I frequently fall back on an old Ansel Adams line: Photography is knowing where to stand. I think there are three key components to taking a good photograph: composition, exposure, and timing. I’m not going to address post-processing in the darkroom or in Photoshop, I’m only concerned with capturing a better image.
One disclaimer: I am mostly a nature and industrial photographer. I don’t do much people shooting as primary subjects. I’ll occasionally get dragooned in to taking a group shot at a family reunion or something, those are definitely the exception for me. Some of what I will be talking about will have a bias because of the way that I shoot.
COMPOSITION. Composition is knowing where to stand. Just moving a few inches to one side can mean the difference between a good photograph and one with a serious flaw. We’ve all seen pictures of people with utility poles coming out of their heads. By the photographer moving slightly, or by re-positioning the people, the pole can be eliminated without having to spend time in Photoshop trying to remove the pole.
I will illustrate this later.
EXPOSURE. Exposure is a complicated issue that is greatly simplified with the advanced metering capability of today’s cameras. We rely on our camera to take the correct exposure, and that isn’t always the best thing to do. For example, taking a photo of a person against a bright sky. A lot of cameras will meter for the sky, leaving the person dark and underexposed. Some digital cameras have face detection capability which will improve your odds for a good exposure, but it’s not a guarantee. You need to be aware and to practice.
TIMING. The moment of when you press the shutter release and capture the moment is key. Even when your subjects don’t move, timing is influenced by light. Is it a cloudy day? Maybe you need to wait for your subject to be in full sunlight, or maybe in full clouded shadow. Are you prepared to make metering adjustments accordingly, if you need to? I’ve read that Ansel Adams would set up his view camera, compose his shot, and then just wait for the light to be exactly what he wanted it to be. THEN he would expose the film. But with every rule there’s exceptions, and in Ansel’s famous Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moonrise,_Hernandez,_New_Mexico) was taken in a hurry as the sun was setting and he had a very brief window of time to grab the exposure before the light was gone. According to Wikipedia, the light failed after the first exposure before he could flip the film holder and take a second negative. There are a few Ansel Adams photographs that lots of photographers try to recreate, this is definitely one of them.
For action photographers, timing is a specialization unto itself. You need to develop a sense for how the action flows to anticipate the peak of action that you want to capture. You also need to take in to account that there is a split second’s reaction time between your brain saying “Take the shot!”, your finger pressing the shutter release, and the camera actually firing. If your reactions are just slightly slow, your image is just after peak action and much weaker.
Pretty much all modern cameras have single and continuous settings for taking photographs. In the 1970’s and earlier, film winders and motor drives were rare. In the late 80’s, they started becoming a standard feature and built-in to the camera. Now they’re pretty much a universal standard feature. The difference between winders and drives was a mater of speed, as functionally they were pretty much the same thing. A winder would give you between one and three frames per second, the motor drives were typically five frames a second and faster. This allowed you to burn through a 36 exposure roll of film in 7 seconds flat. And that would be absolutely worthless if you were shooting something like a Formula 1 motor race. The easy solution would be to have a couple of extra camera bodies and an assistant to reload them when needed. But the cool way was to use a bulk film back, which would accept an actual roll of film from a film can, not a little 35mm canister, but an actual can that was around 5” in diameter, holding enough film to take 250 photographs.
Now with DSLRs, we have high-capacity memory cards that can hold a thousand or more images. And if that’s not enough, there are EyeFi cards (http://www.amazon.com/Eye-Fi-Wireless-Frustration-Packaging-EYE-FI-16PC-FF/dp/B0090XWU8S/) that have a built-in WiFi transmitter so that your images can be transmitted directly to your laptop or a web site or whatever. In fact, there was a woman who had her camera stolen who used an EyeFi card, and when more photos started appearing, she knew someone was using the camera. Eventually the thieves were stupid enough to take their own pictures along with other identifying information, the woman took the information to the police, the thieves were arrested, the camera was recovered.
Obviously no single piece of advice is applicable to all photographers. We all have different needs and different levels of skill, I just want to bring some important issues to light so that people who might be unaware of certain things might learn something and take better photographs.