One brilliant photograph is the result of hundreds of boring ones
If you want to become a good musician, you have to practice. If you want to compete in the Olympics, you have to practice. If you want to cook dinner at night in 15 minutes without having to think about it…practice.
Why should taking good photographs be any different? Photography is just like any other skill — while there are individuals who excel at it naturally and have a fantastic eye, most people develop their photographic skill by taking hundreds, even thousands of photographs.
This approach is naturally supported by digital cameras. Since you can fill up a memory card with photos, delete them, then fill up the card again and again, you have the capacity to take thousands of photos without breaking your bank. Since you don’t have to pay to print every single photo you take, you have the luxury of taking 10 very similar photos of the exact same thing until one of them looks the way you want it to.
And now we come to the little secret of all professional photographers. If you’ve ever looked at a book of photographs, or marvelled at photos in the museum and wondered just how the photographer captured such an incredible image, this is the answer: they did not do it by taking just one single photograph.
They took hundreds. They took the same shot over and over with minor variations: a little more light. A little less light. A low angle, and a high angle. Vertical and horizontal. You get the idea.
One Shot Wonders
Maybe you’ve seen this happen. You are standing at one of the great natural monuments: the pyramids of Egypt, the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China. A family arrives. The kids are positioned in front of said monument, one solitary photo is snapped, and the family departs.
Why should they expect this photograph to turn out well? There’s no second take. If someone had their eyes closed, their mouth open, or was in the middle of a sneeze, that’s it. If the camera overexposed or underexposed the photo, that’s it.
The best way to immediately improve the quality of your photographs is to take more than one.
Working a Subject
If you’ve ever taken a photo class, or read pros talk about their work, you may have heard the expression “working a subject”. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it basically means picking one thing to photograph, and then taking every possible photo that you can imagine.
Let’s pick the common garden flower by way of example.
Start with a normal photograph of the flower. Now intentionally underexpose the image. Intentionally overexpose. Shoot it from the top and the bottom. Get close up and shoot it from far away. Change your aperture. Focus behind it, and focus in front. Photograph the flower in the morning, middle of the day and the evening.
The result of this effort is variety, and a large number of photographs to choose from. Sure, many of the photos are not going to be eye-catching. They are not meant to be, and this is not expected. Even pro photographers take some mediocre photos. They just make sure they don’t put them on display.
The Mediocrity Ratio
When you first start out with this approach to photography, a high percentage of your photos are not going to be keepers. Let’s say that out of 100 photos, you really wind up liking 5. Your mediocrity ratio is 95%.
But a surprising thing will soon start to happen. The more photos you take, the more you develop your photographic sense. Not only will you become more familiar with your camera and its controls, you’ll also learn what you like in your photographs, and how to take more that you will want to keep.
As time goes on, your mediocrity ratio should go down. Eventually, out of 100 photos, you may find that there are 30 that you enjoy and want to keep around. Your ratio is now at 70%.
While you can strive to make every photo you take perfect, this is fairly unusual. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the camera is going to capture, even if you know your camera well. Sometimes a photo you thought would be dull turns out interesting. Sometimes incredible photographic opportunities yield dull photos. There are a lot of variables at work, and you can’t be expected to control all of them all the time.
Just remember that with time and repeated photographs, you should see improvement. And if you get that one photograph out of 100,000 that is absolutely brilliant, then it makes it all worthwhile. Practice makes perfect.