Secrets of taking good pictures: Awareness

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

VA exercises 370 (photo credit: Tom Langford)
VA exercises 370
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
All good photographers and all good photographs have one thing in common – they all show a strong sense of Visual Awareness.
Visual Awareness is the ability to create an effective and interesting composition using shapes, textures, colors, perspectives, and light and shade. Photographs taken with VA are impressive, they draw you in, you feel involved, they tell a story, they’re interesting. To progress as a photographer you have to develop your visual awareness and the most powerful way to do this is through VA exercises.
Don’t wait to practice – you can do a VA exercise right now if you have a cellphone camera at hand! You might be reading this on your PC at home, on a laptop in a train, or on your smartphone white waiting in line – you can do VA exercises anytime and anywhere. They’re fun, challenging, and the best way to develop your photography skills.
Look around and spot an interesting arrangement of shapes, textures, colors and so on. Use your camera to frame an interesting composition, but take your time. Move your camera in ways you have never tried before, twisting and turning it, going closer or farther away until you're convinced you have a strong and interesting composition before you take a shot.
Notice that I have not mentioned taking a picture of a thing, or an object, simply concentrate on the way shapes look and fell on the screen or viewfinder of your camera.
I recently saw a patch of sunlight falling on the kitchen worktop and sink and some dirty pans. It looked like this:
I liked the shapes made by the sun and spent a few minutes taking VA exercises. Here’s one of them:
Notice that the picture is about the dramatic shapes, colors, and contrasts, rather than the objects. I often do VA exercises when I have a few minutes to spare - while I’m waiting to pick up my children from school, or waiting for a train. I tell my students to do VA exercises when they have nothing else better to do!
Here’s a few more VA shots I’ve taken during odd moments in different situations:
By developing your visual awareness with this simple exercise you are practicing the pure craft of photography. You are not under pressure to capture the moment, and the shapes and textures won’t be disturbed by your presence. Can you create a strong, compelling image using only compositional skills when the subject is not important and you have plenty of time to experiment? With practice you will find your VA skills will influence your photography so that when you have a real subject in front of you and need to react quickly your instincts will take over and you will create great shots without conscious thought.
If this isn’t a good enough reason to start practicing, then they are also lots of fun too!
Constructive Feedback 
If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I may use in one in my articles with some constructive feedback.  Send one picture only, at a small size to suitable for emails to [email protected].

If you don’t know how to send a photo by email at a small size please look at my Brief Guide to Picasa:

Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details of his courses and field trips at: