Brendan Shick | Freelance Film, Broadcast, & Digital Media

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Inspirational Photography: My Number One Secret to Taking Better Photographs

Apr 02 2012 by Brendan Shick 2 Other Takes

I’ve recently added Darren Rowse’s blog, Digital Photography School to my personal subscription list. One of his recent articles particularly caught my eye. The aptly named “24 Beautiful Dawn Images” turned out to be a post that reminded me of my number one secret to inspiring myself to take better photographs (take a look before continuing with my post below).

All the secrets of outstanding photography can really be boiled down into one fairly simple goal:

When snapping the shutter, your one goal is to capture your subject in a way that no human eye has ever seen before and may never have an opportunity to see again.


This sounds like a high calling, and in some ways it is. Only the best photographs live up to this standard.

And yet, if you keep it in mind regularly while shooting, it really doesn’t seem that hard anymore. Even when I don’t fully accomplish this goal, just keeping it in mind as a benchmark improves the images I bring home.

This can take a number of practical forms, involving both subject matter and artistic choice:

Subject Matter

  1. The event is unique. This one is sort of the ‘no-brainer.” Wedding photographs are popular because you only get to see the wedding once. After that, you can only look at the images captured on that day. Historic news stories, even when not particularly well documented from a creative or technical standard, also catch a break here.
  2. The location is unique or hard to access. A couple of the pictures from the post linked to above are mostly endearing to me because I’ve never been to the African Sahara in real life. Capturing this in an image shows me something that I can look at in awe that I may never see in person.

A Morning View

Artistic Choice

Choosing a unique subject matter will score you points, but obviously it’s not always our choice to make. How do you take amazing photographs when you are photographing the mundane?

Note that ‘mundane’ can mean different things to different people. For example, if I was born and raised in the Sahara, I would want to look at and take photographs of either (a) a different subject matter, or (b) the Sahara captured in a unique way with an interesting creative bent.

Here are some ways to achieve the latter:

  1. The subject is shot from an angle that most people haven’t seen. If you’ve ever looked at a photo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house, you probably saw it from this angle. Why? Because that’s the exact location of a designated ‘photo spot’ which of course has a good, clear view of the entire structure. Tens of thousands of photos have been taken in that exact spot and they all look similar. You haven’t seen many pictures from other angles because, although tour groups are taken all around the property, large camera bags and tripods are prohibited in many places. If you ever do see a photo from another angle – one harder for camera-wielding tourists to access, it will likely be a stand out photograph.
  2. The angle lends itself to capturing the subject in a unique and appealing way. If you’ve seen a handful of pictures from the Tah Majal, then this angle isn’t necessarily new to you. But it lends itself to an artistic composition that continues to be appealing upon multiple viewings.
  3. Atmospheric perspective. Pretty much every image in the Digital Photography School post would be mundane if it weren’t for the atmospheric perspective. Many of the photos are made what they are by steam rising off a lake, fog at a certain time of day, or light rays falling from the clouds. This is something we often don’t think about because we cannot directly control it. All we can do is wait for the right moment or weather conditions – which could take weeks or months. The secret here is if you can’t flatter your subject on the first try, come back another day when conditions are different. Want to see just how big a difference this makes? Rent a house on the east or west coast for a week. Watch the sunrise or sunset over the water everyday. Watch the storms roll in. Take pictures every couple hours, then review them to see just how much they change thru the week. (Or look at this link)
  4. Lighting. Light your subject in a way people haven’t seen before. If you’re shooting outdoors, this can tend to vary with #3 obviously, but remember that time of day matters too when it comes to angle, color, and intensity of light.

Again, your goal is to capture your subject in a way that no human eye has ever seen before and may never have an opportunity to see again.

Do Something the Human Eye Can Literally Never Do

When all other attempts fail, or when you want to supplement them with something else, remember that your camera is capable of many things that the human eye literally cannot do. Using these features and techniques liberally is obviously an easy and surefire way to produce an image that the human eye has never seen and never will.

  1. Focal length. The human eye can’t zoom. It has one fixed focal length with a fixed field of view. By contrast, as photographers, we select a focal length based on 3 criteria (a) the amount it will compress or expand the background and foreground, (b) what it will keep in or out of the frame, and (c) the effect it will have on widening or shortening the depth of field. You can ‘move’ distant mountains closer in a way that no construction company could. You can remove those ugly polluting factories from that lovely beachfront frame in a way the human eye never could. Why don’t you?
  2. Manual iris control. You can’t control the human iris like a camera iris and even if you could, the healthy human eye maintains a relatively deep focus or at least a fast ‘autofocus response time.’ Maintaining a shallow depth of field for your images does more than the cliché notion of telling your audience what to focus on. It also creates a unique perspective that they’ll never witness in real life.
  3. Use a creative effect (warning: contains entire posts worth of possibilities!). Unless you’re colorblind, you’ve never witnessed black-and-white in real life. A camera can show you anything in black-and-white. It can (combined with Photoshop) also produce super-saturated images, shots with all but a single color removed, HDR images, images with unique bokah shapes, images with light leaks, film grain, tilt shifts, vignettes, zoom blurs, long blurred exposures, fast freeze-frames, infrared photos, and plenty more. You’ll never see any of this unless you photograph it or find someone who already has.

Morning Meeting at the Fish Market in Vietnam
The next time you photographer, keep this rule in mind. I’ll repeat it for your convenience: When snapping the shutter, your one goal is to capture your subject in a way that no human eye has ever seen before and may never have an opportunity to see again.

Before you press the shutter, pause.

Take 4 or 5 ideas from the above list, and incorporate them into the shot in a way that they help accomplish the goal above. Then press the shutter. Your audience will appreciate the difference.

The images in this post were recently highlighted in the article cited above (first link on this post) and are here linked to from their original creator’s page. Click each image for details.

Brendan Shick

Brendan Shick is a freelance DP, gaffer, and sports broadcaster serving primarily the Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Grand Rapids, MI; and Fort Wayne, IN, regions. You can find out more by following this blog, his recent work on Vimeo, or by connecting with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Brendan is also an occasional contributor to the Project Updates feed for one of his most recent films, To Turn Back Time.

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2 Other Takes

  1. Julie Thiry says:

    Brendan! I loved reading this! Thanks for your insight! Now I have a new goal when snapping my shutter.

    • Julie,

      Thanks for stopping by and glad you found the tip useful.

      By the way, I’m a bit jealous of the star photos you posted a while back – the sky looks so clear there. I’ve been meaning to experiment with those sorts of shots for a while myself but haven’t found the right mix of weather, location, and inspiration yet…maybe someday.

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