Provincetown, 2015
Provincetown, 2015

One of the most Googled search phrases on the internet (regarding photography) is “How to take better photos.” Considering so many people search that phrase, I wanted to share some of my personal thoughts on how to take better photos, and what does it exactly mean to take “better” photos?

What are “good” photos?

Downtown LA, 2015
Downtown LA, 2015

I think a great photograph consists of three things:

  1. Composition
  2. Emotion
  3. Personal

1. Composition

Tokyo, 2011
Tokyo, 2011

Regarding composition, a photograph needs to have a strong composition. You need to have dynamic lines (diagonals, horizontals, verticals, curves). You need to have a clean background which allows your subject to pop from the background (they call this “figure-to-ground.”) You need to have clean edges of your frame, and preferably to not have overlapping figures in the background.

Also when it comes to composition, you should focus on having good light. Photography literally means “painting with light” in Latin.

Great light will elevate a photograph, bring life into it, and make it more compelling and interesting.

You can capture great light in a photograph in many ways.

First of all, you can shoot during “golden hour” (sunrise, sunset). Secondly, you can utilize “exposure compensation” (adding plus or minus) to make sure you don’t “blow out” or “over-expose” your highlights. Thirdly, you can utilize a flash to fill in the shadows of your subjects (to have them “pop” from the background), and also to add more saturation and contrast to your subjects.

2. Emotion

Downtown LA, 2015
Downtown LA, 2015

Secondly to make a great photo, you want to have a photograph with strong emotion.

What is “emotion” in a photograph?

Emotion in a photograph is what strikes your heart. It is what makes you relate with a subject, or empathize with the photographer. It is the feeling of happiness, sadness, melancholy, excitement, wonderment, or something else.

I feel that having a strong emotion is even more important than having a strong composition — because a photograph without emotion is dead.

Not only that, but as human beings, we are hard-wired to remember with emotions. Fear, joy, and happiness are emotions which etch themselves in our memory. For me, all the photos that are memorable to me hit both my brain (logical side) and my gut (emotional side).

But how do you capture emotion in photographs?

My suggestion — shoot with your heart.

What does “shooting with your heart” mean?

For me, it means empathizing with people on the streets, or with your subject, or with the place. It means putting yourself in the shoes of another person, or of getting the sense of a place. It means connecting with your environment on a deeper, more spiritual level.

Practically you can capture more emotions in your photos by having your subject show hand-gestures, body language, expressions with their posture, the look in their eyes. That can mean having your subject make strong eye-contact with you (remember the saying, “Eyes are the windows to the soul”), or by how their body is positioned (if they are slouched over, if they are standing upright, or if they are leaning against something). One of the best ways to study body posture is to look at sculpture and study Renaissance paintings and portraits.

3. Personal

Paris, 2015
Paris, 2015

The last part of the “great photograph trifecta” includes an element which is personal. Meaning — how does this photograph of yours show who you are as a person? How you see the world? Your personal perspective, or the “lens” in which you perceive others (sorry for the bad pun).

Often we are told that if we want to be good photographers, we should be detached, outside observers. I wholly disagree. A photographer decides what to include and what to exclude from the frame. The photographer is biased— that is what makes a photographer good. A photographer needs to be opinionated— or else he/she would photograph everything. And by showing everything, a photograph is boring.

An interesting photo has mystery. What you decide to exclude from the frame is more interesting than what you decide to include in a frame.

Not only that, but how do you channel your personal life experiences in your photography? How do you see the world? Do you see the world from an optimistic or pessimistic point of view? How do you use your personal experiences to color the events you see before your very eyes?

For me, I studied sociology — so I always see the world from the perspective of a sociologist. In-fact, I don’t see myself as a “street photographer” — rather, I see myself as a sociologist with a camera.

I have many photography friends who have studied art or graphic design in school. They see the world from a graphical perspective.

There are other photographers who are economists, lawyers, doctors, scientists, dancers, painters, sculptors, teachers, or even taxi drivers. They use their own perspectives and life experiences and take unique photos. They combine their different interests (besides photography) to make personally-interesting and personally-meaningful images.

At the end of the day, you want to make photos that bring you joy and happiness. You want to make photos that are personal to you, and photos that feel authentic and genuine to you.

If you don’t please yourself in your photography, what do you care what others think?

How to take “better” photos

Downtown LA, 2015
Downtown LA, 2015

So we outlined what made a “good” photograph. But how do you take a “better” photograph?

For me, I would start off by saying there is no objective “good” or “bad” photos. Not only that, but you can’t objectively say if a photograph is “better” or “worse” than another photograph. Everything in the world is by our opinion, even comparisons. Even the “experts” don’t know any better. Because all of our opinions are tainted by our personal life experiences, our biases, and perspectives.

But to take a “better” photograph means to judge your own work against your past self. It doesn’t mean judging your photographs against the work of others.

So if you want to take “better” photographs, think to yourself, “Are the photos I’m taking today bringing me more satisfaction, challenge, and excitement than photos I took a year or two ago?” If so, you are on the right journey.

To take “better” photos also means to appreciate your past work, but not to become complacent with your photography. Once again, we all have our own “inner-scorecard” in which we judge our photos. Don’t be satisfied with the photos you have shot in the past. Seek to take your photography to the next level, by adding more interest, more complexity, and more emotion.

For example, I try to make “better” photos in my street photography by having photos that hit me in the heart even more. I also try to add more layers, and multiple-subjects to add complexity to a scene. Furthermore, I try to simplify my frame to make a better photograph. I try not to have objects or things sticking out of the head of my subjects. I try to have better light in my photos by using a flash or being patient until shooting during sunset.

To also learn how to take “better” photos means to study the work of the masters of photography, to learn the fundamentals of what makes a “good” photograph.

There is a saying, “The person without a past has no future.”

By studying the past, we can distill the learnings and philosophies of master photographers. These master photographers have spent their entire lives perfecting their craft (often for 40-50 years). And we can invest $50 to buy a photography book of theirs, which is their best work of their entire life. That is a good trade-off to me.

Furthermore, reality tends to repeat itself. I have identified a lot of similar scenes when I’m shooting photography when I reference the work of past photographers.

In addition, there is nothing truly “original” in photography or art anymore. As humans, we learn by mimicking and copying. We take all the lessons, inspirations, and motivations from the past, and re-mix them to make them a little more personal to us.

If you look back far enough, every great photographer has copied some other artist. For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson was inspired by the surrealists. Bruce Gilden was inspired by the close-up and wide-angle work of Lisette Model. Many photographers using a flash were inspired by Weegee. Many black-and-white photographers were inspired by the ‘film noir’ movies of the past.

Picasso once said that bad artists copy, and great artists steal.

What I think Picasso meant by this is that you don’t want to just copy another photographer pixel-by-pixel. Rather, you want to steal their best ideas, and make it your own. By adding a little small contribution of yours. By making your photos just different enough to contribute to the field of photography.

Train your eye

Seoul, 2009
Seoul, 2009

The photographer Jay Maisel calls training your eye as “visual push-ups.” The more great photography you look at, the more you train your eye to discern.

I think that great photographers are also great editors (meaning, they know how to choose their best work).

I generally encourage photographers to “buy books, not gear” — because you will learn how to become a better photographer by investing in great photo books. By buying better gear, you won’t make better photos — you will just make your wallet lighter.

Study the work of the contemporary master photographers, as well as the old-school Magnum photographers. Whenever you find a photographer whose work you are especially drawn to, consume all of their inspiration as possible. Watch videos on them on YouTube, read interviews they’ve done in the past, buy their books, and if they’re still living — attend one of their classes or workshops.

Remember the saying, “You are what you eat.” By consuming great photography, you will be visually healthy, and aspire to also making great photos. If you only look at images that are “junk food” (99% of what is on social media), you are essentially having a McDonalds visual education.

So set your expectations of yourself high. Aim high. Aim to be great (both in comparison with the masters of photography, but more importantly, what you consider “great” by your own standards).

By aiming high, even if you fail, at least you end up higher-up than if you set low expectations.

Conclusion

Santa Monica, 2009
Santa Monica, 2009

Don’t let others dictate whether you are taking “better” photos or not. Judge your own progress. See if you are making daily improvements to your photography — either by studying composition, emotion, the work of the masters, whether you are shooting more, or finding more inspiration from outside fields.

Keep learning

Other articles to help inspire you to take better photos:

  1. “Taking” vs “Making” Photos in Street Photography
  2. 7 Tips How to Make a Great Street Photograph
  3. 103 Lessons I’ve Learned From Street Photography
  4. How Do Your Photos Make You Feel?