Shooting mediocre photographs is as easy as can be. Modern cameras do most of the job on their own. To shoot outstanding photographs, there is much more to consider.
What's in a Good Photograph?
There are thousands of different opinions on each and every photograph. If you ever had the chance to discuss a photograph with a group of experts, you will know that there is more to photography than finding a suitable subject.
For every subject, photographers have a bunch of different angles, compositions, and settings to choose from. Yet, there is no “right” or “wrong” decision. Every decision you take as a photographer will alter the image in a certain direction. It will lead the viewer of your image to read it in one way or the other. Still, you can’t control everything. All your efforts can still be in vain if your audience doesn’t understand your point or simply doesn’t like the image aesthetically. It can happen to the best of us, because people's minds are unique. The lively Critique the Community videos from Fstoppers are a good example of diverging opinions and interpretations of photography.
In many cases, Lee, Patrick, and their guests agree on the quality of an image. Sometimes, the discussion will become heated while different opinions crash into each other. Most of the time, a snapshot will stay a snapshot, though. That's another point you can learn from professionals. Good photographers know how to create a proper picture of certain scenery.
Don’t Rely on Technology Too Much
So, what is a good photograph then? If it only depends on taste, does it even matter what you do? Taste can differ, but often, it follows a certain direction. The quality of a photograph is highly subjective, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t push your skills to get more keepers among your photographs. Of course, if you shoot images only for yourself and you are highly frugal in your taste of photography, you can declare every snapshot of a masterpiece. Sometimes, others might even agree. Often, they won’t.
Modern smartphones have made photography as easy as it can be. Whenever I compare snapshots from my girlfriend’s phone to quickly shot Micro-Four-Thirds' raws, I feel ashamed. Technology became so smart that we hardly need to make decisions about the settings of our cameras. It leads us to rely on technology and become lazy.
The Most Important Ingredient Is Work
Sometimes, we might use a great composition by chance or find ourselves in an amazingly lit situation. In these cases, a speedy camera with a high dynamic range and a superb automatic mode might make us the happiest photographer on earth for a moment.
We must not rely on fortune and technology, though. Great photographers increase the chances of an outstanding photograph by making the best out of every situation. Photojournalists might end up in a boring situation every now and then, landscape photographers miss the right light far too often, and corporate photographers might meet grumpy and uncooperative subjects from time to time. Then, it's their skills and creativity that will still create the best possible photograph. Even in a studio with artificial lights, a great team, and a talented model, the final image won't be a result of technology alone. It's the photographer's job to bring everything together in one picture.
In consequence, the only way to get a stunning image is by working hard to create the image even before you hit the shutter. That does not necessarily mean hard work in a physical way (even though outdoor, adventure, and landscape photographers often put their bodies in extreme situations). A good image needs mental work: focus on the subject, alter a composition until it suits you, imagine other perspectives and the effect that a different exposure might have. In simple words: make a picture, don’t take a picture. There is so much more than click and run.
How to Make Things Work
In my opinion, the only way to practice photography is by giving yourself time. Especially when I was traveling, I witnessed people in front of a nice subject grabbing their $4,000 camera and shooting a bunch of pictures. The whole photographic adventure took 10 seconds. Back home, the ambitious travel photographers probably asked their bored family and friends to appreciate the gorgeous bokeh. After all, the camera could make beautiful photographs.
Indeed, it could. Nonetheless, the photographer takes the image, too. If he or she worked hard and thought before clicking away from a snapshot, people might have been amazed even without bokeh and the newest camera model. Especially in the beginning (and still valid for myself), a good photograph needs time on location. Only the best of us have practiced so many times that they intuitively know what to do. The best photographers still spend a lot of time on the preparation of a shoot.
Personally, I can’t shoot proper pictures in haste or as a side activity. I even stopped practicing proper landscape photography while being out on a hiking trip with friends. Too many times, I have been disappointed by the results under such conditions. I only take my camera with me to shoot snapshots that are meant to be snapshots. Capturing the moment as a memory doesn’t need to be perfect.
Shooting a proper landscape image, however, needs a high level of concentration, freedom to experiment, time to wait for the right light, and preparation. It’s not a side activity at all but very time-consuming and compelling. You have to scout, plan, hike, shoot, and often shoot again.
Work Means Developing a Concept
Whenever I am out to take proper pictures, I take my time and force myself to critically look at the photograph: is this really the best angle? What can be better? Are the corners alright? I check every setting and think about the effect of every turn of my dials. Only when I am sure that I did the best job I can, I will leave — at least, that’s the theory. In practice, I often leave the venue without thinking enough. At home, in front of my laptop, I will then regret the lack of work I put into the photograph. “I'll fix that in post” became the number one capital sin for me.
Rarely, but in the best case, I have a proper concept in mind. Then, photography works as it should work: just as Michelangelo sculpted a lion by chipping all the pieces from a rock that didn’t look like a lion, I leave nothing to chance. It’s these situations when I shoot my best photographs. It is also the only way to keep me satisfied when I edit the images. I don’t need the best image in the world to be happy. I only need to know that I did the best I could under the given circumstances. I need to sense that I worked hard.