Digital cameras have gotten really good. Most of the time, you can put them in Auto, press the shutter button, and, click, you’ve a perfectly adequate photo of what’s in front of you. It won’t be anything special (and it’ll be the exact same photo that everyone who was standing nearby took), but you’ll have something to share with your friends on social media.

The first step to taking better pictures is getting to know your camera and getting out of Auto mode. But that’s not all it takes to be a good photographer. Once you’re controlling the camera, you can start to put your own spin on what’s in front of you. Here’s how to do that.

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Start Thinking About Your Pictures

Great photos don’t start with the camera, they start with your imagination.

What makes Annie Leibowitz Annie Leibowitz isn’t her gear, it’s the unique experiences she brings to the table. When you’re beginning to put some thought into your photographs, you need to consider what you have that is unique to you. You want to get to the point where you’re taking photographs that no one else could. This takes hundreds of hours and years of effort (I’m miles away), but it is the end goal.

Even when you’re just starting out, you need to think about what you want your images to look like. Pushing the shutter button and hoping for the best won’t cut it. Even if you’re shooting in Aperture Priority mode instead of Auto mode, it’s easy to let your creative brain go into auto-pilot and just take technically good but generally boring pictures.

You have to look at the scene (or person) you’re planning to photograph and consciously decide how you’d like the image to look. Is it going to be a dark, moody image, or a bright and happy one? Are you trying to capture the emotion of the place or just record what’s happening accurately? The decisions I make when I’m doing ski photography are very different from when I’m shooting portraits or landscapes.

It actually doesn’t matter whether or not the image you take is good. The act of thinking about it is what’s important when you’re starting out. Talent comes with time. The photo above is one of my earliest attempts at taking a good photo—I obviously failed spectacularly! I shot it in aperture priority mode and, technically it’s fine, but there’s nothing remotely interesting about it.

Turning Imagination into an Image

So you’ve looked at a sunset, or a landscape, or whatever, and decided you want to take a photo. You’ve stopped for a second or two and thought about what sort of final image you want. It’s time to actually take the picture.

Let’s use an actual example. Below is a photo of mine. I knew I wanted the skier, my buddy Will, in front of the mountains because I wanted the photo to have a sense of scale. That’s it. That was my entire thought process. You don’t need to spend hours pondering every shot; just a few seconds to decide how you want to record it. Now all I had to do was set the camera up to take the image I wanted.

Once you have a vision, translating it to camera settings is relatively easy. In this case, I knew that everything had to be in focus so I needed to use a relatively tight aperture. I also didn’t want any motion blur so my shutter speed needed to be fairly fast.

I dialed in an aperture of f/11, set my ISO nice and low, and checked that I was getting a fast enough shutter speed (it’s 1/3200 in the image). With the camera ready to go, I told Will to start skiing and I pressed the shutter button.

When you’re setting out to take good pictures, you need to work through the same rough process. Translate the image you have in your head to the camera settings necessary to recreate it. Then, take the picture.

While there will be dozens of combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO that will capture a technically satisfactory image, there’ll only be one combination that takes the image you want.

Shoot Lots

There’s two ways to take most pictures: you can try and stage everything, spend time setting everything up perfectly, and then press the shutter button just once, or you can embrace chaos, go in with a rough idea of what you want, and keep shooting until you get it. Both methods have their place.

If you’re shooting landscapes, taking time to get everything set up perfectly pays off. You have to wait for the right light; no amount of shouting at the sun will get it to set faster.

If you’re shooting portraits or sports, on the other hand, you need to let luck play its part. I didn’t take one photo of Will skiing in front of those mountains, I took about 10. It’s just that the one I shared earlier is a stronger photo than the others (like the one below).

Even if you’re shooting slow, deliberate landscapes, shoot as much as you can. Don’t just take one photo, take three, or ten. Try different things, move around, experiment.

The more photos you take, the more chance you have of capturing a stellar shot. There’s a reason professional photographers shoot upwards of 20,000 photos a year. They got good by taking pictures. And since digital camera storage is cheap, you have no reason not to get trigger happy.

Creativity Comes Over Time

The hardest part of taking great pictures is coming up with ways to put your own spin on things. It’s next to impossible to take an original photo of the Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building.

Don’t worry too much about creating something amazing when you’re just starting. Creating great work takes time. My early photos were awful but since then I’ve become a lot better. Just check out this shot that I just took yesterday. It’s well composed, the colors are great, everything’s sharp, and it’s an interesting perspective on a Dublin landmark. It’s got a lot going for it!

As you spend more time with your camera in hand thinking about the photos you want to shoot, you’ll start to get a feel for things. It takes a while to learn what makes a compelling image. Part of it is composition, but part of it is developing a relationship with your subjects, whether they’re people or places.

Now, I know what I bring to the table. I know how to work with models, skiers, and, occasionally, landscapes. I know how to approach these kinds of photos with my own take. This didn’t happen overnight, it came from practice.

Getting good at photography isn’t all that difficult. You just have to want to do it. If you’re prepared to stop and think about your photos, rather than just push the shutter button, you’re well on your way. Everything else just takes time.

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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