The Bastards Book of Photography

An open-source guide to working with light by Dan Nguyen

How to Make Interesting Photos

Before taking a photo, you have to make the right opportunities

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Jan 31, 2008 at 02:00 PM
This photo is one of the earliest I took with my first DSLR and one of the few sports photos I keep around. As my colleague pointed out, it's how ball just lies on the ground even as the rest of the scene, the dunker, the teammate and opposing players are frozen in motion and reaction, and the dunker is just beginning to drop. I wish I could say I planned it but it was just something I caught by luck and didn't notice until editing through.

I want to keep this book focused on technique and practical concepts in photography. But it’s easier to be motivated if you can find interesting situations and subjects, which partly depends on your personal circumstances – where you live and travel and work – and partly on your attitude.

Since I can’t say much useful about how you live your life. But here are some things I’ve learned about attitude:

Be there

In the midst of the conversation, as I’m now trying to recall it, I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up…The figure seems high to me today. But I know it was more than 60 and the extra syllable in 70 ruins the rhythm of the quote, so I think we should let it stand at 80.

Showing up with a camera is important, no matter what kind of camera it is or whether you plan to take a single photo with it.

Everyone can remember a time when they saw something great and if only they had their camera then but now the moment has passed. No one remembers the times that they didn’t show up at all, and of course, neither will anyone else. So it’s great to be knowledgable and proficient at photography. But that means nothing if you don’t seek out the situations worth photographing.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Dec 19, 2009 at 10:57 PM
Like every New York resident, I try to avoid Times Square. But I thought it’d be worth stopping by when a large snowstorm hit the city, just to see what heavy snow would do to one of our densest tourist areas. I got there as evening Broadway shows were finishing up and theater-goers, unaware that it had been snowing all this time, were pouring into the unplowed streets. This also happened to be the first winter since some of the streets had been converted to pedestrian plazas, making it quite inviting for large crowds to loiter.

I’m sure other snowball fights have taken place in Times Square, but the conditions were just right to make it seem as if nothing like this had ever happened before. This photo of mine got picked up by Flickr’s blog and numerous republishing requests – particularly by civic planning groups who were interested in how Times Square’s plazas were faring.

It’s not a particularly great photo but all the attention got me to buy a Flickr Pro membership – which I still have today – and rekindled my interest in photography, even if to just share it online.

Be square

If you’re not being paid to take photos, then you need to find all the low-cost excuses you can to practice. Your office, your pets, the bar, your friends house, whatever. Do it to amuse people. Just practice. There’s a line when it’s obnoxious (and I’m sure I’ve crossed it) but who cares what others think; its your time.

A friend told me one night while we were coming homing home one night, “I’ve always wondered how you take so many good photos and then I realized you just take a lot of photos.”

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Jul 3, 2010 at 02:20 PM
I took this photo at my friend’s house, after we had gotten back from her wedding rehearsal. She had just adopted a new kitten.

Be close

If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.

From a technical perspective, the closer you are to the subject, the more detail your camera can resolve, especially if your camera is of so-so quality.

But even if you buy a $2,000 telephoto lens that reduces 50 feet to 5, it produces an entirely different perspective than a shorter lens from 5 feet away.

Think of how your finger, when held close to your eye, can appear bigger than the Empire State Building if you’re a mile away. The differences of height is not the same if you’re standing at the base of the skyscraper.

Besides the physical constraints of the optics, distance from the subject is emotional, too. Being physically near your subjects lets you see what they see. This inspires different compositions and new ideas for what the photo should contain.

This shared perspective between subject and photographer – which is then shared with the viewers of the photograph – is essential for documentary photography. And it is a completely different quality than what you get from being able to zoom into the freckles of someone’s face.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM on Jan 29, 2012 at 01:56 PM
I’m not a big fan of parades. But finding a side street in order to sneak into the procession; that can be fun.

Be patient

If you take a thousand photos in a single day, you’ll still have only captured about 10 seconds of actual time.

This is a something my high school yearbook teacher said to remind the editors and photographers that the yearbook’s pages covers too limited a timeframe to be filling it up with goofball photos of the yearbook staff’s friends.

It’s a useful reminder that a lot happens between, before, and after each shutter click. I can take a hundred photos of a scene in ten minutes and find that every photo was a split second off: either some passersby photobombed it or traffic clutters the background and if only I had shot more and caught the right split second, I’d have a more usable photo.

Lightning striking

Of course, it’s not just the quantity of photos. Observing a scene, seeing how shadows move and where people walk before you put the camera to your eye saves you from making a lot of flawed photos in the first place.

And you may wait a while after you think you have your last photo. Maybe you captured someone walking through a shaft of light and it’s a nice image. But maybe someone else will come by, with a more colorful outfit or with a more interesting stride, and just waiting for that person is what completes the image.

And this is how five minutes for a quick photo turns into an hour of watching.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Jun 9, 2011 at 07:43 PM
This lightning shot was taken from the top of the Rockefeller Center. It’s not difficult to get if you take a long exposure, but I didn’t have a tripod and there wasn’t a place to rest the camera. So I set it at 1/40th of a second, the slowest I could still take a reasonably sharp photo at. And then I just pounded the shutter button, pretending I could predict when the next bolt would hit. After about half an hour in the rain, it actually worked.

Be limited

The first thing you’ll find out when starting out with a modestly-priced camera is how much the damn thing limits you. The lens that came with is too short to capture details more than 15 feet from you. When you press the shutter, the camera takes about a full second before reacting, enough to completely miss the action of everything. Because of your camera’s poor dynamic range and awful low-light noise, you can only get the details of either just the well-lighted areas or what’s in the shadows – but not both. And your on-camera flash is so harsh that it renders a romantic dark cafe as sterile as an operating room.

So what do you do? I mean, besides spending more money?

You stop taking blurry photos of the moon and focus what’s reachable at ground level. Instead of spraying-and-praying everytime you see something interesting, you carefully watch the scene and its rhythms. You practice tracking the action in your viewfinder, noticing how your camera, even as it struggles to keep pace, has a certain timing to its own adjustments. And then you press the trigger. And then you stay a minute longer, to try a different shot to see if it comes out better.

In all these things, you learn to subtract – distance, quantity of photos, scope, and details – from your photos. This is what you have to do because you have a cheap camera. But this is what great photographers choose to do even with cameras that shoot 10 photos per second and with assistants at hand. Not everything that can be seen has to be in the photograph. Thinking about what to keep, and why, is what all artists have to do.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon PowerShot S100 / 5.2-26.0 mm on Feb 29, 2012 at 10:11 PM
At the top of the Rockefeller Center: With 0% visibility, you might as well give up trying to take photos of the cityscape and see what’s around you.

Be boring

Being dedicated to photography isn’t much different than buying a treadmill to lose weight after New Year’s. If you fixate on losing ten pounds – or, in this case, placing 10 photos in the local art gallery – after the first two weeks and can’t manage the disappointment that inevitably comes, your closet is going to be home to yet another expensive piece of dust-collecting junk.

Be prepared to produce a slew of throwaway photos – not just hundreds, but thousands and thousands – before you have a photo that you (and others) treasure.

First of all, you have to practice. Not just when there’s a wedding or an annual parade that comes by, but on anything. Photography may be high art, but there’s still the physical motion of pressing all the right buttons with the dials in the right places before you actually take the photo. This is just pure practice.

So shoot whatever you have in front of you. No matter how mundane it is. Practice it from the same angle over and over if you have to but it’s better to just try different times of the day. Don’t expect to get a groundbreaking photo. Just take it out of the chance that you’ll notice something different.

At some point, you’ll get bored and that’s fine. Every successful photographer has shot thousands of boring assignments: whether it’s weddings, pets, or rocks, but the best photographers I’ve known attempt to make the best out of it. And maybe there’s only so much you can draw out from your eighth hour at the county fair but when the time comes that something interesting to shoot happens, your reflexes and aesthetic judgment will be ready.

Boring is relative, I guess. The World Trade reconstruction site is interesting, but if you walk by it just about every day, it’s a construction site like any other. I have a lot of photos of it, probably more photos of it than anything else I have on my Flickr account. But these are probably just a fraction of the many ones I’ve taken just during my lunch break.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Sep 11, 2008 at 03:21 PM
I’m surprised I have so few photos of the area even when I started working at ProPublica in 2008. Here’s one of the earliest photos I have, when there was virtually nothing there.
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View on Flickr Taken with Canon PowerShot S90 / 6.0-22.5 mm on Aug 16, 2011 at 05:34 PM
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View on Flickr Taken with Canon PowerShot S90 / 6.0-22.5 mm on Aug 10, 2011 at 01:39 PM
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View on Flickr Taken with Sony NEX-7 / E 16mm F2.8 on May 21, 2012 at 08:08 PM
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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM on May 2, 2011 at 08:44 AM
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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM on May 20, 2011 at 05:43 PM
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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM on Sep 9, 2011 at 05:23 PM
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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM on Nov 11, 2011 at 11:07 AM

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