How to Take Good Photographs

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Every photographer who wants to move from taking snapshots to real photographs asks this question: How can I take good photographs? Entire libraries of books have been written on this subject but it really comes down to two things: Know your camera, at least a little; and develop an eye for the interesting. Or, as documentary photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig said, “f/8 and be there.”

What Fellig meant was, know your camera, both its limitations and what are the best settings; and be where good pictures happen. The first is a technical statement; the second is more philosophical.

By “f/8” Fellig was referring to the fact that most documentary photography, and this includes street photography, photojournalism, travel, nature, wildlife — anything done outside a studio and without setup — is best shot in 35 mm format. This means a 35 mm focal length lens, not 35 mm film. The 35 mm focal length lens gives enough room in the frame to include elements that give perspective and interpretation to the photo. “f/8” refers to the lens aperture. The size of the aperture controls how much light enters the lens and therefore how much light is available to make the image, whether on film or digitally. The size of the aperture also affects the depth of field, or the portions of the photograph, from near to far, and how much of that is in focus. An aperture of f/8 gives a decent depth of field. Generally with f/8, anything between 9 feet in front of the lens to infinity in reasonably sharp focus. From a technical aspect, Fellig was saying, assuming you’re shooting a 35 mm format, set the aperture to f/8 and you won’t have to worry about focus.

By “be there” Fellig is expressing a philosophical or artistic viewpoint to go with the technical. Don’t be satisfied with the standard pinkish-orange sunset reflecting off the lake or the stiff family standing in front of Old Faithful as it goes off. Look for whatever interest you, what moves you, what makes you think “what am I looking at?” What’s interesting to you might not be interesting to everyone, but chances are a lot of people will think your choice is interesting. For example, I like to include people in my photos, but I cut them off occasionally.

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The single foot in this photograph adds a splash of color and humanity to these cobblestones in Boston. Otherwise, it’s just a nice close-up of ….. what? A wall? A street? Indoors? Out?

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This one is a nice close-up of sand toys at the beach. The slightly out-of-focus headless guy walking along the beach again adds humanity to the picture without making him the focus of the photo.

I also think that by “be there” Fellig was saying, just go somewhere and wait for something to happen. Photography, like hunting, requires patience. Sometimes you come home skunked, but occasionally you get a trophy.

So there you have it. All you need to know to take great photographs in one simple sentence: f/8 and be there.

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