your interests are and how to photograph them. If you’re interested in food, photograph food! If you enjoy long walks in the woods, shoot woods! I myself am interested in the subject of loneliness (which mightn’t always be a bad thing!) and since I found out, it’s been pretty dominant in most of my images.

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The other important thing to learn when it comes to early steps in improving your photographic skills, is to teach yourself how to see. Not in the usual way, of course, but try to see your own backyard as a tourist, or your own home town. While walking to the train in the morning or to the store after work; see if you can spot anything which might make a good photograph, or imagine how you would frame something you see along the way. How can it make an interesting photograph? If it’s very appealing, try drawing a quick sketch of it and its framing, or even better: Take your camera with you and start shooting at once. “Ah, that’s a great photo subject, too bad I didn’t bring my camera” is probably the mostly used excuse for not taking a picture. Carry the camera, it might be heavy, but it’s a motivator!

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