Secrets of taking good pictures: Research

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

Oak tree in Galilee  (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Oak tree in Galilee
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
In order to learn more about how to take good pictures we'll take a look at a picture of the oldest living tree sent in by Ricardo Telichevesky of Cupertino, CA. He would like some advice on how to improve it.
Ricardo's shot is an accurate record of a large and leafless tree. Whatever the reality, my feeling is that a picture of the Oldest Living Tree in the World should be dramatic and draw attention to it's majesty and mystery.
Since this is a famous landmark, many thousands of pictures have been taken of it by amateurs and professionals. Among these will be some exceptional shots that show it in an interesting and expressive way. It would be a good idea to see how others have portrayed it, and this is easy to do using the Internet. 
My first piece of advice would be to do a Google search and look for images that really add something authentic and dramatic to the look and feel of the picture. Of course it's best to do this before you visit the location.
You don't need to copy what has already been done, but you can allow it to inspire you. Be willing to experiment and try something new that will develop your photographic style.
I'm a great believer in not waiting to take a picture until I'm in front of a subject. I prepare well beforehand and start taking pictures in my head as soon as possible. If I knew I'd be visiting this landmark I would imagine a few ideal compositions that may come in useful. If you can vaguely remember other interesting pictures of trees you may be able to roughly visualize some possible shots beforehand.
A good way to develop this ability is to do a few simple sketches. Don't worry about artistic quality, just focus on making strong compositions. In Ricardo's shot of the tree I can see how sparse and weathered it has become - in my sketches I have tried to emphasize this quality.
In the first sketch I imagined finding a position to show the tree towering above, and contrasting with, the smaller green trees around it. This would require taking the shot some distance away and using the telephoto end of a zoom lens.
In the second sketch I have chosen a low viewpoint to isolate the tree against the sky, and added a figure to suggest the scale. This requires the wide angle end of a zoom lens.
The sky is very important in bringing pictures like these to life and in both sketches I have indicated a dramatic sky.
I emphasize to my students that the most important piece of photographic equipment that they will ever use is their head. By practicing simple exercises like this you can develop your ability to roughly visualize shots before you take them.
Snapping away in the hope of getting a good shot is now the way photographers operate. Sketches will greatly increase your ability to create a strong composition so that you can concentrate all your efforts productively and not waste time and energy.
As a professional retoucher I often have to produce a realistic image by composting parts of different pictures together. I rather liked the sketch of a weather beaten ancient tree seen against an imposing sky and created the picture below that I think captures this in a dramatic way.
If I ever visit this location I will be well prepared to take a good picture. Perhaps my sketched and retouched ideas will not prove practical, but I'm sure to come up with lots more creative ideas on the spot. Next time you are planning to visit a landmark you could try this Research and Sketch technique.
Send me your picture
If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback. 
Send one picture only, at a reduced size to [email protected] 

Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at: