How to Make Great Photographs



"Photography is the power of observation, not the application of technology." Ken Rockwell.

How have I made all my best shots? By noticing something cool and taking a picture. The important part is noticing something cool. Taking the picture is easy.

Your camera has NOTHING to do with making great photos. You have to master technique of course, but that's just a burden to get out of the way to free yourself to tackle the really hard part. The hard part is saying something with your images.

Photography is art. It's abstract. Therefore it's difficult for many people to grasp. It's easy and lazy to think a camera makes the photos. It's easy to blame bad photos on a camera. When you get better you'll realize you would have been better off to pay more attention to your images and less to your camera.

All cameras, especially digital ones, offer about the same image quality in real use. The real difference is how easy or possible it is to make the needed adjustments to get decent photos in each different kind of real-world condition. Test charts shot under controlled conditions completely ignore the real world and thus only compare performance for one limited aspect of performance under only one combination of conditions, which is why those tests have nothing to do with how your photos look. That's why I ignore lab test reports and just try for myself. Lab work is useful for sorting out minutiae otherwise invisible between similar cameras in real photography and that's it.

Photography is like golf. They are both fun, popular and require some equipment. Very few people can get others to pay them to do either one for the same reason. Each takes a lifetime of constant practice, getting better and better little by little. Most golfers play for decades and never hit a hole-in-one. Photography is more complex than golf. Why does anyone expect ever to make a perfect photograph?



You can't be on a schedule. You have to go out, look around and wait for the light and inspiration.

Many great shots are made only after years of observing a subject, learning when it looks best, and returning to photograph it at its most spectacular. This is how real photographers make anything look extraordinary.

If you're traveling with non-photographers you're going to have to get your schedules straight, since you'll be out shooting while normal people are eating dinner or still sleeping in the morning.

I find it difficult if anyone is expecting me to return on any sort of schedule. You are out in, and at the whim of, nature and your own brilliant crazy ideas and realizations. Sometimes you'll be back in 10 minutes, other times you might be out all night if you get excited about something.

You cripple yourself if you have someone expecting you to be back at a certain time. I've made my best work when I let the group go ahead and I continued to work at something that excited me.

Brilliance doesn't work on a schedule.



"Compositon is the strongest way of seeing." Edward Weston.

You see more if you're looking. The more you look, the more you see worth photographing. If you're not thinking and not looking you'll walk right past some of the most extraordinary opportunities.

For instance, I lived in the real Beverly Hills from 1995 - 1998. I was on Maple Drive, the same street as George Burns. I never saw any stars. I would see them listed as having lived in Beverly Hills when reading an obituary, and remark "how about that!," having never seen them even if they lived a block away. I would rarely notice them when I was in at the studios all day, every day. Why? I didn't care, and I wasn't looking for them. If I was a tourist or a housewife that reads People magazine and found actors interesting I'm sure I would have seen stars a few times every day. When I had guests in they saw actors all over the place.

The actors were all over the place, but I never saw them. Others did. If you care about something, you'll see it. If you don't, you won't. The best photos aren't obvious. Great photo opportunities don't stand out if you're not looking. That's why they're called opportunities: just like any other opportunity, you have to be paying attention to recognize them.

Photo opportunities are everywhere. Pay attention, keep your eyes open, and look for them.



Creation is a solitary act. I can't create photos if I'm being distracted, watched or asked questions. I need to get out on my own and concentrate.

It's OK to go out and photograph as a group. You do have to split up and shoot on your own once you get there. Otherwise everyone in the group winds up with identical mediocre shots. Split up and see what you see, then meet up at the end for some socializing.



Photography is communicating passion and sparking excitement in the mind and body of another person. If you don't care about the subject then the results won't get beyond the basics. Care deeply and incredible things happen. Don't care and you are quickly forgotten.

"If I feel something strongly, I make a photograph. I do not attempt to explain the feeling." Ansel Adams.

Photography is the art of communicating passion. You need to be passionate about whatever it is that you photograph. If you are passionate you'll get great results, if you don't care, you won't.

A photograph is not about technique. A photograph is communicating something, be it an idea, concept, feeling, thought or whatever, to a total stranger. For a photograph to be effective you have to be clear with what you're communicating. Ansel Adams said "There is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy idea." It is paramount that your idea, thought or feeling be crystal clear in the image. Merely pointing an expensive and masterfully adjusted camera at something doesn't make a good photo. Knowing what you're saying and saying it loud and clear is what makes a strong image people will remember. If it says nothing to you it will say even less to others.

"The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605. Cervantes is observing that it's the end result, not the process, that matters.

Likewise, hardware has absolutely nothing to do with any of this. Craft is just a way to free your ability to communicate, not the communication itself. Many men blame their inadequacies on their hardware and think that simply buying more will solve the problem, excusing them from having to expend any precious mental effort in anything other than shopping for more hardware. You'd double over laughing if you saw the email I get from this site: 99% is from men who think all they have to do is spend some money and that great images will just pour forth. You need to get involved deeply and take your feelings seriously. You don't need money or any more equipment than you already have. Heck, I use crummy point-and-shoots and get great images, too.

Likewise you need to spend time at it just about every time. You usually cannot do it for just 5 minutes and do a decent job. It's odd how many times I'm someplace popular that I'll see a dozen different tourists get out, make a snap, and disappear while I'm still trying to concentrate, feel and understand the shot I'm going to make. You usually shouldn't rush these things!

It's all in your mind and imagination.

One cannot just keep doing the same thing. One needs constantly to innovate and discover new ways of doing what you've been doing. See and feel things from different angles and in different ways.

Not last nor least, you need to keep doing it with the same subject. The better you know your subject the better your results will be.

Sculptor Henry Moore said it best: "Art is the expression of imagination, not the reproduction of reality."

Photographer Elliot Porter said: "True art is but the expression of our love of nature" and "A true work of art is the creation of love, love for the subject first and for the medium second."

Charles Sheeler said: "Photography is nature seen from the eyes outward, painting from the eyes inward. Photography records inalterably the single image, while painting records a plurality of images willfully directed by the artist."

And even Albert Einstein offers: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

A good photographer makes great images with a disposable camera because she knows its limits and how to use it. On the other hand, plenty of poor photographs are made every day using very expensive cameras by people lacking passion and vision, regardless of how much technical skill they have and how sharp their lenses are.

People write novels, not typewriters. So why do some people think buying a different camera or learning all about shutter speeds will help them make better images? People make photographs, not cameras. Your choice of camera has NOTHING to do with anything. NOTHING.

"Photography is bringing order out of chaos." Ansel Adams.

Painting is the art of inclusion. Photography is an art of exclusion. Trying to "get it all in" guarantees a poor photo. Anything that does not contribute to a photo distracts from it. Keep your images clean and simple.

Less is more; the less in the frame the stronger the image. Simplicity is a strong virtue.

I'm going to spend a few sections explaining what's not important. If you already understand this then skip down to the important sections starting at "curiosity."



It's critical to be familiar with every nuance of your equipment. You need to know exactly how it responds in every situation. You need to foresee the final results when you look at a natural scene. You need to know exactly how your equipment will interpret reality.

When you know this you can ensure that each photo you make will look as you intend. You'll know exactly how the photos render (look) and be able to make changes in the scene accordingly.

You can't use five cameras and know all of them well. Use one camera and one lens and one film and learn it's every nuance. Don't waste time chasing every new camera: if you do, you'll never learn it well enough to create great images, except by chance.



Don't buy anything yet. You can create magnificent images with ANY camera. Too many people think camera shopping is the first thing to do on a quest for great images. I need to explain that it's really the last. Some of us own fancy cameras because we are rich and these fancy cameras make photography more convenient. They have nothing to do with the final quality of the images.

Whatever you have is all you need, even point-and-shoot or disposable cameras. Thinking you need more makes you skip things today since you're worrying that "if you only had a..."

"Necessity is not a fact, it's an interpretation." Friedrich Nietzsche.

Go take art, painting, drawing, and design classes at your local community college. Learn to see. You may want to start by reading the books I suggest about art and composition. I never took any photo classes. Everyone learns differently; I learn by reading and doing and seeing.

The photographers whose work I admire most often are former painters or at least people who majored in art; not people with computer, engineering, science or technical photography degrees.

Ask artists for help when you are starting. Ask them how to see and show them your images and ask for suggestions. They will see things that you haven't yet, and will help open your eyes to making better images.

Avoid the friend, neighbor or co-worker who works in computers, science or engineering and always talks about cameras. These people's passion is usually just for the cameras or computers themselves, not about photography itself or art or expressing their imagination visually. Watch out for people who prefer to talk about tools instead of actually making photos. There are thousands of people who watch sports on TV and can talk endlessly about sports stats for every one athlete who actually plays professional sports. You want to talk to the rare guy who actually does it.

Likewise, forget the Internet. Starting out you need far more depth than the cursory treatments shared over the Internet and shared on my website. I'd love to help you out in person since this is all too deep to grasp over email. Learning is a two-way process, not a series of one-way emails or web reading.

Also be warned: the internet is still overloaded with the technical people who invented it. These are the last people from whom you'd want to learn, since they are usually equipment fetishists, not artists. They happen to be the ones most likely to post websites or waste their time in photo chat rooms and user groups. Beware.

Talk to professional photographers, not amateurs and hobbyists. If you don't know any pros, go look in the Yellow Pages or ask around at a professional photo lab. Some professional photographers actually enjoy their work and will talk your ear off for hours if you ask nicely.

Find people whose photos you admire and ask them. Find people whose art you admire and ask them, too. Avoid camera collectors and people who own a lot of expensive cameras. Don't talk to someone who can talk endlessly about film technology, but who never has made a photograph you admire. Talk to these engineers and you'll get so flustered worrying about your camera that you'll never get out and make good photos.

Try The Nikon School, which is a day-long slide show that costs $100 when I took it in 2001. It covers more in the very first hour than most photo courses teach in a semester. Pay attention!

You know the best classes to take? Forget fancy schools. Just look up your local community college or adult education program. There you'll find teachers who really enjoy what they do and will share the world with you if you just ask. Even better, these classes are never more than $100, if not free, depending on your location.

Don't waste too much time studying "photography." Most "photo" classes simply waste your creative time fumbling with obsolete concepts of f/stops and film speeds. Rarely do they teach you how to go create the images you really want.

It's important to be fluent with the technical concepts, but those are only a starting point.

People spend too much time worrying about gear and technique. They completely forget that mastery of technique & equipment is merely the first step in a much longer journey toward the creation of great images.

I teach photography very differently from the old farts. In the first 150 years, which were from about 1835 through about 1985 with the introduction of the first real Matrix exposure meters (as opposed to ordinary light meters), one needed to bridle oneself with many clumsy technical inconveniences before one could produce any photograph at all. Since it's only been about ten years now that many cameras know how to set themselves properly over a wide range of conditions, many old timers still haven't learned that for most people one may completely ignore camera settings. That's right, I usually shoot on autofocus and program auto exposure any time I can!

It's sad when people ask me to suggest a camera that fits the pathetic requirements for beginning photo classes, which usually require a totally obsolete manual camera. Good gosh, run away from those classes and learn to love your point and shoot. Automation is good: the camera is not thinking for you, it's just setting the rudiments of focus and exposure which rarely require creative thought. The auto cameras free your creative juices to concentrate on what is important, which is heat, passion, fire, composition, expression and lighting.

I suggest going out and trying to express your feelings carefully and see what you get. Once you get familiar with things you may want to seek out technical advice from someone who really knows. It's more important to go find things about which you are passionate and attempt to convey that fire through images first.



"I am not a scientist. I consider myself an artist who employs certain techniques to free my vision." Ansel Adams in his Autobiography, page 254

Worrying about manual exposure settings and technique distracts you from your passion, just as if your lover were to stop to answer the phone in the middle of a steamy one-on-one.

Many people still mistakenly think that mastering simple issues like shutter speeds and depth of field is all there is to know about photography. Those have as little to do with photography as typewriter repair has to do with composing a novel. They are necessary evils, and by no means the central point.

For larger format cameras like 120 and 4x5 you probably will have to learn technique because those cameras are not made in enough quantity for their manufacturers to justify the efforts in automating them, but for 35mm and digital almost all cameras can do this themselves better than most of the people who would insist you set the camera manually. Don't fret the technique unless you have to. Most of what you see in my galleries was shot in program automatic mode. Tell that to your photo teacher.

Watch out, I know people who actually enjoy having to fool with the settings on their view cameras. This is OK, but don't let that mislead you to worrying too much about it. Start with an automatic camera so you learn the important points of how to express your feelings first. You can learn f/stops later.

Old farts like to make themselves feel important by making you think that you need them to teach you the secrets of fiddling with your camera. They will try to get you to believe that all this crap is required to make photographs. They will insist you waste your time with manual exposure settings, and if you are stupid enough to believe this you'll also spend all your time worrying about which lens is sharper instead of having your own solo show at The Whitney.

There are 150 years of photo technology programmed into your 35mm camera. Use it.

My suggestion is to start off with your 35mm SLR set to matrix metering, program auto exposure and autofocus! Your images will actually be better than dispassionate people who waste their time with manual methods because most cameras have better programming inside them than most photographers do! Your modern SLR camera probably uses the Zone System to figure exposure, which very few photographers understand.

Like what you see on this site? Most of my photos are made in these automatic modes unless conditions dictate something else. I used to use all the manual settings and my photos were boring because I missed the magic moments.

I'll explain what you really need to know about the technical side at the very bottom of this page.

You need to worry about seeing, feeling, composition and lighting, NOT about f/stops as you start out.

Yes, technical ability, in fact, virtuosity, is absolutely required for successful photography, however, this ability is nothing more than a mandatory prerequisite with which one might then be able make great photos. Luckily much of this fluency today is incorporated into automated cameras, making mastery much easier. Technical mastery alone does not make good photos, it's just one of the necessary parts.



Honest. If you believe me, just skip to the next section. If you don't then read the rest of this mandatory page here.

If you insist on going out today and buying a camera, see my page here for inexpensive 35mm cameras and here for digital cameras.


Photograph subjects for which you have a true curiosity. You have to find them interesting if you want the people who see your work to find them interesting, too.


Don't follow gurus, teachers, me or anyone else.

You'll never be better than anyone else at being them. No one will be better at what Ansel did than Ansel, and likewise, no one will ever be better at doing what you do than you.

Be yourself. Show your passions. Don't try to duplicate someone else's.

You have to go out, be yourself, and your own style will develop. Never, ever think that because you like something done by someone else that you have to do the same.

Find something about which you are passionate and explore that. If you get off on figurines or wastebaskets or old people or beautiful naked girls or hubcaps or patterns left by tires in the snow or sewage processing plants or cute little animals, go photograph them.

There is no right or wrong thing to photograph. Just show us what excites you.

If nothing excites you, your photos will suck. Find what you like, and the heck with everyone else.




There is no right and no wrong. The rule of thirds is not a rule and rules are for idiots. Just go make good photos. A good photo is one you or someone else likes. There are no formulas or grades or scores.



Creativity is nice, but all because something is creative does not make it art. When a baby reaches into his diaper and paints the wall with what he finds there, it is a very creative act, but it is not art.


Taken From: