How to take better photos? Learn to see

How to take better photos? Learn to see.

Most people I talk to have an interest in taking photos of family, friends, and travel destinations. Some would like to take better photos.

If you feel your photographs could use a little more oomph and you want to step it up a notch, here are some tips to help you do just that.

Seeing vs looking

Have you ever misplaced your car keys? You look for them all over the house. Kitchen bench, desk, pockets, bags and then you go back to the kitchen and there they are. Sitting on the kitchen bench.
When you were looking for your keys, you simply looked at the bench; you didn’t see the bench.

This is because your brain took in information about the bench and made stuff up. Where your keys were, your brain just filled in information about the bench.

This is why children often notice things that adults don’t. They simply don’t have enough experience for their brain to make stuff up.

This is not a bad thing. Can you imagine how our day might be if we had to see every little detail of an object before we knew what that object was? Our brains have developed so that we can glance in the direction of a car and know it’s a car.

Back to your keys. When you didn’t see your keys on the bench, it’s not like there was a key-shaped hole in their place. Your brain knew there was a bench there and showed you what it thought the bench should look like. Not what it really looks like. You had no idea that you weren’t seeing properly. This is not a good thing for a photographer. What it does is make it harder to recognise good subject matter. This is especially true if you’re in a place where you’re familiar with the environment around you. Your local town, for example.

The tall grass of the Tamar Island Wetlands is cut by a boardwalk leading into the distance.

A very simple scene with the tall reeds and wooden boardwalk leading the viewer into the scene.

What I want from this photograph is for the viewer to ask “Where does the boardwalk go?”.

Seeing like a photographer

As I learned my craft, people told me that I had a good eye. Others have told me that they could never take a great photograph because they just aren’t creative. So, does this mean that people are born with an eye or can people learn to take a good photograph? I think some artists are born with a talent. I also believe that many potentially great artists never realise that potential because they never develop their eye.

So, how do you go about developing a good eye? Simple, you need to do more than just absorb the scene in front of you. It seems strange for a creative subject, but taking a more analytical approach will change the way you see the world around you and being able to see the things you’ve missed in the past.

Don’t worry about colour

The first thing I suggest getting used to is ignoring the colours in front of you. I’m not saying that you take black and white photos. Colour is a powerful part of how we perceive the world but tt can distract you from the other things in a scene that are more important when you’re learning how to see.

Look for patterns

Patterns are all around us. You can see patterns in the natural world as well as the man-made environment. Patterns are a powerful tool when composing an image but you have to know they’re there first.

Black and white strips of these stacked chairs made an interesting pattern.
Black and white strips of these stacked chairs made an interesting pattern.
A photo of a brick wall painted blue and white with yellow circles.
The bricks form a pattern. The colours break it up and add interest.

When you’re out and about, look for patterns. Patterns can be anything including the shadows.

Look for shapes

Out of everything, it’s probably shapes that we can have trouble seeing. The shape of buildings, doors, windows can go unnoticed. The shape of leaves and plants. Even the shapes formed by shadows can be interesting subjects.

Sign for the Rowes Furniture building in Toowoomba.
Sign for the Rowes Furniture building in Toowoomba.
The letter W from the Rowes Furniture building sign.
The shadow of the W from the sign made an interesting shape.

As with patterns, take the time to look for shapes around you. They can be physical or implied such as the shape formed a grouping of plants.

See the detail

One habit I have made is to look for the detail in a potential subject. Start looking from the left and move to the right examining all the detail in front of you. Look for the things that weren’t obvious at first. Peeling paint on a window frame, rust stains on a wall. When photographing a building, it isn’t the building itself that’s interesting. It’s the details of each part of the building that makes it an interesting subject.

Photo of a FJ fuel cap with a pink FJ in the reflection
Looking at the detail and I noticed the reflection of an FJ Holden ute in the chrome fuel cap of another FJ Holden.
A sunflower stands out in a field of sunflowers.
You don't need to see the whole field of sunflowers. Show one prominent flower and the rest in the background.

When looking at a scene for the first time, look fairly quickly from left to right. Once you’ve done this, do it again but this time take your time. Try to find the things you missed in the first pass.

Photograph with a purpose

Before you put even think about raising your camera to take a photograph, make sure you take a little time to think about all the elements that are in the scene. In your mind, consciously place everything from the setting sun, to the trees in the foreground, to the lily pads on the water within the frame.

An interesting photograph is created from looking for the best elements in front of you. It is also about leaving out what isn’t helping tell the story you want to present.

Get good advice

The most important thing to do if you want to take better photographs is to find someone whose opinion you respect to give you good advice on your photographs. Facebook likes are definitely not an indicator. Most people wouldn’t know a ‘good’ photo. The right person will tell you what you did well and what you could have done better but more importantly, why. You don’t have to implement what they suggest but you should consider it.

One final exercise

This is one I do all the time and one that I get my students to do on my photography courses.

Choose a subject. A garden bed or an abandoned car. It doesn’t really matter what.

Take 10 photos from different angles. Most people get to about 7 or 8 and get mentally stuck. It’s at this point you start to notice the details you missed before. If you reach 10 quickly and easily, go for 15 or 20. At some stage you will struggle and with a little thought, you’ll find new ways to photograph the subject.

And that’s it

By using at least one of these tips, you’ll start taking better photographs.

If you find these tips useful, leave a comment below and tell us how it went. You can also share your photos on my Facebook page.

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