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A "General Approach" to Photography and Working a Scene

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

I thought it might be interesting to write an article that discusses a “general approach” to photography, and is less technical than some of my previous articles.  I’ll still discuss camera settings to a certain extent, but will focus more on how to approach a scene and some high-level steps to capturing images you can be proud of.  This note mostly covers travel / landscape-type photography (vs. portraits).  It’s also primarily meant for those photographers who are getting started in taking their photography to the next level, or who may have just purchased their first DSLR, but even some of the more experienced photographers may get something out of it…

I’ll start out with one of my favorite photography quotes, by Charles Harbutt: 

“…I don’t take pictures, pictures take me. I can do nothing except have film in the camera and be alert. My adversary, a photograph, stalks the world like a roaring lion. Pictures happen. One can only trust one’s sensitivity, the bounty of the world, and the chemistry of Kodak. This is THE photographic method." 

My personal philosophy on photography is similar to my interpretation of this quote, and that is:  Let the pictures happen.  Walk around with your camera at your side… forget about the fact that you’re taking pictures and just look around at your surroundings.  Eventually something will jump out at you that just “looks” interesting.  It could be a particular reflection that catches your eye, or an interesting pattern that a series of fence posts running down the beach may make.  Don’t concentrate too hard on “finding that perfect ‘picture’”.  That’s going to close down your senses and potentially make you miss something.  Even worse… your concentration on “getting the shot” will prevent you from simply enjoying everything around you.  Way back in the past, I’d found myself getting home with a lot of pictures, but not actually “remembering” being there, because my full concentration was on the photography.  Luckily I came to my senses and I ensure that doesn’t happen anymore.  I always make sure to take the time to enjoy the surroundings and really take it all in.  There’s something to be said for putting the camera down and actually “watching” the sunset!  So what do you do if nothing in the scene jumps out at you to be photographed?  Don’t worry about it!  There’s no crime in not taking a picture.  There’s nothing worse than wasting your time uploading, tweaking and editing a photo that just doesn’t have enough substance to ever have any real impact.  I’ve been out with my camera before and happily returned with an entirely empty memory card.  Rather than use time unnecessarily reviewing fifty pictures that I would never do anything with, I’d rather take the time to write an article like this, or edit other pictures I’ve taken previously that have been waiting for a little attention.  This also helps in how others “perceive” your photography.  I think a famous photographer once said “It’s not that all the pictures I take are good, it’s that I just don’t show you the bad ones.”  If you set out on a hiking expedition with the goal of coming back with waterfall photos or wildlife, but the only thing you wind up finding is underbrush and nothing is too exciting, no worries… there will always be another hike.

So what do you do when the magic happens and something does jump out at you?  Unless whatever you’re seeing is a fleeting moment that will be gone shortly, don’t immediately start snapping pictures.  (Of course if something is temporary, like a rainbow, feel free to shoot as quickly as you can).  Otherwise, take your time.  Think about what it is you’re trying to say with the picture.  It could be something as simple as “this place is beautiful”, for example a gorgeous sprawling landscape, or you might be trying to say “this place is really busy with an incredible amount of people”, for example NYC’s Grand Central Station:

Moorea, French Polynesia

Moorea, French Polynesia


Grand Central Station, NYC

Grand Central Station, NYC

Think about what you want to include or exclude in the picture.  Is it the entire wide expanse of the landscape with a waterfall, mountains, and flowers, or do you want to concentrate on just the waterfall and focus attention on that?  For a Grand Central photo, do you want the whole station or just the busy entrance to the escalator?  Before taking any pictures, walk around the scene a little to see how it looks from various angles.  Kneel down low to see how it looks from a lower point of view, or climb a nearby stairwell to see how it looks from above.  Really “work the scene” before you get the camera out.

Once you’ve decided on what you might like to include and from what angle, it’s time to look through the viewfinder and choose a focal length that accomplishes your goal.  If you want to pick out a single feature of the landscape to concentrate on, use a telephoto lens (80mm+).  If you want the wide expanse, go with a wide angle (around 10-28mm).  For something in the middle, choose a “normal” focal length (30-75mm).  Don’t forget about some of the other important effects of focal length, such as exaggerating perspective or compressing distance – See my other note on “Choosing the Best Focal Length for a Photo” for more information.

Now that you’ve selected a focal length and found a composition that you like, it’s time to set the exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO).  I always suggest using the full manual “M” mode on your camera whenever possible.  The following several paragraphs are the opening text of my “Intro to Digital Photography” workshop – I think it’s worthwhile to read here to learn more about the Manual mode:

“DSLRs are capable of taking incredibly creative shots, far more creative than can be taken with a compact point-and-shoot camera.  As a photographer using a DSLR, you have complete creative control over how much of your subject is in-focus – you can choose to completely blur the background or keep it pin sharp.  You can also control the shutter speed to totally “freeze action” and make time stand still, or you can choose to keep the shutter open longer to achieve creative “motion blur” effects which emphasize movement.  These are all artistic decisions that you, the photographer make when taking the picture.  However, they can only be achieved if you take control of the camera and learn to use its “Manual” or “M” mode – otherwise the computer in the camera is making all these artistic decisions for you!

Today’s DSLRs come with several different modes to take photos – there are “automatic” modes from “fully automatic” and “scene” modes where the camera makes the decisions for you, and there are the manual and semi-automatic modes where you take more control over the photographic process.

The automatic modes are just that – the camera automatically calculates all of the settings necessary to take the photo, and you just have to press the shutter button.  The decision as to what will be in focus and what will be blurred, as well as the decision of how much “movement” and “motion” to show are all made by the camera.  The “scene” modes such as “Landscape”, “Sports”, and “Portrait” are just variations on the same automatic mode, except they try to take a better guess as to what type of photo you like.  Either way, the camera is making the decisions based on a guess as to what it thinks will look good.

The Manual or “M” mode on the other hand gives complete creative control to the photographer.  You decide exactly how you want the picture to look based on your own artistic vision.  Yes, it requires a little more effort, but that’s because you are telling the camera exactly what to do so the photo looks precisely how you envisioned it.”

Now that I’ve (hopefully) successfully convinced you to try out your camera’s Manual mode, let’s continue:

With the camera set to manual, you now need to determine the aperture and shutter speed.  I usually ask myself a couple of very simple questions that guide me to right settings: 

Firstly, is there anything moving in the scene?  If anything is moving in the scene, whether it’s people, birds, rushing water in a stream, swaying trees, etc., then you’ll need to keep the shutter speed in mind.  Ask yourself, am I trying to say anything with the movement?  Do I want to freeze the moment to show an instant-in-time, or do I want to purposely blur the moving objects into streaks, emphasizing movement?  Here is an example of using a long shutter speed to intentionally blur the flowing water:

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Set the shutter speed according to the artistic effect you’re trying to achieve.  Then set the corresponding aperture and ISO to get the right exposure.

If there is nothing moving in the scene, then you don’t even need to concern yourself with setting a “specific” shutter speed (except if you don’t have a tripod and you just want to double check the shutter is fast enough to hand-hold the camera – see my note on Taking Sharp Photos for more information).  With nothing moving in the scene, you can just concentrate on the aperture.  Looking at the scene, decide if you want to concentrate the viewer’s attention on one specific item or area (in which case you’d use a very wide aperture to create a narrow depth-of-field and blur the background), or if you want every detail to be in focus from right in front of you to the very far distance (in which case you’d select a small aperture).   Here is an example of using a wide aperture to blur the background:

Pina Colada, Mexico

Pina Colada, Mexico

Set the appropriate aperture, and then select the shutter speed and ISO to get the right exposure.

Once you’ve got the main shot you’re after, don’t be afraid to experiment.  Turn the camera to vertical mode and take a few vertical shots if the first set were all horizontal.  Zoom in a little tighter, or go a little wider and take a few shots.  Walk a little to the left, or right, or set the camera up higher or lower to the ground.  This is one of the great advantages of digital.  You can capture a variety of alternate angles and compositions without worrying about burning through rolls of film. 

Below are two shots taken in Newport, Rhode Island.  The only difference is horizontal vs. vertical, a slight change in focal length, and I moved a little to the right on the vertical shot.  You can see how they are still two completely different photos: 

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island


Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

Of course be careful to put thought into each photo, though.  The intent is to capture meaningful variations to the shot, not to fill up your memory card with randomly chosen angles.  When you get home, you can look at the variations on the computer to see what worked and what didn’t.   You’ll start to get a feel for the types of shots you prefer.  You’ll also begin to remember what’s “visually appealing” as you compare the finished images, and the next time you go out, you can go right to the shot that you instinctively “know” will work.

Always remember that it's a constant learning process, even for pros with many years of experience.  The more you get out there and shoot, the better you'll become.  Subscribe to a few magazines, read articles on the web, and most of all, have fun with your photography.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.


Paul offers one-on-one photography workshops in New York City, including an "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information, please use the link below.

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Great article! Learning a lot from you and appreciate the knowledge your sharing. Thanks :)

  2. Thanks Paulette! I appreciate the nice words.

  3. Hi Paul,

    Loved your article!! I’m just starting with photography and your tips are really helpful. Thank you.

  4. Thanks so much Marcela. I really appreciate the kind words. Best, Paul

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