Secrets of taking good pictures: If only...

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

Lighthouse (photo credit: Dan Walker)
(photo credit: Dan Walker)
Tom Langford is an event and commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
Photographers are difficult to please - we are our own worst critics and are rarely satisfied, even with our best pictures. Ansel Adams, the American landscape photographer famously said, "twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop". I think he was being a little optimistic; many of us would feel happy if we managed to create six completely satisfying images per year.
This isn’t because we look on the negative side – it’s because we tend to have vivid imaginations and can see how our shots could have been improved if only the conditions had been just right and we had the time and luck to capture a perfect shot.
The positive aspect of having a critical imagination is that we can imagine variations to any picture we have just shot, go about capturing them, and perhaps end up with an even better image. Let’s look at an excellent shot taken by Dan Walker one evening in Connecticut. He says: “I probably should have made it a little lighter, but I thought it added a little something with the darkness.”

If only ...
This is a very interesting and atmospheric shot and I agree with Dan that the darkness adds something - a sense of mystery. The solitary, unlit lighthouse is echoed by the unmanned binoculars. Both look out to sea is if waiting for someone to come or something to happen. This is an excellent composition especially with the line of the beach leading our eye to the lighthouse placed at the very edge of the frame. Most people would have placed it further to the right and weakened the effect of the diagonal.
Sunsets always cause the camera to underexpose and although the picture looks dark it may have been taken earlier in the evening. I can’t help wondering what it would have looked with the lighthouse beaming out to sea. I would also like to see some rim light catching the left edge of the binocular stand. I’m not sure if this would necessarily improve the picture, but my photographer's “If-only”-sense won’t let me rest until I find out. I might have also taken a couple of steps to the left to alter the position of the binoculars. I’ve retouched the picture below to get an idea of how it could have looked.
Lighthouse retouchedLighthouse retouched
If Dan had wanted to take a variation like this he would first have had to wait for the lighthouse to start up. To make the rim light effect he would have needed a flashgun that could be fired remotely by the camera, placed out of the shot to the left. This is very easy to do with my Nikon d-SLR and basic SB700 flashgun. You can judge for yourself whether my “If only” idea is an improvement or just a variation.
The important point here is to use your imagination constructively. Dan took an excellent shot, but why be satisfied with mere excellence? If you are aware of this then you might spot that an even better picture, “If only ...”
Usually, you will not be able to improve the shot you have just taken, but without an inquisitive itch you will never know if there is an even better shot just waiting to be captured.

Constructive Feedback
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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: