No more snapshots! 7 tips for more meaningful photos

First published:
September 28, 2022
February 6, 2024

No more snapshots! 7 tips for more meaningful photos

First published:
September 28, 2022
February 6, 2024

Fly high by Gaanesh Prasad

Want to elevate your photography beyond casual snapshots? Read on for tips and ideas to help you take your photos to the next level

If you’re interested in taking your photography more seriously then there are simple steps and techniques you can use to push your photos beyond the ordinary…

1 Compose with composure

The snapshot approach here would be to take a shot at eye level, but by using a low angle instead the photographer frames the people against the sky for a bold composition. Photo by Gaanesh Prasad - f/9 | ISO 50 | 1/250s

The difference between a basic snapshot and a good photograph is often in taking a moment to consider the frame, perhaps experimenting with different angles and lenses, until you hit upon a satisfying result. Ask yourself, what should I include, and what don’t I need? Your choices are often dictated by the subject. If they’re moveable, like a person, then you could position them in a pleasing spot, like a natural frame.

By contrast, with landscapes you don’t have the same freedom, so you have to think carefully about how best to arrange the elements in front of you into a pleasing whole. One simple trick for beginners and pros alike is to check the edges of the frame. Before pressing the shutter button take a moment to run your eyes around the border of the viewfinder or live view display and check for distracting or unnecessary details.

"The difference between a basic snapshot and a good photograph is often in taking a moment to consider the frame..."

2 Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Portrait of a Ha Nhi elderly woman captured in North Vietnam. Photo by Andrew JK Tan - 1/320s | f/4 | ISO 640

Careless snapshots will often have lots of unnecessary details. One of the skills you see time and again in the greatest photographers is their ability to reduce and simplify scenes and subjects down to the most vital elements, to strip away all the noise and find the meaning. In a practical sense, there are simple things we can do to achieve this. For example, your choice of lens and focal length can be a great simplifier. Try stepping further away from your subject then zoom in with a longer focal length. This can separate them from the surroundings and result in a simpler, more considered shot.

Contrast can also be a great simplifier. Framing a dark subject against a light backdrop - or the other way around - can help to create a strong, simple composition.

"Careless snapshots will often have lots of unnecessary details."

3 Ditch the spray and pray approach

Rather than a scattergun approach practice your methods and go in with a plan. Photo by Tom Hodgetts - f/4 | ISO 200 | 1/100s

According to Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘Your first 10,000 photos are your worst’. For the legendary street photographer this would involve buying, exposing and processing reams of 1930s film stock, whereas nowadays we can fit 10,000 shots on a single memory card, and many more on our phone’s cloud-storage. Of course, what Cartier-Bresson really meant was that practice and repetition leads to improvement.

But perhaps, for the modern photographer, it needn’t be a numbers game. We all probably take more photos than we need to, and the throwaway nature of modern photography inevitably leads to a surplus of photos that could happily be thrown away. So here’s an idea- try taking less photos. A spray and pray approach may lead to the occasional keeper, but often the better method is to slow down, consider your technique and seek out something truly capture-worthy. Do that 10,000 times and you’ll be on to something.

4 Level up your camera skills

Take control of your focus for all kinds of creative effects. Photo by Julia Felgentreu

When you’re just starting out, you don’t necessarily need to know everything about your camera. If auto exposure modes get you the results you want then stick with them. You can always learn the ins and outs of manual exposure later on. However, a few basic skills can go a long way. For instance, if you get to grips with exposure compensation then you can lighten or darken the image to suit your creative vision.

Focusing is also vital, so practice moving your focus point around and locking on to subjects around the frame. These are skills you can practice while on the sofa, so that when it matters you’ll know exactly which buttons to press.

5 Get a new lens

A 50mm lens may be less versatile than a standard zoom, but it’s sharper and faster. Photo by Lamarr Golding - f/1.8 | ISO 1600 | 1/160s

While we all might crave the latest and greatest cameras, a variety of lenses will probably have more of an impact upon your photography. Different lenses enable you to capture all kinds of things - fast primes let you shoot in lower light, macro lenses get you close up to tiny objects, and super telephotos let you fill the frame with distant wildlife.

So where to start? A 50mm f/1.8 prime lens is a fairly cheap yet powerful choice. The wide aperture lets you create beautiful shallow focus, and the fixed focal length is ideal for street and environmental portraits (and video too). Prime lenses are also great for working on your composition skills, as it forces you to compose with your feet by moving position rather than zooming in or out.

6 Find a subject

Find a point of interest that draws the viewer’s eye. Photo by Valentin Valkov - f/8 | ISO 100 | 1/40s

It sounds simple, but every photo needs a subject. A field of lavender may look pretty to the eye, but as a photo it probably won’t be very interesting. What we need is a point of interest. It could be anything you like - a lone tree in that field of lavender, an interesting rock formation in a landscape, a person in their own pocket of space on a crowded street. Give the viewer a single point of interest to lock on to and the photograph will be stronger for it.

"It sounds simple, but every photo needs a subject."

7 Seek out meaning

Find subjects that have meaning to you. If your passion is for documentary photography, try seeking out protests and demonstrations. Photo by EYE-DJ - f/3.2 | ISO 250 | 1/800s

Many of us start out in photography with a desire to take perfect photos, but perfection is subjective. Perhaps a better approach is to figure out how to take photos that have meaning for you. In a sense this frees you from striving to take photos that other people might think are nice, and instead allows you to focus on creating the type of images that are interesting to you.

Photography is too big a subject for anybody to fully grasp, with too many techniques and specialist genres. There’s no point trying to be great at it all. So find the kind of photography that speaks to you, and work on how to get better at that specific thing. If you’re not sure what your thing is, start by studying photos that you like, and figure out what it is about them that appeals.

"...find the kind of photography that speaks to you, and work on how to get better at that specific thing..."
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