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Photography 101: Viewing the World with a Photographer’s Eye, II

In part one of “Viewing the World with a Photographer’s Eye,” photographer Ming Thein talked about the basics of what makes…

Photography by Ming Thein

In part one of “Viewing the World with a Photographer’s Eye,” photographer Ming Thein talked about the basics of what makes a good photograph. In today’s part two, he takes a look at the little things you can do to make your images stronger — shot discipline, selection — as well as common mistakes and things to practice for the future.

There’s the small matter of shot discipline to think about. If you’ve ever wondered why some people’s images look crisper and punchier, it’s probably because they’re taken care the whole way through the image-making process. Shot discipline covers everything from eliminating camera shake to choosing the optimum apertures, processing RAW files and saving uncompressed versions. It also extends outside the technical disciplines to editing, and this isn’t the same as post processing (or what’s commonly thought of as “Photoshop”).

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4G11 by Hijjas Kasturi Architects, Putrajaya. Nikon D800E

Editing is the curating process of selecting images: your skill as a photographer is only judged on what you show, not what you shoot. This is where applying the four criteria to critiquing your own images, introduced in part one, can pay dividends. It’s also good for your personal evolution as a photographer: if you’re only keeping good stuff, eventually you’ll only shoot good stuff, leaving you to keep excellent stuff — and so on. The mark of a great photographer is not somebody with one or two good images. It’s consistency. A great photographer should be able to produce at the excellent or higher level all the time, regardless of subject or conditions.

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Yellow windows. Olympus PEN E-P5

It doesn’t end there. What happens when you’ve mastered the technical basics, can capture what you see, and start to wonder what’s next? Creative evolution is what — the next step is capturing what you imagine. You create the composition, you create the light; in essence, the entire final product is under your control. This is what the best commercial photographers do — we’re as involved in the creative process as the agencies and art directors are, because we have our own vision for each idea.

Beyond that lies the ability to imagine and execute ideas so different that most people won’t have even thought of them; often, these images have a very strong style that also identifies the work as being a child of that person — take Sebastiao Salgado, Annie Leibowitz, Steve McCurry, Ansel Adams, or Mario Testino for instance: they’ve all pushed the envelope in ways that make their work instantly recognizable. This is an enormous leap that few photographers, perhaps a small handful in every generation, ever make. They define their genre.

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San Francisco. Olympus OM-D

Of course, before one even progresses to that point, it’s important to be aware of the common pitfalls faced by photographers. I’ve been asked this enough to make a handy list — here’s a summary of some of these photographic mistakes:

Common mistakes by beginners and amateurs

A question of light. You can make an interesting image of a boring subject with great light, but the most interesting subject will be invisible with no light.

The missing subject. If the subject of your image — what the photo is actually about — isn’t obvious at a glance, you should probably ask yourself why you took the picture in the first place.

Poor perspective use. Pick your perspective before your angle of view. Wide angles are used to emphasize foreground subjects, telephotos to de-emphasize them with respect to the background. Don’t use a wide angle to “get more stuff in” the frame, that will just result in boring images. Similarly, telephotos are not for “getting closer.”

Relying too much on gear. A new or expensive piece of equipment won’t automatically improve photograph. Also: consider carrying only the stuff you need.

Distractions and cutoffs. Don’t cut off your subject, or include extraneous elements in the frame — tree branches or phantom limbs, for instance.

Poor use of natural frames or leading lines. These “helpers” are all over the place, like the converging perspectives of a long hallway. They draw your eye to and away from the subject.

Center-only composition. Few images work well with the subject dead-center or nearly there. Off-center compositions are often more dynamic.

Lack of balance. Center-subject compositions are often boring, but at the same time, you can’t have frames where all of the action happens in, say, the bottom-left corner — while the rest of the image is empty.

Poor timing and not being prepared. I see plenty of shots that I call “near misses.” This is when the idea is there, the technical execution is well done, but the timing is off — caused by a moving element that’s out of position.

If you have most of the four criteria we touched on in the first post, other minor infractions become less noticeable. It’s only when you’ve got a boring, flat image with no clear subject or message that every single deficiency begins to make itself felt. (I’ve compiled a number of subject- and topic-specific tips you might find useful — check out “100 ways to improve your photography.”)

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Basel Messe convention center by Herzog & De Meuron architects. Nikon D600

Photography is a very interesting pursuit in that you can make it as serious or as casual as you like. It can be the star of the show, or it can be a supporting actor to help illustrate your point. You don’t have to shoot medium format digital and make 30″ wide prints all the time to enjoy it — though admittedly a well-executed print of that size will probably blow you (and your clients, friends, family) away!

There’s a very steep diminishing returns curve, but with a little training, a good eye, and some creativity, you’ll be amazed by what you can do with even the most basic of cameras today — read this post on professional photography with compact cameras to give you an idea. (Perhaps the most common but least photographically relevant question I get asked is: “What camera should I buy?” It’s the photographer, not the camera, that makes the difference; a good photographer can use anything. Here’s a handy list, and there’s also the Camerapedia, which contains a concise opinion on every piece of gear I’ve ever used.)

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Film noir, London. Leica M8

I’m going to wrap up by condensing my two posts into these final tips:

  • Know why the scene or photograph is interesting to you before you shoot it. If you’re not sure why you yourself took the image, how is anybody else going to know?
  • Look for interesting light.
  • What you include in the frame is just as important as what you exclude: if there are any distractions at the edges and corners, the impact of your subject will be reduced. Be selective. (This applies to composition as much as it does to curation.)
  • There is no substitute for experimentation and practice!

Ming Thein abandoned a successful corporate career to pursue his passion. Now he’s a professional photographer, writer, and teacher; he specializes in watches/product and architecture/interiors and runs workshops internationally several times a year. He is a member of Getty Images and Nikon Professional Services. His WordPress.com site and portfolio can be found at www.mingthein.com.

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2013 onwards. All rights reserved.

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  1. Rightly said. People rely too much on equipment and end up getting frustrated. When one is starting with photography, it’s best to upgrade the gear as you go along learning new stuff. Because for some shots, gear does matter, like getting a nice bokeh, or a wider angle, shooting in low light situations, bird photography etc… As you learn you will realize what spikes your interest and what it is that you exactly need. That’s how one should focus on gear upgrades.

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  2. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article.
    I’ll be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful info. Thanks for the post. I will definitely comeback.

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  3. Thank you for so much for all the information on photography which I will go through and re-read again. And I agree, you have to get out there and practice, practice and practice!

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  4. I would have to agree, I have always asked people on what camera they use. One good photographer pointed out, its not the camera, it’s the photographer.

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