There are few things more annoying than getting home after a long day photographing, importing your photos, and then seeing that you didn’t get the photo you wanted. Maybe you overexposed it or missed focus or didn’t nail the composition. Here’s how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In this article, I’m going to be using landscape photography as an example because everything happens nice and slowly; or at least it does most of the time. The steps are the same for other kinds of photography, although you may need to skip test shots—the difference there is that you have to do everything a lot faster.

Visualize the Image

The first step in getting a photo you want is to decide what photo you want to take. That might sound a bit like a truism, but the reality is most photographers don’t spend enough time thinking. It’s easy to arrive at a beautiful location, start snapping away and assume you’ve got a good photo because everything is pretty. When you get home, you’ll be disappointed. With the image on your computer screen, you’ll notice the telephone wires and tourists you didn’t see when you were there.

Instead, slow down, look around, and start thinking about what sort of photo you want to take. Do you want to capture the waves breaking against the beach or the nice rock formation? There will generally be a few different shots on offer. For example, I took this photo:

And this photo:

About 20 minutes apart. When the sun was below the horizon, I saw I had an opportunity to capture a zen, mellow black and white image. As soon as the sun was high enough, I wanted all the colors. Both photos were deliberate choices based on what was available at the time.

Now, I’m not saying you need to spend hours pondering every possible shot. You just need to slow down and think for a few minutes about what you’re after. It’s one of the few surefire ways to take better pictures.

Think About What You Need to Do

Once you’ve visualized the image you want in your head, it’s time to make it a reality. You need to work out how to get what’s in your imagination onto your camera’s memory card.

The first step is to assess whether you can even get the shot you want. If you don’t have a telephoto lens, you’re not going to be able to take a close up photo of some seabirds. If you don’t have your neutral density filters or tripod, you’re unlikely to be able to smooth out any water with a long exposure shot.

Assuming you’ve got everything you need, the next step is to play around with your composition. Wander around, occasionally looking through your camera and trying different focal lengths until you find a strong image. Remember to try and include both foreground and background elements. If you’re using a tripod, now is the time to set it up and lock everything down.

RELATED: How to Use the Foreground and Background to Create Stronger Photos

With the composition sorted, the next step is to decide what combination of exposure settings to use. We’ve got guides to choosing the right shutter speed, selecting an appropriate aperture, and how to decide on what ISO to use so check them out if you’re stuck.

Finally, it’s almost time to press the shutter button. The last step is to focus on your subject, so you get a nice sharp image. Your two options are either to work with your camera’s autofocus or, if the scene is a bit tricky, manually focus your lens.

Take Some Test Shots

With everything set up, it’s time to start taking photos. Don’t worry about getting everything right straight away; you should view your first few photos as test shots. You’ll often notice things on the screen on the back of your camera that you didn’t see through the viewfinder. Your exposure settings or focus might also need some tweaking.

Once you’ve shot a frame or two, view them on the back of your camera. Use the zoom function to make sure the areas you want to be sharp and in focus are. If they’re not, then you need to either adjust your focus or your aperture.

RELATED: What Is a Histogram, and How Can I Use It to Improve My Photos?

Also, check out the histogram to make sure you’re not crushing any shadows or blowing out any highlights. The histogram—and the blinkies—will give you a much more accurate idea than just looking at the photo. If you are losing highlight or shadow detail, then you need to either adjust your exposure settings or shoot a few bracketed frames you can use for an HDR composite image.

RELATED: How to Nail Exposure on Location When You Take Photographs

Take the Final Image

Now that you’re pretty confident everything is dialed in, it’s time to take the final image. Press the shutter button—or better yet, use a remote shutter release—and review the photo. If all is looking how you want, awesome!

RELATED: How to Remotely Control Your Camera

Personally, even after I’ve got the shot I think I want, I take a few safety shots. I shoot a few deliberately underexposed and overexposed pictures just in case I want the extra detail. I also shoot a few alternative compositions just because I can. Most of the time, I go with my main photo but sometimes, when I’m looking at everything on a larger screen, I realize one of my alternates was the better shot.

And there you have it.

To summarize: slow down, think, and reassess. Do that when you’re taking photos, and you’re almost guaranteed to go home with the shots you want. As you get better at photography, each step will become second nature, and you’ll be able to do everything almost instantly.

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.
Read Full Bio »