In 2015, I’m trying to take one thoughtful photo every day. I made a resolution to practice photography initially because I thought it would be a helpful life skill. I have a kid on the way, and heck, it would be nice to capture some embarrassing baby photos at the very least to troll him during his wedding slide show, some day.
I’m about 50 days into my art project; what I didn’t expect was how enriching photography would be to my life. Beyond the skill development stuff, photography has provided me a gift that I wasn’t prepared for: I appreciate the beauty of the world so much more.
Even when I’m not practicing photography, everything I see suddenly seems a lot more pretty. It’s amazing!
Painters paint; photographers compose
I have so much respect for artists who can paint and draw. It’s not even the technical skill that I admire most. It’s an artist’s ability to extend an image in her mind onto a canvas through her hands.
Photographers are artists as well, but they have a pretty severe limitation: most photographers don’t have the luxury of being able to compose something in their mind into a photograph that they snap. Rather, they have to observe the world that is in front of them and attempt to capture the image and emotion of the moment into a photo. It’s all about composition, rather than creation.
Here’s what I’m learning about composition: often the key to a successful photograph comes down to a single detail. It’s the slight eye raise of your portrait subject, or a weird tree in a landscape that you want to draw your viewer’s attention to in your shot. Once you’ve identified that single detail, you design your entire photograph around that detail, take a deep breath, and snap the shot. If you’re lucky, the result is beautiful. If you’re super lucky, the result is at times astonishing.
As you get into the photographers mindset, you naturally begin to practice composition all the time. While I’m driving to work, I’ll look out at the San Francisco Bay passing me on the left and think about how I would capture that moment with a camera. Or when I’m in a waiting room, I start looking around at people and notice body language or physical details that are unique and fascinating.
With your composition mindset, you get better and better at finding that one detail that makes the moment beautiful. You just find yourself enjoying everything that is in front of you much more. It’s a very satisfying way to experience life.
You don’t need a nice camera
About a year ago I was bragging to my friend about my new Sony NEX-6, which is a fancy mirrorless camera. I was showing off all the neat technical specs and the cool lenses it came with. My buddy listened politely and then trolled me with a great comment: “That camera is super nice, but a skilled photographer would still crush you with an iPhone.”
What an asshole. But so true.
If you’re a budding photographer, I would not recommend starting your photography journey by purchasing nice equipment like I did. Start with your camera phone, and stick with it for a long time.
There are a lot of skills that you can learn to become a great photographer: focus, filters, post-processing, etc. But the fundamental skill to master first is good composition. A camera phone (particularly a smartphone) is a great tool to practice composition because 1) your phone is with you all the time and 2) the viewfinder is your entire screen, which helps you preview your shot more easily.
After you feel like you have a decent hold on composition, then think about buying a nicer camera. If you don’t know what to buy and you’re lazy like I am, just get whatever camera is recommended on The Wirecutter.
Study the craft
There some aspects of good photography and composition that are not obvious; for example, I remember being blown away when I first learned about the rule of thirds.
It’s probably not productive to just start snapping away randomly with your phone. Take some time to study the craft. Some resources that have been helpful for me:
- Easy DSLR Photography for Beginners – A helpful beginner video course
- Ken Rockwell – Great articles on composition and photography philosophy
- Dave Morrow Photography – I like the technical walkthroughs
Also, find an accountabilibuddy: a friend who is also interested in practicing photography and will critique your work, and vice versa. My buddy Sandra and I are doing our photo-a-day project together. We’ve done a good job so far about nudging each other to keep snapping away.
My favorite pictures so far
Do you want to see more beauty in the world? Then pick up your phone and compose a shot right now. Don’t worry if your pictures suck, you will get better over time. It’s a fun journey and you will appreciate more and more how you see the world.
Here are some of my favorite photos from my 365 days of photography project: