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I'm a total amateur. I went to Verona, Italy a couple of weeks ago. I was just taking photos of random stuff that I thought might be interesting and especially to improve my composition. So I wasn't necessarily shooting memories.. But when I took the photos off of my camera it turned out that I don't like any of the photos I took. Not to think about my lousy composition but I realised that subjects I decided to shoot were just plain dull.

And it turns out I take a mix of pictures. Some landscapes, some architecture and some portraits... Chaos I know. I've read many guides about composition and I've improved even though I often get it completely wrong.

My wife is also some small magazine editor and I can say in general that she doesn't like my photos at all. And hence I became more and more demanding of myself. But still. I don't really know what am I doing wrong.

So help me

How should I decide what's worth taking a picture? And how much time is worth spending on capturing a shot that will be worth keeping?

Example

These are two photos that I at least like. First one because of the composition and the kind of doors I'd like to have at home, and the second one because the colourful wall is interesting. Of course both are post processed.

Verona door

Giullieta wall

And this one is completely unaltered. Somehow interesting but the subject doesn't really stand out.

Venice mask

And one (original + altered) that I don't like at all. I wanted to capture the city hall with the old arena and then I got so easily distracted by this coach... Put it in the middle, because I started shooting fast because I obviously didn't have much time... Anyway. A completely unaltered one with a rotated + cropped + curves post processed photos:

enter image description here enter image description here

Edit

I edited the Venetian mask as suggested. I overexposed mask by 1/2 and underexposed background by 1/2. Added some light on left+up pointing surfaces and added some shadow on the opposite site. Also blurred background a bit more. This was fast done, but you can get judgemental.

original underneath for comparison

Venice mask take 2 Venice mask original

  • It may be that photo is downsized so much on the web here, but the horse and carriage looks a bit out of focus to me. – rfusca Apr 6 '11 at 19:32
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    Great question, I just came home from a trip and found out my pictures very boring, even though I made an effort to find a different point of view for my subjects :( – Danny T. Apr 6 '11 at 19:37
  • This isn't a direct answer, but a good portion of Michael Freeman's The Photographer's Mind is about this topic. Highly recommended. focalpress.com/books/photography/the_photographer39s_mind.aspx – mattdm Apr 6 '11 at 20:11
  • @rfusca: They are. It was very late afternoon (you can see by the tone) and the carriage was moving... And I was shooting away. It is blurry. One more reason for me to dislike it. :) But good observation. – Robert Koritnik Apr 6 '11 at 20:24
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I like Bendihossan's list, but especially during travel I might add "Is this exactly like all the other shots of seen of < insert event or place here > ?". Photography is art and uniqueness counts. If you're taking the picture the same way its been done a million times before and/or the same way you can walk up and see it - then it's probably not going to stand out.

Shooting a famous landmark? Catch a reflection in a window or pool of water. Shoot it from a rooftop. Shoot it at night against the moon. Show us something we haven't seen.

In reference to the 4 photographs, I'll address each one:

  1. I think this one suffers from exactly what I was talking about before. Its the perspective everybody has. There's nothing particularly that makes the viewer think its anything special.

  2. This one looks like its a story begging to be told - but there's no context. What is the writing, whose doing it, where's the wall? It needs something in the foreground to provide some context to the photo. Maybe a kid writing and looking caught..or a sign saying "warning graffiti will bring death"...or a couple making out under all the love notes...SOMETHING.

  3. Your background, while somewhat out of focus, is too busy. It either needs a shallower DOF or a less busy background.

  4. Well it sounds like you know what happened on the last one. You got distracted by the coach and thought a picture needed to be taken - but you're really not sure why and you really didn't have time to put together a "photograph". Its "just a snapshot" and the viewer suffers the same thing. There's no story and no apparent reason for the somewhat random picture of a horse and carriage. It's memory to you, but to anybody else its just another horse and carriage.

  • @ I like your remark about the second photo. It's a wall at Juliet's home (from Romeo & Juliet). People've written all over the place. I've also made a photo of a girl writing on the wall. And I've taken the photo through the fence which comes out blurred. But the girl is writing on the wall... Anyway. It's true I liked that one better. I liked this one that you commented on because of pattern/texture and warm colour. – Robert Koritnik Apr 6 '11 at 19:21
  • I wish I could vote you up several times. You've just proved me right when I say they're plain dull. At least you've told me why. I hope I'll find out reasons of others as well. :) – Robert Koritnik Apr 6 '11 at 19:30
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    I think the mask photo would have benefited more from a change of lighting than anything else -- a reflector (a 12"/30cm collapsible takes up less room than anyone can argue about trying to save) or maybe the slightest blip from an off-camera flash, just to pick out the foreground mask, give it some dimensionality, and separate it from the more flatly-lit (and, now, darker by comparison) background gaggle. You keep the context, but add interest. – user2719 Apr 6 '11 at 19:39
  • @Stan Rogers - Definitely agree 100% and even thought some additional lighting would help - I just didn't think that was as viable given the fact that he was wandering around Verona. Your point about reflector space is great though! – rfusca Apr 6 '11 at 19:48
  • @Stan Rogers, @rfusca: I tried lightning up the subject (+0.5) and darkening background (-0,5) in post process. Added some bump and some shadow on the subject itself. Now you be the judge. – Robert Koritnik Apr 6 '11 at 20:15
6

Look at as many other people's work as you can. Really look and then ask what you are drawn to, what fascinates you. You will be at the beginning of understanding the style and subjects that inspire you.

Now set about unashamedly copying them. This will develop your skill in mastering the style and subject. From there it is a short step to developing your own original approach. Your search through other people's work will lead you to the subjects that inspire you and you will learn so much from them.

Another approach. Imagine you have a friend living in, say, rural Africa (or anywhere else for that matter). Now imagine how the region you live in would be fascinating and unusual to your friend. Look at it through his eyes. If he came to visit you, what would you show him and what would you tell him? Then set about creating a photo essay that would convey to your friend what is so fascinating, unique or unusual about the area where you live. Then make a photo book. Having a tangible goal like this will concentrate your mind and help motivate you.

I have found this is a powerful technique for seeing photo opportunities.

  • +1 for the goal in mind. This could keep direction so I don't get distracted and nervously trying to find something. – Robert Koritnik Apr 6 '11 at 19:25
  • +1 I think the copying technique makes this approachable. – fmark Jun 12 '11 at 11:23
4

If I was travelling and weighing up what's worth photographing I'd measure up the following:

  • Could I shoot the same thing (or something similar) closer to home?
  • If so, is it worth me doing this when I could be shooting something different?
  • Is shooting this subject going to require a lot of my time restricting me from shooting other subjects?
  • Have I shot something like this before and was it successful. If so then it might be best to try something different.
  • Is this a one-off event or something which happens rarely?

I think the main thing to consider is "If I miss this opportunity how hard would it be to come back and try again?". Of course you can't be expected to shoot everything perfectly all of the time - nobody can. But what I think you should try to do instead is make the most of this opportunity right now.

I've actually been to Verona with family about four years ago and it's a lovely place. At the time I was shooting on a film SLR and I was shooting just about everything I could whilst trying to conserve film as much as possible. It wasn't easy, but the good thing about digital photography is that you can try something, delete it, try again until you succeed or more often than not in my case: give up! :)

  • Give up on what? Deleting? Or shooting? Or trying to succeed? I suppose the latter... – Robert Koritnik Apr 6 '11 at 19:27
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    Usually when I give up the idea of something I'll keep at least a couple of the shots and then move onto shooting something else. It's good to keep at least a few shots even if they're a failed attempt just as a mark of reference to try it again if the opportunity arrises. – Bendihossan Apr 6 '11 at 19:29
1

Here's a different opinion: don't think about traveling. Think of it as a new opportunity to capture interesting moments and tell stories.

I typically bucket my shots into 2 categories:

  • Documenting things I see so I don't forget. For these shots, I pull out my smartphone. It's more convenient than my camera, the file sizes are smaller, and I don't post-process them in Lightroom.
  • Photographing something that's worthy of being on the wall (or in a magazine in your case). These shots need to be "worked". That means I need to move around and try different angles to discover new composition. It can also mean that I need to wait for the right light, right moment, or even to revisit the site at a different time of day. I optimize for quality instead of quantity.

Sometimes you run into subjects that aren't available back home, like this shot I took while visiting the Pantheon:

Of every god.

Other times you capture a great moment that can also be captured back home. I took this shot while visiting New York, but we have subways back home too:

En route.

My thoughts here on how to take your favorite photos could be helpful for you to think through what to optimize for.

1

It's not enough to have an interesting subject or photograph. For a photograph to be worth keeping (seeing more than once), it needs to be meaningful to the viewers who could be family members, Instagram followers, your future self, etc. Apparently, you disagree with your past and future selves about what's interesting and meaningful.

  • Do not confuse novelty with intrinsic interest or meaning. Many photos are interesting simply because we haven't seen them before. As long as we never see them again, we remember them as being better than they are. When you look at a photograph you took, that is the second time you're seeing it. The newness is gone.

  • Telling a story is insufficient. Stories are narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends. Pictures are presented as a whole. Any narrative not printed on a white card on the wall is fabricated within viewers' minds. If the "stories" are not meaningful to the viewers, the photo won't be meaningful either.

    • What if a wedding photographer delivered someone else's wedding album to a client. It's exactly the same album except all the wrong people are in it. In principle, it tells the "same" story (of someone's wedding). Does the client care?
  • Art, Composition, Whatever are also insufficient if a photo isn't meaningful. Consider how much people treasured really badly taken and composed photos of loved ones in the days when having just a single photo was rare. Now we're drowning in meaningless photos.

Easy ways to make photos meaningful: Put the intended audience, or people known to them, in the photos. Or reference stories and themes that are recognizable and meaningful to the intended audience.

  1. Railing leading up to a door at the top of steps. Railing and door are midline. Forget composition or whatever. It's a set of doors. We see doors every day, so you don't even have novelty on your side. Why would anyone want to see these particular doors again?

    What would give it meaning: Put people you know in the picture. At least you, them, and perhaps their friends would be interested in seeing the picture. Nearly every wedding album has a picture of the bride and groom by some doors, and no one (except wedding photographers) gets tired of it.

  2. Brick wall with names and initials written all over. What are you doing? Testing lenses? Nothing here that would make anyone want to see this particular brick wall again.

    Story? – Suppose someone had visited this walls years ago and written their names somewhere. A sequence of images of the wall, them in front of the wall, a close up of their names on the wall, etc could tell a story. But who cares?

    What would give it meaning: If those people were you and your wife. Or your children getting married, or some such.

  3. Masks. It's nice, colorful. Would make a good auxiliary, detail-shot to another photo.

    What would give it meaning: Your wife or someone you know shopping for masks, posing with masks, at a mask festival, etc.

  4. A horse-drawn carriage. What's so special about this carriage? Why would anyone want to see it again?

    What would give it meaning: If this was the carriage you and your wife rode in, and something unusual happened while you were riding it. And here's a selfie of you, your wife, and the carriage driver standing by the carriage. It's not that well taken because it's difficult to use a DSLR one-handed.

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