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lifeflame's avatar

Photographers: How to go beyond the pretty picture?

Asked by lifeflame (5902points) September 2nd, 2012

Like many people in our day and age, I run around with my camera. I think I have decent instincts when it comes to framing, composition, etc. but I find myself developing certain habits. I’ve never taken a photography course but I’m assuming that aside from the technical aspects there must be a part where they push you to articulate why you did something, or why you like a photo and not that photo… something to nudge you to take your work from technically competent to a type of self-expression…

So, if you ever took a photography course, what kind of assignments made you have a kind of breakthrough?

What kind of questions do you find most helpful when reflecting upon your own work? What about in looking at the work of photographers you admire?

If it’s helpful, here’s an example of photos I’ve taken.

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9 Answers

PhiNotPi's avatar

Although I am not a “photographer” by any means, I once heard a professional photographer talk about some of his photos for a short amount of time. I thought is was interesting some of the techniques that he used which, although un-intuitive, made his photos look much better. I can’t remember most of it, but one thing that he never did was to point his camera directly at the object that he photographing. The object was always off to the side, with the general rule being “moving objects need room to move”. Just something interesting I’d thought I’d share

XCNuse's avatar

hah! How’d you find me? I thought that was kind of funny; I haven’t been on here in ages! (literally!)

Anyways I’d love to give you some pointers and things.

I was shooting quite some time (and always interested in it) before actually taking a course in college. That said; everything I picked up was mostly self taught. Sure I read a few things here and there on the internet, but really didn’t think much of it and didn’t actually “study” how to photograph online from things.

Really as not surprising as it sounds it’s about getting out there, toying around with certain angles and whatnot. And after you play with certain things for so long they start to become quite literally natural. So certain framing and techniques just literally roll right out of your fingertips.

After taking a few courses (which I will admit I didn’t do very well in), I discovered that actual classes for photography are .. very dependent on the professor. Certain teachers like certain things; sure they all try to be open to envision new things, but when you’re taking a class in school, it can be quite limiting because they give boring technical ‘homework’ to make sure you understand the basics. So for me, I feel like I was being suppressed by the two teachers and three classes I had taken, I literally did poorly in all three courses because I wasn’t being inspired by walking around campus and taking boring pictures.. being in college to get any good shots you had to go somewhere which.. required taking weekend trips which meant spending money some of us couldn’t or whatever. Not that that matters, but in a college environment that’s typically what happens.

The 2nd professor that came in had a VERY VERY VERY different approach on teaching, but what was fun is he had some studio equipment, and after I stopped taking advanced photo classes (as they would just be a waste of time and money), but I always hung out and helped with my fellow photo friends at school, but anyways, they got to do some interesting things and learn very specific lighting techniques etc. (All of which of course you can indeed find in a book and whatnot).

Unfortunately the attitude of the second teacher wasn’t the most welcoming thing in the world, quite a few people weren’t happy with the way he taught or his general attitude towards us (a friend literally cussed him out in front of class.. multiple times.. and the teacher cussed back.. it is what it is).

So… that said; after looking through some of your albums on facebook it appears as though you have the basics down, and personally I would not recommend taking any photo classes unless you feel as though you’re lacking in a technical area (but from your page it certainly doesn’t seem the case)

Moving on to production work.. Every photographer has a very specific style that they usually go with, and hopefully if it isn’t to overdone some people may pick up on this and start to like it. It doesn’t have to be anything specific, but it all comes down to work work work; your compositions will begin to become focused, your work will start to all have a similar framing style, and post-production work will begin to show some advances in the way you show color [or don’t!], and whatever little tricks you do in photoshop etc.

Personally I like to keep photoshop as photoshop if I need something gone I will use it; but I like to keep my editing stuff to my raw images since I started using lightroom to really edit my images and work with color etc. etc. in it.

So far it appears as though you have a knack for capturing people and emotions which is always a great thing to get, it really gives life to an image no matter how insignificant it is. While each photo may not actually be prize or frame worthy, it remains as a memoir to the moment, and that in itself is great.

That said! Like I stated earlier; work work work, if you keep pushing that finding emotion in people and photographing it you will find your work bloom considerably, and you will begin to find your own personal way from composition to post production, your style will begin to glimmer and you’ll only grow from there. Just as long as you push your focus!

And another thing that probably no professional photographer on the internet will tell you, and no photographer on the internet will really ever say this to anyone (it’s rare to see people say this..)
Anyways.. EQUIPMENT! I personally believe it does matter, there are times when a spotlight here and a beauty dish there make a photograph of a person the way it is. And a good camera with a good lens certainly makes things far more interesting than a slow lens.

Thus do what I did! Pick up some old lenses from the 70s for dirt cheap, learn the camera in manual (there was one time I could set the correct shutter speed for my aperture and ISO just by knowing how much light was around me)

I have been focusing on video work recently but really want to get back into photography and will be picking up a full frame Nikon shortly, I’m very excited!

Oh and copying a style; there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to copy a style or a framing technique from a professional, as long as you try to adapt into it (obviously you don’t want to copy a shot directly..) and that can help.

Back in the day I followed Ken Rockwell’s website almost daily to see what he always had to say, he can be harsh sometimes but that’s how it is in the world! So checking out his website ( and reading and looking at some of his techniques for learning how to photograph will certainly help.
That and getting inspired by an old professional’s work from back in the film days, just looking at composition and whatnot should also help inspire you!

I know this response is very jumbled, it was kind of funny to get an email and see this, and I can certainly go on for days about stuff like this but I feel like I’m not really even focusing what I’m saying :P So! That said, if you have any questions or if you want me to focus on something specific, let me know!

Bellatrix's avatar

I’m a novice too and I hear you on wanting meaningful critique of your work. I am going to join a photography club where I can go along with my work and talk to other photographers and look at their work and learn.

As @XCNuse said, the best thing I have found in terms of improving my work is to take photos. Lots of photos. Using different techniques, in different light and settings. Then to analyse what I ended up with and what I have learned from the process.

It would be great (and there may be such a thing) if there was an online site that you could submit photos to for experienced photographers to critique your work. I would pay for that sort of advice. “You could have improved your photo by…”, “This shot is a little overexposed…in future try…”. “The composition here is weak because…”. “If you had cropped this more your image would be more…”. You have to know what you are looking for to critique your own work.

I find YouTube helpful too. If I am going to be taking a particular type of shot I do a bit of research on YouTube to get some tips. I have done a photography course (one) and it was good in terms of telling me about my camera but their advice and it’s truth is just to use your camera and take photos.

lifeflame's avatar

@XCNuse—Ah, I dug you up from this question. Thanks for the very extensive answer.

You’re right, I’m not looking for courses, or even particularly professional feedback (though of course it is very welcome); I think rather I’m looking for pointers to help me guide myself. I can start to smell when my photos are insincere, or not gutsy enough. The composition is a little off-kilter, it has depth—enough to capture someone’s attention visually, but a little too… safe.

(Here’s an example of safe.)

I don’t know if this is a question that anyone can help me answer, but I’d love to hear experiences of how jelly photographers here push themselves, or their process of reflection. I always think that the best photos are pretty intuitive, but there’s obviously a process behind them that if you stopped to think about it, you might be able to articulate…

XCNuse's avatar

Well keep in mind; you don’t have to push the limits like some past and current photographers do (unless of course that’s what you want to do)

It depends on how you view art in general; some artists want to push certain feelings; I am not a fan of the artists that confuse me and make me want to puke or what have you so that’s very dependent on “finding yourself” as an artist.

Personally that image that you call safe I still think is pretty strong. As you said there is certainly a looooot of depth in the image caused by the lines and the bicycle is there to break it up and give a focus. I would however say the most interesting part of that image is the shadow of the bicycle more-so than all of the lines

You can really though get two strong images from that one; together it’s a bit confusing and misleading, but a crop of the bottom left image is very strong texturally and has a LOAD of dimension and texture (which I personally love as that is what I do in my graphical work is texture and heavy depth)

And the other would be .. more of a 1×1 crop of the right side of the image which puts all of the focus on that bicycle and the shadow it’s creating. It is extremely different and can relate to a lot of people. THAT… would be what I call “safe” a very simple image with nothing crazy going on (color wise etc.) but still something anyone can relate to as a child.

I say look up some good books, check out The Strobist blog, he has lists of very good books that you may find interesting, and that should kick-start some focusing on your part.

Maybe a general art class and art history class would be something also more interesting.
Again as an artist it really comes down to what you want to show the viewer. Not all artists are heavy and rash, some are very simple and friendly.

Not everything in art has to have a deep meaning or reason, sometimes… things really are there to just be as plain and simple as being ‘pretty’

zenvelo's avatar

I am not at all a professional photographer.

Just looking at what you showed, a few comments: You need to start getting used to fill in flash. Many of your photos have flat lighting, so there is little detail and there is no emphasis.

You need to experiment with different focal lengths and depths of field. Use of a fixed focal length and aperture de-emphasizes everything.

Work on composition, a street scene that has 80% but not 100% of a sign as the center of the picture tells me nothing. A procession that shows only the front two people and a hint of others misses a great shot.

Don’t angle your shot to be artsy, angle your shot to be an alternative way of viewing both foreground and background.

PhiNotPi's avatar

To add on to what @zenvelo said, don’t photograph an object, photograph a scene, which includes everything that is going on around the subject of the photograph.

Pandora's avatar

I’m not a professional photographer but the best pictures to me are the most vivid. I agree with some of the ideas above. Lighting is so important. Your subject can get lost in poor lighting. Personally, I like pictures of most things, but certain people are just great to photograph. Even if they aren’t the best looking, some people wear their life on their face or their personality really shines through and it all tells a story.
My rule is if I keep staring at something over and over, or it takes my breath away, then I must freeze it in time because I may never have the opportunity to see it again.

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