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It may seem obvious but, before you can take better photographs, you need to know what a better photograph looks like. Without knowing that, you wouldn’t really know what you were trying to archive. You wouldn’t have a goal and your results would be, at best, random.

A good photographer will create the image that already exists in their mind rather than just snap away at what they see in front of them. The subject of their photograph suggests to them one (or more) of several good compositions or techniques that they already know how to create. For instance, a picture of someone could be taken to show their beauty or their strength or their happiness etc. and, even though the subject would be the same, the resulting photographs would be entirely different.

We are talking here about visual language. A form of non verbal communication that we can all learn in the same way that we learned to speak. Of course, visual language is an enormous subject and far too big to be covered in one page but what I can do is show you the step by step process that is required to develop your own. You simply repeat the steps over and over again and you will gradually learn more and more. This process never stops and even the best photographers in the world will tell you that they learn something new with every photograph they take.


Step 1

The first step is - find a good photograph. If you have a favourite genre, like portraits or landscapes, then look amongst those types of picture first. Most newsagents sell lots of magazines on all sorts of subjects. They are a great place to start because most of the photographs in them have been selected as being “better” than any alternatives available. This selection process is at its most refined in advertising photographs. I’m not suggesting that all advertising photographs are better but you can be sure that they have been very carefully chosen, usually from hundreds of alternatives, many of which will only be very subtly different.


An advertising photograph is designed to tell a very specific story and that’s what all good photographs do. They tell a story using a visual language. With some aspects of story telling there is an overlap between visual and verbal language. For example, showing something hanging over someone’s head is very similar to saying the same thing. Most photographs tell a simple story, more of a single sentence than an entire novel, but the one thing that connects good pictures is that what they are saying is obvious.


Step 2

Having found a photograph that you really like, the second step is to find out why you like it. Part of this will inevitably be that you like what the picture is “saying”, but you need to consider how the image is getting its message across, rather than what the actual message is. Don’t get too hung up on the message part of this because in many cases what the picture is saying is purely visual and cannot be translated. If you look at a photograph and just think “that looks great”, then that is all the message you need. Think of it like a line of poetry where maybe you don’t quite understand the meaning, but it sounds great.


To help you find out why you like a particular photograph, try to find a few more that you like for exactly the same reason. Your reaction to a picture is the most important thing here. What you personally enjoy is the basis of your own visual language. At this early stage, your understanding of why you like a picture is far less important than just recognising what you like.


Step 3

Step three - copy the photograph. I don’t mean scan it and print it, I mean go out with your camera and try to take the same photograph yourself. Deliberately try to copy your favourite picture, take it with you for reference. You may have a problem with this depending on the subject of the picture you like. If your favourite image, for instance, was the shot of the earth from space, you will have a big problem taking the same shot yourself.


When you’re out there “copying” your photograph, take lots more pictures. Use different photographic techniques, if you like, but also try different compositions and different ways of framing the shot. The more pictures you take, the better. What’s important here is that you shoot first and ask questions later.


Step 4

The fourth step is to look at the pictures you have taken and compare them with your original favourite. You might have managed to take a picture that impresses you in exactly the same way, if so great. That image, or at least, what it is you like about it, is part of your own personal visual language. It’s more likely that you won’t have succeeded in recreating the original, and that’s great too because that will really help you understand what it is about the original that you liked so much. If you think you have identified what is missing from your pictures, you could maybe try again. Otherwise, try doing the same thing with a completely different picture.


Repeat these first four steps over and over with different pictures. It doesn’t matter what the pictures are, as long as you like them. In trying to take the same image and looking at the variations of that you took at the same time, you will automatically be developing a sense of what works for you and how to go about creating it. In many ways, the pictures you took that you don’t like are more informative. It is easier to identify something in a picture that spoils it for you. Avoiding things that could ruin a shot is a very large part of taking good photographs.


Step 5

Step five happens when you are taking your own photographs. As you repeat the first four steps, you will begin to build up a language of visual ideas that you like. These will always remain in the back of your mind and you will soon begin to recognise them in the world around you and, more importantly, in your viewfinder. You apply the same critical judgments to your own viewfinder that you did when choosing your favourites. This step only ends when you stop taking photographs.


The method outlined above applies to all genres of photography. It won’t guarantee that your photographs will win awards but it is the best way to learn how to develop your own unique photographic style and visual language.


Many people find it much easier to learn photography when they have someone to help them every step of the way. Enrolling in a photography school is probably the best way to get this kind of help but many of us cannot spare the time to do this.


For those, an ideal solution is the online photography school. There are many courses to choose from so, no matter what level you are at, you are sure to find a course that suits your needs. Every course has online materials, tutorials, projects and everyone is assigned their own personal tutor to take them through the course at the student’s own pace.


Take a look at Online Photography Courses



Developing your own vision