Improve Your Photography by Getting Back to Basics

June 18, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 13 Comments | |
Improve Your Photography by Getting Back to Basics Image

I love technology. The Internet has changed the way we do business and communicate with each other. As a photographer, getting feedback about my work before the Internet was rare. This was usually limited to talks at tradeshows or camera clubs. But talking face-to-face, people are less likely to give you honest, constructive comments.

It’s interesting to read some of the comments from other photographers regarding work published in my books and on the Internet. One person said referring to one of my books,“ I could not find any secrets from this book. Since digital is now the new photography this book is totally film.” Unfortunately he was missing the point. It doesn’t matter if you are using film or digital, the same principles apply.

Just look at any books branded as ‘digital’ and for the most part the content is exactly the same as pre-digital how-to photography books with the possible inclusion of a few technical descriptions on how to use features such as auto white balance. The digital camera as with any camera, is only a tool. It is not responsible to producing great images, the photographer is. As though there is a secret formula to follow a step-by-step procedure to create powerful images.

Ok, in a way there is, but I’m sorry to tell you, there are no secrets. Man did not land on the moon, there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy and there were no weapons of mass destruction. It’s been there in front of us all along in countless books and magazines on photography. They are the basic principles of creating powerful images beginning with lighting, more specifically the correct lighting for the subject whether it’s a landscape, close-up detail of nature, or a building.

Secondly, a strong composition in combination with the right kind of light and you’re heading in the right direction. And finally, timing. Capturing the ‘decisive moment’ as Henri Cartier Bresson coined the phrase can make or break an image. Whether it is tripping the shutter at the precise moment when capturing a moving element or waiting until the light falls onto the scene in the correct place, timing plays a vital part of creating powerful images. This is especially true when all three elements lighting, composition, and timing coincide to create a truly memorable image.

If you study any image that captivates you, ask yourself what makes it a powerful image? Chances are it will be a combination of lighting and an effective composition. Using the Rule of Thirds, leading lines, and of course, I like breaking the rules when necessary to create an image with impact.

Get Back to Basics

When is it a good time to break the rules? For example, putting the subject in the centre of the frame instead of on the third. I generally look for a conceptual theme such as in the image of the heart-shaped sunflower. As it’s the only flower in the field that is open making it special, setting it apart from the rest, so centre position calls more attention to it. Some conceptual words could be individual, unique, special, love, and exclusive. It would not have been as effective if it were placed on the third. By the way, other than only 2 strategically placed petals, it is a straight image.

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photos, landscape, photography, digital, technique, landscapes, film, Tom Mackie, improve, rules, fundamentals, back to basics, basics

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#1 Erick @ Photocrati Photography Blog

Here, here. The principles of lighting (amount, type, direction) and composition, two powerful factors in any great photo, don’t change as we move to digital. Mastery of those allows you to create great photos with any camera, film or digital.

That said, I do think digital has changed a lot. It’s rapidly accelerated people’s learning curve. I think it’s much more forgiving, since it’s so easy to adjust photos digitally - adjusting light (at least amount and white balance) and even composition through cropping. As a related downside, I think the flexibility of post processing actually makes people a bit lazier about the fundamentals above.


3:32 pm - Thursday, June 18, 2009

#2 Robert

Great article, clear and simple, just as what he explain in it. There is not secret and like I always say to people who begin with photography, everything is in the light and in the photographer. I know people who jump from nothing to expert and pro cameras without knowing what is an… ISO… The basics, the basics please!

5:23 pm - Thursday, June 18, 2009

#3 Alesha

Wow, what a great shot! I love the way the light hits the trees and the house on the edge of the cliff.

7:23 pm - Thursday, June 18, 2009

#4 Shayne

I like the article, and you are right Erick, too many people rely on post processing now to make a shot. Now don’t get me wrong, I also do the same… but when you talk about getting back to the basics and then show an image of a starfish on the beach being hit by water that is totally montaged (two images added together) I think you are misleading and not completely telling the readers the truth about your work.
I have been doing retouching and digital montage for other photographers, for eight years, and that image ‘screams’ mistakes in both photoshop and physics!
Get back to basics you say…!

12:22 am - Friday, June 19, 2009

#5 Vic Pellicier

Good article, and I agree, but not to many photographers who are any good are straying to far from these ideas, this article is pretty basic. Which I guess in this case is a good thing.

Not sure what the guy above me is talking about though. Speaking dogmatically like that makes no sense.

7:20 am - Friday, June 19, 2009

#6 Mei Teng

I enjoyed your article. Great write up and very good tips! Thanks for sharing.

12:19 pm - Friday, June 19, 2009

#7 Olivier_G

“Knowing when not to make a picture” is probably the best way to improve your skills in photography.

But it is more difficult today because digital tends to make you ponder this issue afterwards, just because “it’s free”.

Very interesting/basic ;) article. Thank you.

10:38 pm - Saturday, June 20, 2009

#8 Evan

No one is taking issue with the comment about man not landing on the moon? Is this a common belief on this site?

8:05 am - Monday, June 22, 2009

#9 Keith

Photography is still photography. THe basics are unchanged from what I learned 60 years ago when just about everything was manual - I still have the old circular slide rule type exposure caculator I had before I could afford a light meter. What has changed is the means of storing the information the camera collects and how to deal with it. Instead of using filters to allow for different light sources, we change the White Balance, instead of messing about with chemicals in the dark, we use a computer and as I have only recently got a DSLR after having my main 35mm SLR stolen I’m busy learning all the new procedures - and it’s a steep learning curve!

11:24 pm - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

#10 Tom Mackie

This is exactly what I am talking about Shayne. By understanding the basics of photography and executing them with passion, great results are possible without the need for a lot of post processing in Photoshop. Even with digital I like to get a straight image whenever possible otherwise I become more of a computer technician than a photographer. The starfish on the beach is a straight image (no montage)that shows if you become familiar with your subject, images like this are possible.


4:20 pm - Thursday, June 25, 2009


Just a little ramble:

Thanks Tom for the great article. I’m going to email it to some friends of mine. I’ve had some great film cameras over the last 30 years and have taken some great photos. I finally decided to get a point and shoot digital camera and that camera let me take some great photos as well.

I certainly appreciate your reiterating that it’s the photographer that takes the picture not the camera. I recently bought a whiz-bang semi pro camera at I’m able to take good photos with it as well. I was at a couple of 4 July parties last week and several people noticed the new camera and said that they couldn’t wait to get a camera like mine so they could take good pictures too.

I couldn’t convince them that they could take great pictures with the camera they have. I offered to trade cameras for a few pics but they declined. Hopefully they will take my parting advice and go out somewhere, even in their yard or neighborhood, and try to take some pictures they like. Just taking snapshots a few times a year at parties usually won’t do it.

OK, I’m no Tom Mackie by a long shot. When I shoot film, I’m still amazed that anything turns out at all… good or bad! When a picture turns out great and looks like what I wanted a picture of, that’s just icing on the cake.

With digital, I have to fight getting lazy. It’s easy to throw the camera up, snap, and look at the results and then try again. I have to take a deep breath and remember to take more time to compose the shot, switch over to manual exposure sometimes and think about how much a lousy shot would cost if I was using film.

Thanks for the Blog,


8:09 pm - Thursday, July 9, 2009

#12 Nathan Griffin

Great article and comments from others.  Keeping it simple is so beneficial not just in composition, but also in workflow and even equipment choice.  I fully planned on getting several (2-3) lenses for use with my new DSLR, but finances have only allowed one medium zoom.  That is one of the best things to happen to me - allows me to go for specific compositions for that focal range and not fiddle with what’s in a bag.

9:08 pm - Friday, February 12, 2010

#13 Skunks

Very good article.
After acquiring the G11 I’m trying to apply these principles where I can.

12:40 am - Wednesday, September 29, 2010