The Thrill of Making One, True, Authentic Photograph

A photograph that comes from the heart, and mind, of the photographer.

Don Giannatti
Full Frame
5 min readMay 25, 2024

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It was very late and the model leaned against the window to gaze at the streetlights below. All photos by the author.

Just One Good, Authentic Photograph Can Change Everything.

I had been photographing people for about 4 years when I found myself in a studio in Chicago, more of a house, actually, shooting for a local modeling agency. The day had been quite long, and it was now dark outside.

As we were packing the gear away, a model sat next to the window staring out at the street lights and traffic a story below.

I slowly grabbed my Nikon filled with my most beloved Kodak 3200, made an exposure guess, and made three frames before she turned away.

I couldn’t wait to get home to see those frames.

I had shot 98 rolls on that weekend, but all I could think of was those three frames.

Something had clicked for me when the viewfinder slid in front of my eye.

This. This look of natural emotion, natural expression, and a pose that didn’t look posed at all. This is what I wanted to continue to do.

I had a pretty good portfolio at the time. (Well, I thought so… at the time.)

But it had to go. Not only did I love the way that the models and subjects were portrayed, so did the agencies and clients I began showing the new work to.

Shooting highly styled, deliberately posed work became more of a ’job’ and I tried to always get a few ‘natural’ shots into my shoot at the end.

I shoot this aesthetic to this day.

Whether landscape, tabletop, or people, I want the authenticity of the moment to be the vision. I try to take the “me” out of the image and let it just be.

A quiet smile on a sunny day. Photo by the author.

The Quest for Authenticity

So, what exactly is “authenticity” in photography?

Well, it’s not about the latest filters or mimicking popular styles.

Authenticity is capturing a moment that resonates deeply with your own vision and emotions.

Too often, photographers fall into the trap of imitation, chasing the ghosts of famous photographers or the latest Instagram trend. But real magic happens when you look inward, when you let your personal voice guide your vision.

What is it about a photograph that moves you? When you look at your work, what do you feel — and what do you want others to feel?

The Impact of One Good Photograph

Vivian Maier, the nanny-turned-street-photographer whose work was discovered posthumously was a highly authentic photographer. Her images burst with raw, unfiltered life, captivating the world. She wasn’t chasing fame or trying to fit into a mold; she was simply documenting the world as she saw it. That authenticity is what makes her work so powerful.

I try for a similar aesthetic in my own work.

I was working with a group of photographers in the Sequoia-covered mountains near Santa Cruz when I noticed Briana working with another photographer. As she went through several posing iterations it seemed as though she was dancing alone in the forest. A few surreptitiously made shots and I had what I wanted.

Briana in the Sequoias, California.

I like the shot because it looks as though it wasn’t set up, and it wasn’t.

I have tried to explain my style like this:

You are sitting in a car at a light in downtown traffic. Out of the corner of your eye, you catch an attractive woman coming out of a store, her face perfectly lit by a patch of sunlight… you begin to move in the traffic, as she turns the other way. That glimpse of real life is what I want to capture.

As you are speeding along an interstate, you glance to one side just as a cloud begins revealing the uppermost part of a mountain and it seemingly glows for just an instant.

That is the feeling I want to work with.

Hammers. Lots of hammers. Houston, TX.

Shift Your Focus From External to Internal

Getting caught up in external influences is way too easy these days. Ever-present social media, peer pressure, and societal trends can all pull us in directions far from what we know we want to do. But the thing is, great photography comes from within.

Explore your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and let them lead you to a personal vision, a unique way of expressing YOU through the images you make.

Spend a little time reflecting on what truly moves you. What stories do you want to tell through your images? What emotions do you want to bring for your viewers?

Internal exploration is where your most authentic work will come from.

On Venice Beach, CA.

Practical Steps to Capture Authentic Photographs

At this point, let’s get practical.

How can we capture that one good, authentic photograph?

  1. Slow Down: Patience is key. Take your time to observe and connect with your subject. Look at your work with intent and deliberate concentration. Write about your photographs. What do you love? What do you think needs improvement?
  2. Experiment: Try new techniques or shoot different subjects. Experimentation can lead to unexpected discoveries. Try different points of view, lenses, or presentation ideas.
  3. Reflect: After a shoot, spend time reflecting on your images. What worked? What didn’t? This reflection will help you understand your own vision better. I suggest a solid post-mortem two weeks after each major shoot event. Let it simmer a bit so you can be surprised by what you shot instead of looking for that frame that was so seared into your brain you cannot let it go. (Yes, that happens to all of us. You know what I am talking about.)

One good, authentic photograph can be a game-changer. Finding your own voice and letting that guide your work can be liberating and exciting.

So, go out there and seek your own transformative image. And when you find it, you’ll know.

This photo of me is by Carol Rioux: light-painted in Calgary, BC.

Hi, I’m Don Giannatti, a photographer and mentor for up-and-coming photographers. You can find me on my website, Don Giannatti, and at my Substack site, where I also publish for creative people. All subscribers to my Substack have access to a free, long-form workshop on the business of commercial and professional photography.

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Don Giannatti
Full Frame

Designer. Photographer. Author. Entrepreneur: Loving life at 100MPH. I love designing, making photographs and writing.