A few years ago, I decided that I would like to get into photography. So, I did some research and bought a fairly expensive DSLR camera. I also read lots of articles and books on how to take great pictures. The results were quite impressive. I was finally taking really good photographs.
So when I went to Iceland with my team, I expected to get lots of amazing pictures. The four of us took more than 6,000 photos on the trip! After countless hours of sorting through all the pictures we ended up with 280 photographs that we were proud to show to people. That works out to 1 good picture for every 20 to 25 pictures you take.
I read once that a professional photographer expects to take at least 100 photographs to get that one great shot. So, it would seem like we were taking pictures like a professional — in fact, better than a professional (which boosted our egos). However, this was not the case. We did get 280 good photographs, but unfortunately none of them were good enough to grace the cover of National Geographic.
In all fairness, I picked out around 30 photographs that I thought were really good. So now we are talking about a success rate of one “really good” picture for every 200 photographs taken. So what went wrong? We had the proper gear and we had practiced and studied how to use the cameras to get great pictures.
I believe that the problem was that we were taking pictures like a tourist.
When we arrived at the stunning sites in Iceland we piled out of the Land Rover and started taking pictures with reckless abandonment. Here is a list of what we did not do:
1. We did not take any time to reflect upon the scene – how best to capture the image;
2. We did not consider our vantage point – we took pictures in the same spot as everyone else;
3. We did not evaluate the lighting – what angle would provide the best results;
4. We never used a tripod – always strongly recommended for landscape photography;
5. We did not look for a focal point and where it is placed in the photograph (rule of thirds); and
6. We did not think about foregrounds (points of interest) and leading lines.
These short comings are by no means a complete list. We didn’t even look at the photographs we took until we returned home after the trip. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t professional photographers and we did get some really good pictures. We are information technology specialists, an accountant, and an engineer who have no formal training in photography. But we certainly can do better.
On the other hand we are not as bad as a typical tourist. We didn’t walk around Iceland holding our tablet in front of our face clicking away getting blurry or grainy photographs. If this description sounds familiar, don’t be offended. Just realize that the little camera in your tablet or smartphone simply cannot compete with a “proper” camera to capture the rich colors and depth of field that make a picture impressive, especially in low light situations.
I was recently asked by someone why the pictures they were taking were not turning out very good. My reply was simple: stop using your tablet and use your “proper” camera. They conceded that I was right but the convenience and appeal of immediately seeing the picture on a bigger screen immediately after taking it still swayed them to continue to use the tablet even when they had their “proper” camera with them.
If you simply want to capture the moment, then any old camera will do (even a tablet). However, if your goal is to get a great picture then you need more than just the right equipment. You need to think about the picture you are trying to capture. You need to try different things and you must consider lighting, foreground, background, focal point, etc. Most importantly, you need to slow down and think about the photograph before you even take a picture.
On our recent trip to Norway, we tried to photograph more like a professional and less like a tourist. The effort paid off, we had a higher success rate. We ended up with 340 good photographs from approximately 2,000 pictures taken (down to 5 or 6 pictures taken to get a good one). Similar to the Iceland trip, I felt we ended up with about 30 really good pictures and I would argue that we even got a few great photographs that I believe are good enough to grace the cover a magazine — though, I haven’t received any calls from National Geographic yet.
Overall, the lesson learned is that anyone can take really good pictures and if you keep trying you may even get a great picture. However, you have to slow down and think about the photograph. If you simply run around snapping pictures with reckless abandonment (like a tourist), you likely won’t get any pictures worth framing and displaying on your wall.
About the author: Dr. Rodney McAffee is the Director of Geotechnical Engineering for C-CORE in Newfoundland, Canada. He has his PhD in geotechnical engineering and works with all things related to rocks and soils including studying icebergs to understand how they interact with the seabed. More on Rodney’s professional career here.