Make the Picture Better!

Eldre mann ser på kvinnene i hjelpeorganisasjonen Paradiso som danser

You are standing there with you camera in your hand. In front of you is something you want to capture a picture of, maybe because is a memorable moment, maybe because is a beautiful panorama, maybe because it’s something that touches your heart, or maybe for a complete different reason. The question then is how can I get the best image out of whatever it is I want to photograph? Today it’s so easy with any camera to just raise it to your eye and let the camera do its thing. Push the button and think no more of it. Most likely the result will be correctly exposed and quite an OK picture.

But what if you want to get more than just an OK picture? If you want to make it into a personal statement? Make it interesting for others that don’t have memories associated with the moment of capture? Then you have to start making conscious decisions, and you have to put more of yourself into the picture capturing process. In so doing it might be useful to split the picture taking up into five different decisive components and look at them separately, assess each of them in order to make them as superior as possible. The five factors you can affect or change when taking a picture are the content, the light, the moment, the graphics and the point of view.

Let me quickly go through them. Content is everything – is something I always teach in my workshops. If the content is boring there is nothing you can do to make a picture interesting. The interesting thing, which I see again and again, is that nothing is really ever too boring to be photographed. What makes the difference is the photographer. If the subject engages the photographer, he or she will always be able to make a telling image out of it. If not – no way! You simply have to connect with your heart as I have talked much about on this blog before.

We all know that photography literally means to paint with light. Light is important; it sets the mood in a picture, creates depth and brings out the beauty in a subject. When you stand there in front of something you want to photograph, think about how it’s possible to improve the light in one way or another. Maybe just turning around to get the light from a different angel, or move the subject to another place with better light, add artificial light – or maybe wait till a better time of the day when for instance the sun is lower on the sky or it’s hidden behind a cloud.

There is always a moment when a picture comes together, when the composition and the content almost mysteriously reaches a higher level. It was the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who came up with the phrase the decisive moment. He said «it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that even its proper expression.» It’s easy to detect a moment in sports, for instance when a high jumper lays flat over the bar or when a goal is score in football. But there is always a moment, even in more subtle situations. It could be nothing but a sudden shy smile from a person, some kind of interaction between two people, a reaction, a person crossing into a cityscape. Even in landscape picture taking there are better moments, for instance when the sun is rising or when a rainy day clears up and there is still both rain and a bit of sunshine or when the moon is sweeping the scenery. In other words there are quick moments and there are slow moment – but there is always a better moment.

When I use the word graphics I mean composition, the placement of elements, the perspective, use of depth of field, a slow or a fast shutter speed, etcetera. This very much comes down to the craftsmanship of photography. Sometimes you have all the time in the world to make the graphics come together in the best way, other times you have to react instinctively when the moment comes on you very fast. It’s all about training you eyes to see the potential in all subjects. And it’s always possible to improve a photograph’s graphics. Don’t just go for the first and easy solution. Move around; try out different angels, increase or decrease contrast, work out details in Photoshop.

The last component of the picture capturing process to control, point of view, should probably have been mentioned first. It’s the least tangible of the five, but in a way it goes before the other decisions and forms how you want to put the photograph together. With the point of view in this context I don’t mean perspective, but why you take a picture. What is it that moves you to take it and what is it that you want to convey or tell the viewers with your picture? It is closely connected to content, but in a more conscious way. If you for instance want to show the misery of a homeless person you need to figure out what you really want to say.

Of these five components of the picture capturing process, the ones that have the most impact of how strong a picture is conceived is content and moment. In our workshops we let students bring along their favourite pictures by other photographers. When we go through them we let the students give points to how the photographer have solved the various decisions he or she did with respect to these components. Again and again it turns out it’s content and moment, much to most students surprise. In other words put your emphasize on these, and don’t worry if the technique is not perfect. Nevertheless it’s good practise to evaluate all the components before taking a photograph. You might not be able to improve all of them in a certain situation, but surely you will at least be able to improve one or two in order to make a better and more interesting picture. Think about these five components as a useful tool in the picture making process.

This is something I will talk more about in my upcoming photographic eWorkshop. More info about the workshop will soon follow.


102 thoughts on “Make the Picture Better!

  1. Food for thought- just what I keep in mind as I leave for Ethiopia- and begin a new photographic journey- to get in the flow state where you begin to see and move from this intention intuitively !

  2. Enjoyed your post, Otto…some great points very well put across. Look forward to getting the information about your e workshop 🙂

    1. I am working on the last bits in preparation for the eWorkshop, so it shouldn’t take that long before I can release more details. Thanks for being interested, Susan!

  3. I really like the silhouette of the boy in the background, maybe because I can imagine different things about him. All good points in your post. I’ll try to keep them in mind in my own work.

  4. The moment is really important. How I wish I had my iPhone in front of me so many times to forever frame a moment instead of it sitting in my bag or pocket. Thanks for the points!

  5. You’re an excellent teacher, Otto. Those five factors can really make a picture ‘pop’, but I am still finding it hard to make them all come together at the right moment. And why is it easier to see it in other people’s pictures, than in one’s own?

    1. It’s often hard to make all factors come perfectly together. But if you can improve one or a couple of them, a lot has been achieved. One reason why it’s easier to see the right moment in other people’s pictures is your own emotional attachment to your work, which sometimes makes it hard to evaluate it more “objectively”.

  6. Boring! Ah, not the post, but the concept to avoid in picture taking.

    Sure. All of the 5 items mentioned are critical, but if the image is “ho-hum” the viewer could maybe care less about the other concepts.

    Great article!

    1. But you are right, it all comes down to how to avoid boring! As for the viewers, I don’t think they care about any of the factors that we as photographs can use as tools to make better pictures. They just respond to whatever they see. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rick!

  7. Well written guidelines for better execution. Thank you. I never fail to be amazed at how people will look fearlessly into the lens of a camera, as in your photo of the man carrying the bag. There is no fear, no animosity, perhaps a bit of curiosity. Such a clear and brave moment.

  8. And whenever HCB is referenced, I might add how much he carde about being in resonance with the world. Not a distant bystander, but being there, right in his own shots. Thanks for your interesting post.

    1. Yes, Cartier-Bresson was always in the middle of the world he photographed, but at the same time being an observer more than one to influence his subject. Thanks for the comment, Roland!

  9. That is a captivating photograph you posted, Otto. Amazing really!
    Thanks for your words, too, it’s always good to be conscious of these things and the more you make photographs the more intuitive it becomes.

  10. The photograph is complex with numerous narratives, but mostly you created one image with the story of a way of life. As usual your post is packed with information to give your readers points of departure to be better at their creative efforts (whatever they are).

  11. This information is very helpful for me. Thank you so much, and I look forward to your future posts. Now I need to work on a few of your points, Otto. Have a great week!

    1. There is always room for improvements with some or all the five factors – and that is of course the point. Thanks, Beverly, may you have a great weekend soon coming up!

  12. Thank you for liking “Haunting Skyscapes.” I also appreciate the advice you give in this post because I do not take pictures very often and have relied on the automatic features of my camera for far too long.

  13. Very helpful, Otto. I often don’t assess the steps of preparing to shoot nearly enough, and I think if I would concentrate more on the five factors I would automatically slow down a little and my photography would naturally improve. I know that I don’t pay attention to lighting as I could or I should! These suggestions are really helpful, so thank you!

    1. Yes, having to think more (for instance about the five factors mentioned here) will slow you down during the capturing process. But it will soon be ingrained more instinctively, the more you try to use them in you photography. Thanks for the comment, Debra!

  14. Takk for gode råd og et herlig situasjonsbilde. Jeg blir veldig nysgjerrig på hva som skjer… hva er det som tar oppmerksomheten deres… noe spennende er det tydeligvis. Den lille jenta er mer opptatt av fotografen ; )
    Jeg kan klart forbedre meg på alle de 5 punktene. Jeg har nettopp kommet hjem fra Nepal. Det er paradis for foto interreserte. Men jeg blir litt skuffa da jeg kommer hjem å ser bildene mine… De fleste bildene jeg tar er portretter, velger det enkleste ; ) Jeg ønsker å ta mer situasjonsbilder, men jeg blir så opptatt av riktige instillinger ( i tillegg er jeg elendig teknisk) så det blir fort litt for mye “styr”. De situasjons bildene jeg ble mest fornøyd med tok jeg fra bilen, kanskje ble de bra fordi jeg bare fyrte løs, uten å tenke på riktig aperture og ISO : ) (har lagt ut noen bilder fra den kjøreturen på Facebook, om du har lyst til å ta en titt ; ))

    Ønsker deg en GOD DAG : )

    1. Jeg anbefaler ofte å la kameraet ta seg av innstilling. Kjør på automatikk og gjør som du selv sier, fyr løs. Da kan du konsentrere deg mer om selve bildetakingen. Og, ja, er ikke Nepal et utrolig land. Motiver i alle retninger! Takk for kommentaren, Anita!

  15. You certainly got the decisive moment and the content and everything 🙂 the browns are so beautiful. The light and texture of the bag . The man’s face. This is a beautiful photograph.
    Shapes mimicking each other . Yes, it’s like cooking . You know when the food on the store needs something.
    By now you can take a picture like the one above. I hope your work gets proper recognition .

  16. Thank you for generously sharing your experience as well as your thoughtfulness. Your advice applies to any creative medium, doesn’t it?

  17. What a fine post. I think some of what you say is instinct.. much of it learned. When the two come together and meet opportunity and luck.. we have the magic of photography. I think I’m going to love your blog.

    1. I think even experiences and knowledge you learn needs to be handled instinctively in the moment of capture. Otherwise the moment is gone. Thanks for the nice words, Hilary!

  18. A massive thanks Otto for this timely advice as I have been re-evaluating my work and I am always glad to read your posts for some advice, enjoyment and most of all to learn. Now I need to absorb and get the mojo back. Hope you have an enjoyable end to the week.

    1. I think that is what I love most about photography (and it would be equally the same for other creative expressions) that I will never stop learning. May the mojo be with you – and thanks for the comment, James!

  19. That’s a splendid image Otto. Even though the main focus of interest is very clear the composition encourages us to drop in on other sub-plots, and the balance is beautifully presented.

  20. It was great to read though this as an inspiring refresher, Otto. And by the way, I wish there was always good light when I see an interesting scene and get to click at at a suitable moment, but if there isn’t, then I’m prepared to go without it — the light, I mean, and not the shot.

    Your image here is just perfect to illustrate the points you make. It’s wonderful moment, captured perfectly!

    1. I am glad the post could be an inspiration. And like you I am prepared to go without light whenever that is. Thanks for the comment, Andrew!

  21. I’ve enjoyed your post very much, thanks for your inspirational words. Your image shows a fabulous point in time, you’ve captured the atmosphere beautifully.

  22. hello, sir Otto… this is a very informative and encouraging piece. somehow, i see from your discussion that writing and photography are closely related – what you said about content and capturing the moment. i mean, one piece of work should embody the layers within, what you say about depth, dimension, perspective, etcetera… and it is up to the creator to arrange things excellently, in a way that all those are present, coherent and self-explanatory. ahaha, am blabbering, but what i want to say is, you explain creation well in this post. why it pays to bother improving one’s work. 🙂

    warm regards to you and your loved ones. happy weekend!

    1. I have never seen it that way, but, yes I think you are right in as much as writing and photography is indeed closely related despite obviously being different. Thanks for the comment!

      1. ahaha, sir, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for 2013. most of her stories are like photos or snapshots – about capturing the moments and the feelings. however, fleeting or barely discernible. there… 🙂 thanks for dropping by. kind regards…

  23. Well written and sound advice, Otto. I think the line in the Graphics element on ‘seeing the potential…’ is so important. One of the critical areas of development for each of us as photographers is cultivating our own ability to see potential in situations where others may see no potential.

    1. If we can see the potential where others may no see it, we are indeed on to something. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. We just have to keep looking – and train ourselves. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Andy!

  24. Nice post and beautiful photo. Makes me wonder what’s so interesting outside of the right part of the frame.

  25. Another great and most useful article, Otto! I can appreciate your personal, passionate and not strictly technical approach to photography.

    Trying my luck with Tang style poetry currently, a friend of mine and writer told me this: “Instead of telling the reader what the poet wants the reader to ‘get’ out of reading, the poet lets the images accumulate in the reader’s mind. Chinese poems are highly emotional, but they rarely achieve that effect by telling the reader what to feel.”

    It just occurred to me that the same method applies to good photographs. By recording skillfully with our camera what we see, the viewer can draw the conclusions for himself. Take for example that first photo from Jesper Voldgaard in your other recent post. As viewer of this excellently captured scene I can conclude that this place is primitive and in a rough climate, removed from modern civilization. People are poor and have to do much manual labor without the help of appliances, but the women there seem to get quite old. This triggers all sorts of emotions.

    1. I think there is much in the Tang approach. If you make everything too clear then the magic is lost. I think we all want to discover ourselves – and find out how we feel without being told. Thank you for the thoughtful and interesting feedback!

  26. Before photographing, leave your camera in your bag. Walk around the subject (if possible) and look. REALLY look. The viewpoint where most, if not all, of the five factors mentioned by Otto coalesce will become apparent.

  27. This is probably the most comprehensive advice I have seen given to a photographer. This one piece is the foundation every photographer should have. All the books, seminars and training use this advice as a base.
    Thank you, Otto.

  28. Thank you, Otto. Great advice (some of the best I’ve seen for photographers), and more food for thought when I’m out taking photos. The image you started this post with is a very powerful one.

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