Rethink your photography and get the results you want.

A backwards look at the basics of photography.



This is a reworking of a reply on  forum I made to a photographer looking to improve his photography. (on )

It asks questions that I can’t answer specifically.

It asks you to think.

I only make one specific reccomendation for one specific source of information. I personally rate it highly and have found it exrtemely helpful. ( )

For other information you should go and find lots of sources and learn to judge the quality of the advice given. Including this! Especially this.

Aimed at improving photographers with a keen interest in getting better, this essay is only intended to draw attention to somewhat underused, and indeed, often ignored aspects of photography.

A couple of points before we start, to set the scene, as it were.

The easiest and most obvious things to get wrong in photography are the exposure and the focus. These, however, are really minor ingredients of a great photograph. I’m not going to give them much time.

Correcting them is just practice, based on a little understanding.

Exposure and focus are simple skills we aquire. Just screwdrivers and spanners in our toolbox. The longer we use them, the easier we find them to handle. They are a means to an end, not a goal in themselves.

For exposure, the information on the ISO, f-stop and shutter speed triangle doesn’t change, so I won’t repeat it. Look it up, then practice it. Lots.

The tips and tricks for capturing steady, sharp, well focused shots are well written up too. Look it up, then practice it. Lots

But never forget, it’s just a tool, not the end goal.

What I really believe brings an image to life is the composition, the lighting and the relationship with the subject.

I believe these are the true basics of photography.

Composition is partly a matter of psychological manipulation of your viewer, personal taste and sheer artistry. Again, it’s a well documented subject that I can only hope to scratch the surface of, make you more aware of, and hope you look further into the subject.

Lighting. I really hope that I can inspire people to look at the light that creates our images in a more comprehensive way, to study and become aware of the one thing that makes the photos we take possible.

Most important of all is the relationship you have with your subject. This is the driving force that moves us to take a photo in the first place. Being aware of that relationship can affect the rest of the decisions you make in the photographic process.

As you read this, I want you to think, and do other research, if I mention something that doesn’t seem to make sense, or use a term you don’t understand, please, please go and look it up or ask me about it in the comments.

I could do with comments and suggestions about what is and isn’t clear and what is and isn’t helpful.

Five things to do as you take a photograph.

The way I see it there are five things I do in order*  before I take a photo.

  • I relate to my subject.
  • I light my subject.
  • I compose my image.
  • I work out the exposure for my image.
  • I focus my camera on my subject.

Only then do I take the photo.

*This is a simple lie, that is useful to understanding. As although this looks like a set order, in reality, it is more like a flow chart, with the question, “Am I happy with this image?” between each step.**

If no, I backtrack to the item that needs to change and start again.

If I’m not happy, after I’ve taken the shot, then I go through it again and take another shot.

** That was a more complex lie, it’s more than that too, it’s a dynamic thought process based on a web of interactions between these five aspects. You’ve got to break it down somehow though!

It works for me. Do you go through a process like this? Let me know in the comments below.

It seems to me that a lot of people get hooked up on the last two elements of this order without fully considering the first three. This might get nicely exposed, focused photos, but too often it’s a way of taking a lot of dull, poorly lit photos with no consideration for composition.

Let’s look at the points in order:

Relating to your subject

If you have no feeling for your subject, it’s not likely you are going to produce an image with a ‘Wow!‘ factor.

In portraiture, getting on well with the people you are photographing is key.

You have to ask yourself how willing are my subjects to help me get a beautiful shot?

The better you get on, the more relaxed they will be and the more they will risk for you!

A shoot going well has a lovely mood. For me, keeping that mood overrides all other technical issues.

You see too many technically perfect shots of bored wives and girlfriends or people with the ‘am I doing this right face’.

Reassurance and humour are great tools here.

Of course, the subject doesn’t have to be a person, it could be a landscape or a car, but the way you think of it will define what lengths you will go to in order to get that definitive photo.

Using humour and reassurance here will only be for your own benefit…


THIS is the key, the light. This is the thing that it’s all about and that so many, many people miss.

You’re using a camera. It exists because of light, light is it’s thing.


It’s all about the light.

A photographer I was helping out the other day was struggling in a room with bright sunlight streaming in through tall narrow windows. He just didn’t understand that the combination of window light and a golden reflection from the floor was giving near perfect light. All his shots were just overblown or shadows.
The five words that blew his mind and took his photography to a new level were “it’s all about the light.” Suddenly he was edge lighting, backlighting, using fill, keeping the highlights out of the background. All with just the light in the room. It was such a great epiphany to watch.

Question?  generally, one very bright, continuous point source of light, high overhead is about as unflattering as possible. Shadows are well defined and the light is hard.
Think about what circumstances that happens in and particularly, what drops into shadow on a person’s face in that circumstance.

Better lighting situations are when the light is moderated, usually at a lower angle, light coming through a window, light bouncing off water, light from the setting sun, places where light comes from more than one direction, these are good situations to look for and play with.

Question: Why?

I have a ‘found light’ project where I take a subject out night shooting in an urban area and only use the light sources I find on the street. It’s a great way of learning a few things. How to get good focus in bad situations, how to hold a camera REALLY still and best of all how to see light. When you don’t have enough, you treasure what you find!

Developing a feel for light is one of the most rewarding of the challenges photography offers.

A recommendation.

Your lighting can be developed and helped by using off-camera flash (resist the urge to use more than one, at least to start with!) and spending the time going through David Hobby’s Strobist Lighting 101. It’s FREE and you won’t get better lighting training anywhere at that price, his stuff is pure gold in terms of quality and ease of understanding.

David Hobby’s Strobist 101

Make studying light an everyday thing, look at how it reflects off every different surface you see, metal, wood, dry skin, wet skin, silk, wool. Everything. Explore how it comes through the window, notice how good reflected light can look when combined with window light. See how films and tv programs use it. Read about it, discover what hard and soft light are, and where you find them and how you make them. Learn what the golden hour is, and why it’s good.

Again light is such a huge (and well covered) subject that I can only offer a few suggestions.

The old master painters knew a thing or two about portrait lighting. That’s probably a reasonable place to start…


Composition is a huge subject encompassing depth of field, brightness zones, complementary colours, interacting shapes, rule of thirds, dynamic diagonals, leading lines, blocked and open spaces and a hundred other ways of breaking down an image into manageable lumps.

(If you just had a “what is he on about?” moment, it might be helpful to look up leading lines, the rule of thirds and complementary colours and how they are applied in conventional artwork.)

A good place to start is to make sure your background is simple. Apply the rule of thirds and see how your images come out.

Looking at really well made films is a great way of studying composition, in particular how the subjects interact with shapes, colour and lighting. Look out for teal and orange, there are bonus points for working out why it’s used so much…

Question: Do you put your subject in the centre of the viewfinder automatically?

When is this a good thing?

Exposure and Focus
Once the light and composition, governed by your relationship with your subject are in place you can worry about your exposure and focus. (I had it backwards for the longest time. Mind you, the first 30 years were probably the worst…)
Question: What is the point in taking a dull photo even if it’s perfectly exposed and in focus?

Get the image great and then you have some REAL motivation for getting your focus and exposure correct! There’s nothing worse than having a glorious shot ruined by the focus being out or the camera set wrong.

There is a lot of information already out there on getting the exposure and focus right.

I have no magic system for it other than practice. Lots of practice. But always thoughtful, analytical practice.

It gets easier.


Of course it’s so much more complicated than that. All these five elements are completely interwoven, not only is focus a big part of composition, that itself is dependent on lighting, that is influenced by exposure that’s judged owing to your relationship with the subject. Each aspect influences every other one in a fabulous, dynamic web.

This is an awful lot to think about, and there are layers upon layers of each aspect to learn. By breaking it into aspects like this I hope it can be easier to pick up. Fortunately each layer of each aspect gets easier and more natural with practice.

Whilst I was learning to hold all of these delicate eggs balanced on the top of a bendy pole, on a windy day, with a bull charging at me, it wasn’t unusual for my head to feel like it was imploding. I find myself exhausted after a shoot that stretches my abilities.

I never said this was easy!

I hope breaking things down like this is a help to you. I know it is to me.

I hadn’t previously seen that I have a set order/pattern/design for shooting. I’ve since realised that I apply this process to everything I shoot, if sometimes in a somewhat abstract manner.

Of course, this is just how I see it, I’d like a discussion on these ideas, please chime in with your thoughts and comments.

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