There’s a certain “itness” to photography, which is to say that great pictures show not so much a thing or a thing happening as the nature of that thing or thing happening. For example, a picture of a forest shouldn’t show a forest so much as the quality of “forestness.” This is a great thing, because there’s no limit on the amount of things that can convey “forestness.” To one person, that quality could be calmness, to another, it could be greenness. To another, still, it might be darkness or it might be peacefulness. There’s no need to show all of it. Just whatever you think it should be. And while cues that capture the itness of things are as varied as there are photographs, one thing that’s pretty consistent is that good pictures get it and bad ones don’t.
If all this sounds a little abstract, it is. But applying the principle is easier than it sounds. Well, sort of. Actually, it’s really not. It’s quite difficult. But the process isn’t. Here’s all you need to do in three easy steps:
1. Stay focused
Forget about what is cool, impressive, or pretty. Those attributes should be byproducts of your theme. They do not make great pictures in and of themselves. Without an actual theme, they’re just a distraction.
2. Pay attention
See what you notice. Identify the thing that interests you. Get specific. Don’t just say “The hug.” Come on. Seriously. No one thinks a hug is that interesting. But the way the father is looking at a mother and son hugging could be. The way the mom’s hand is dangling limply could be. The way a chandelier over their heads looks like it’s going to fall on them could be, too. The more details you notice, the better. Details, details, details. That also means you can’t just see something and react as it happens. Get in the habit of thinking ahead of time, because there’s too much to absorb in a split-second.
3. Take the shot
Frame the picture so you include everything that shows what you think is interesting and remove everything that doesn’t.
That’s it! I haven’t talked about composition, lighting, timing, shutter speed, aperture or anything else technical for a reason. They are tools to make everything work, not objectives in and of themselves. Showing a point of view is the the real goal. Let people know how you feel about what’s in front of you, and you’ve done it all.