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Attitude vs. Equipment: How To Take Memorable Photos
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Century. That's the name of the big, fat book of photos lying on my bed.
It weighs at least ten pounds and includes two photographs from each year of the 20th century. Many of the images are instantly recognizable; few are portraits or "staged."
It got me thinking about what makes a truly great photo; as a hobby photographer, it gave me a reality check. The most famous photos in the world are not famous because the photographer had the right lighting or the best equipment, but rather, because they were in the right place at the right time.
There are numerous tutorials that teach you how to use your equipment; how to perfectly light a room, what exposure to use, and what kind of photo software to edit them when you're done.
But I'm here to tell you: None of that matters if you want to take a photo that people will remember for decades, if not centuries, to come.
Be Grateful For The Miracle That Is Digital
Even if you only have a cheap digital camera, I want you to go - GO RIGHT NOW - and pick it up. Hold it in your hands, then give it a big, fat bear hug. I know there are purists out there shaking their heads in disgust. "Digital doesn't produce quality photos like a traditional film camera." Well, okay ... maybe.
Film cameras may produce excellent results, but they are also expensive to use.
The best thing about digital is that it allows you to make consequence-free mistakes, so click away!
That's Why They Make 32GB Memory Cards
Ok, so you just took 500 photos of that one bright red bird you saw on your morning walk, and you're feeling a little embarrassed. After all, the professionals probably don't do it that way. They get the right shot the first time.
This is your first attitude adjustment: I give you permission to take as many photos as you want, because that is exactly what the professionals do. If your angle wasn't just right on that mushroom the first 200 times, then take 200 more.
This, by the way, is what professional photographers have always done; those ten photos that made the issue of National Geographic were culled from a pool of thousands. National Geographic photographers Melissa Farlow and Randy Olson note on their website that they could bring back 800 rolls of film from a shoot.
The difference between you and them? They had sponsors and benefactors (or the National Geographic Foundation) paying not only for their adventures but also for the hundreds of rolls of film they were using.
So .... lucky us, who were born in the digital age. Who needs a wealthy old lady when you can buy a memory card on the cheap?
Pretend that Photoshop Doesn't Exist
Even though you're allowed to take as many photos as you want, it is far easier to do as much of the work as possible before the Photoshop stage.
Make every effort to make the shot great the first time, as though you were prohibited from editing it at all. In other words: Pretend like you're using a film camera.
Pretend that you can't crop the surly teenager out of that perfect shot. Pretend that you can't adjust the color of that seascape. Pretend that you can't make the Tower of Pisa lean after accidentally taking a picture of it standing straight as a stick in the middle of the photo.
The only drawback to getting a great shot while you're taking it is that sometimes you end up looking like an idiot.
Swallow Every Last Bite of That Humble Pie
I realized early on that taking great photos means doing silly things. Not rude things or illegal things, but things that make me look like an idiot.
I contort my body into strange poses to capture the right elements in my photos. I squat down in the middle of a sidewalk to get the right angle on a shot. I have spent countless hours lying on the often cold and usually hard ground to get the perfect angle or focus. Trust me: You will look stupid acting this way, and you will have to get over that or your art will suffer.
My favorite photos are the candid portraits I take at events. As a rule, people never look good when they know you're taking their picture (unless they're playing a character and hamming it up). I rarely ask anyone if I can take their picture, because they will inevitably pose and ruin the shot.
I won't tell you that you have to act like a jerk, but taking great pictures of people comes down to one of two things: Being a jerk or not getting the right shot. There are, of course, legal limitations to taking pictures of people, but if you are all in a public place, you have every right to take their photo. Some people don't care and some people act like diva movie stars. If you can't handle the divas, steer clear of candid portraits of strangers.
People Don't Want Pictures They've Seen Before
There are a lot of beautiful pictures out there, but in a way, who cares. For example, the Grand Canyon is gorgeous at dawn, at dusk, during storms, on sunny days ... it's beautiful and for the past few decades, everybody and their mother, father, grandmother, 2nd cousin and friend of a friend have taken pictures of it.
So take some pictures, but know that those pictures will not get you recognized. There are just too many other people taking them. People with better equipment.
Instead of the Grand Canyon, take a drive through Colorado City. Instead of Mesa Verde, try Hovenweep. Instead of the Balloon Festival, drop in at the Salinas Pueblo. The Spiral Jetty instead of Zion. American Stonehenge instead of Niagara falls. The Old Burying Ground instead of Harvard Yard.
Choose events in which people dress up or draw the eccentric freak show types. One of my favorite events at which to take photos is the Emma Crawford Coffin Races in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The members of the racing teams all dress up and get into character, stumbling around like zombies or drunk pirates, which makes for a lot of great photos.
Do you have an interesting friend? Follow them around for the day.
Above all else: ALWAYS be ready to take a picture. Always be ready to capture the anomaly in the night sky. Always be ready to capture that freak wave. Always be ready to capture that kind moment between two people.
Because you never know when taking pictures will turn into making history.