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5 Ways to Think Like a Photographer

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Taking photos is a natural progression for me: it’s not simply a case of seeing something, capturing it, then moving on.
A lot more goes into it than that. There’s a wealth of knowledge which guides my eyes, along with the need to constantly better myself. All of this converts into better photos.
I think like a photographer.

Visualise

Before you bring the viewfinder to your eye, think about what you’re looking to capture and whether it’s worth capturing at all. This will prevent time wasting and help you to get the most out of your photos.
When film was the most common format for capturing photos, visualising what you wanted to capture before you took the photo was much more common than it is now. This is because mistakes were expensive and hard to rectify.
Since the popularity of digital, it’s much more common to shoot in burst fire mode. This means capturing as many photos as possible without thinking too much about it because mistakes cost nothing.
This sort of thinking is completely wrong. The focus is no longer on taking great photos but on not missing them.
When you change your state of mind to thinking about how you could improve on taking a photo, whether you’re shooting on film or digital, you get a real sense of what needs to be done to capture better photos.
This is easier said than done though. I still find myself taking better photos when I’m shooting on film (part of the reason I can’t recommend it enough) but still, practice makes perfect.
blond boy sitting at a table eating a grape
Shoot on digital but pretend you’re shooting on film and you will come out with a lot fewer duds.

What Can I Do Differently?

This is a question that I ask myself constantly when taking photos. It’s one of the main contributors towards taking better photos for me.
I used to get my photos back and onto the computer and then I would think, “what should I have done differently?”. I was so focused on what I was doing at the time that I wasn’t thinking about what else I should be doing.
When I first started learning exposure and metering, my main focus was on taking perfectly exposed photos. Composition and improvement took a back seat.
Now, for me, taking photos is much more of a progression. I might pull over somewhere to take a photo because I’d seen it from the road. But the first few photos are never the best.
I was recently in Slovenia. I was driving around everywhere, pulling over and taking photos, something that definitely became a recurring theme.
My first thought generally isn’t the best idea. It pays to progress your thought process and explore a little bit more. I’ll show you what I mean…
As I was driving along, I was surrounded by mountains with the sunset just behind them. I looked to my left and saw some open fields with a church in the middle. I figured this would be a good place for a photo.
white church at the mountains
After observing that the church was blocking a lot of the natural surroundings, I decided that it probably wasn’t the best subject. Instead of getting straight back into my car and driving off as I would have done a few years ago, I stuck with it and looked around.
Down a small dirt track were a few run-down barns. They were smaller in size and looked like they would make much better subjects.
wooden barns and buildings in the countryside with mountains in the background
I still wasn’t quite satisfied. I found the ground in the bottom right of the photo distracting and the barn on the right was too intrusive. The balance was off.
To rectify this, I got closer and worked with just one of the barns. I used the track like a natural path leading the foreground into the background, experimented with the height of the barn and I was finished.
Your taste might be different but I much prefer this photo to that of the church.
wooden barns and buildings in the countryside with mountains in the background

Wait

Patience is a virtue and something to train yourself in if you want to start thinking like a photographer.
This is really just a way of training yourself rather than something an actual photographer will do.
If you wait for the right moment to arrive, constantly questioning yourself about the moment at which you should take a photo, you will soon find that you have a better understanding of what the right time to take a photo is, and what makes a good photo.
Try it and see for yourself.
concert photo of a rapper

Light & Shadows

Light can be a little bit tricky to get your head around because there are lots of different ways to manipulate it. You need to think about it though as it’s one of the most important elements in taking a good photo. After all, a photo is really just a capturing of light.
Whenever I take a photo, whether it’s of person, a landscape, or at night, I always consider the light. This means adjusting my position to find a better angle for the light or introducing my own flashes.
I often find that dynamic changes in the light across the photo look best. Too much light or too much dark can make for a pretty boring photo.
Have a look at my photo below for an example. Part of the reason it works so well is that there’s no absolute black and no absolute white but there is plenty of range throughout the photo.
vegetable garden with tree leaves in the foreground
This works particularly well when you’re shooting landscapes; you can capture the change in the weather as the clouds move across the photo.
The changes happening in the photo below are rather dramatic, with heavy rain clouds in the distance contrasting with sun and cloud in the foreground.
cityscape from above with stormy skies
When you start looking for the light rather than the photo, you start to create some really interesting photos from relatively dull subjects.

Stop Thinking About Post Production

This is something we’ve all been guilty of at some point. The words, “oh, I’ll fix it post” pass through our minds as we secretly hope that it will make everything OK again.
‘Fixing it’ is easier said than done. And, for me, there is no reason to justify thinking about post-production while you’re still taking photos.
I never use post-production as an excuse for not getting it right the first time round in the camera and you shouldn’t either. Sure, it’s no secret that we all use it to a certain extent but there are limitations to this.
You can manipulate a photo on the computer and it may well improve it. But that’s the art of post-production, not photography. If you want to play around with post-production, be my guest. But it’s not actually going to help you take better photos.
If you really want to improve and think more like a photographer, I would suggest going a couple of months without playing around in post-production. Instead, do everything with just a camera. You’ll see how quickly this forces you to improve.
brown haired woman staring into the camera on a roadside

Learn Composition

You will probably be surprised by how much this does for your photography. You’ll start to think less about how you’re taking photos but come out with better results.
The trick is to start to take in all of this knowledge about what can be done to take better photos. But don’t think about that knowledge too much when you’re actually taking the photos.
The act of learning and remembering how to take better photos becomes ingrained in your mind. Without even thinking about it, you start to use this knowledge to your advantage.
It might sound silly but, once you’ve learnt composition, the best thing you can do is to forget it. The knowledge will still be there but you won’t be thinking about any particular ‘rules’ that you should be following.
Knowledge is power and, when it comes to photography, it equates to better photos too.
landscape with blue skies, fluffy clouds, green grass, mountains and houses

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10 comments
      1. Ha ha wasn’t too surprised to see that comment- after all i’m pretty sure most of your readers are here in the United states!! You gotta adjust bro! Anyway love your blog, its pure class!!

  1. I have been enjoying your lessons. Thank you.
    Some say erb, some say herb because it has an “H” in it. What a difference a little water between two continents makes. LOL

  2. Hey Josh!
    Truely love your insight & knowledge. I am very addicted to it. I NEED MORE! I NEED MORE!
    Really, I come on here every day and either try to learn something new or re-read some of the more technical aspects. You have great layouts & the subjects flow naturally as they progress.
    I was just wondering if you have had any thought as to put together a tute for newer photographers (like myself) that shows in point form some sort of pre-check list to call upon before you go ‘click’.
    I know myself, I have been out shooting & forget to adjust this or that without realizing until I am back in the comforts of this chair and realizing ‘how dumb was that?’
    I was also wondering if you have considered doing some HDR tutes as well.
    Be Good, Greg

  3. “s” wins over “z” every time! Don’t you dare turn your back on British English to please the Americans – only jesting. 😉 Thanks a million for your website and tutorials. They are invaluable and your hard work is appreciated. 🙂

  4. hi josh, I got your ebook, I don’t see anything on low light concerts situation where I cant use a flash . using a 30 mm prime lens or my 0r my 18mm -135mm 3.5 lens what would I put my lens speed at 1/500? on the 30mm??and how bout picture style ??.AF point selection??ot the spot metering when the lightning is all red and pink ?? thanks GJ

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