Secrets of taking good pictures: Silence is golden

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

Herod’s Pool (photo credit: Alan Peters )
Herod’s Pool
(photo credit: Alan Peters )
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
“The decisive moment" is a famous phrase, coined by one of my favorite photographers, Henri Cartier Bresson.
For me, however, good pictures not only capture a moment, they capture our imagination and make us feel involved. As our eyes scan the picture our minds fill in the details - the still image expands into a story.
Photographs can tell a story in a unique way that no other art form can match. I advise my students to stop taking pictures and to start telling stories. Once you understand the importance of this, your photography will progress by leaps and bounds.
Telling the story
This picture is from Rob Haars of Zeist, Netherlands. He asks: “does my ‘artistic’ rendering tell the story?”
This is a shot of a young girl standing in front of what looks like a circus tent. She is dressed up and stands self-consciously, inviting our attention. There is a sense of mystery and the picture has an interesting atmosphere.
Rob has used an effects filter to mimic a toned black-and-white photographic print made on hand-coated paper. My answer to his question of whether this rendering tells the story is definitely “No!”. The picture would be excellent with or without the filter because the picture tells its own story.
The primary focal point is, of course, the girl. We don’t know why she is dressed up, or if that is actually a circus tent, or what she is looking at. Our mind fills in the blanks as our eye takes in the details. The man just disappearing around the tent to the left adds a nice touch of normal activity to contrast with the atmosphere surrounding the girl. The sense of mystery is compelling and holds my attention. The story is well told.
Another story
The next picture is from Alan Peters of Bowen Island, British Columbia. He says: “We were visiting Ceasarea a few weeks ago on a rainy day, on a trip to Israel from Canada. I was enjoying watching the waves flowing into Herod's pool.”
The picture has been taken with the wide-angle end of a zoom lens and I like how this has exaggerated the perspective. This draws our eye towards the horizon, but there is nothing waiting there to hold our attention. The sky is slightly dramatic and occupies the top third of the frame - the foreground rubble occupies the bottom third. What is missing from this picture is a focal point to direct our attention to what is important; to what the story is about.
Without a focal point we don’t know what Alan’s shot is about, and a picture without a story cannot hold our attention. The story will have to be supplied verbally: “I was enjoying watching the waves flowing into Herod's pool”. This is fine if we are talking about personal snaps, but good pictures need to speak for themselves.
I suggest that after taking a shot, you should assess it on the preview screen at the back of your camera. Imagine you are looking at the picture for the first time and have never been to that location or know anything about it. Can you tell what it’s about and why it was taken without any verbal explanation?
It would have been impossible to connect this picture to Herod unless there was a convenient sign to incorporate into the shot. It may have been possible, however, to take an interesting and dramatic picture of what Alan actually enjoyed - the waves flowing into the pool. This would have required a different angle, composition and intention.
Remember that the viewer does not have your first-hand experience of the situation and you need to supply clues in your picture to suggest what interested you. I know that it’s difficult to view your pictures objectively, but it’s essential to progress as a photographer.
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

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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: