Secrets of taking good pictures: Resolutions

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

Tom Langford 311 (photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford 311
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
At the beginning of a new year we feel a fresh rush of energy and make resolutions. If you are a photography enthusiast here is one resolution that could make 2012 the year your photography takes a great leap forward.
It’s an unconventional technique that I have found very effective in many different life situations. I’ve adapted it to help you develop your photography skills - you could make a resolution to use it at least once a month and mark it in your diary.
Virtual photography teacher
Sit quietly and visualize yourself teaching a group of photography students. You are discussing with them the strengths and weaknesses of a picture you took that is displayed on a large computer screen.
Imagine how you would explain what is good about your picture, what its weaknesses are, and how it could be improved. You probably won’t be able to do this exercise right away - like all good teachers you will have to prepare in advance.
The most common feature of pictures sent to me for constructive feedback is they lack depth; they would make good backgrounds to a real picture but don’t stand up on their own. In your preparation check to see if your picture fits into this category.
Find on the Internet a few good professional examples of pictures somewhat similar to your own. Search for “stock pictures” and visit online agencies. Search in their catalogues for the subject of your picture.
The professional shots you find will be eye-catching because they are much more than simple background images - they work on several different levels:
1. They have a strong overall composition.2. They have a strong primary focal point.3. They have other areas of interest to keep your eye moving over the picture.4. They tell a story – you can feel the atmosphere, feel the breeze, sense what happened before the shot and what will happen next.
Compare your picture to theirs, keeping in mind the four levels above. You may gain insights into why your picture fails or succeeds to hold our interest.
After this preparation you will be able to sit quietly, close your eyes, and teach your first virtual photography class. You will be able to explain to your imaginary students what works and what doesn’t work, and how you could have shot it differently. They may ask you some pertinent questions, so make sure your preparation is thorough!
If you make a resolution to practice this exercise once a month you will find yourself taking much better shots. You will start to look over your own shoulder as you take a shot and give yourself sensible advice, just like a good photography teacher would do.
Example exercise
Here’s an example to help you understand the process. We will use a picture sent by ¬Axel Meta, 15 years old, from Barcelona. He was reading one of these articles in a fast food restaurant where he took this picture.
Axel AAxel A
Well done Axel. This is a good visual awareness exercise in which an interesting shot has been created on the spot. By focusing on the lampshade the background has become pleasantly blurred. Like most visual awareness exercises it would make a good background but requires something extra to turn it into a picture. A quick online search will turn up pictures we can compare it to and gain an idea of how it can be improved.
We could search for “stock pictures” to find agency catalogues, and then search in them for “diner”, etc. We can also search in Google Images for “eating burger”, “drinking coke”, etc. Unfortunately I can’t show you any results because of copyright reasons, but the most interesting shots always had a primary focal point of some activity relating to the location.
In the retouched version below I have added a primary focal point, and there are now two secondary focal points to keep the eye moving. The picture now works on all four levels and our research will have helped to give an insightful tutorial to our imaginary class.
Axel BAxel B
Children pick up new concepts quickly and I hope example this will help Axel. Good Pictures are interesting because they keep our eyes moving is if we are reading a story. Try teaching your virtual students a masterclass entitled “ Photographer as Storyteller”. It will really help to improve their photography, and yours too!
Wishing you a Happy New Photography Year.
Send me your picture
If you would like to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will share some constructive feedback in one of my future articles.
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Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his next courses and field trips at: