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Do you take pictures or photographs? What’s the difference?

A lizard on a rock in the North Texas desert. Photo by James Jordan

Tips to go from good to great with your photographs.

In the days of film photography, it was said the distance between a good photographer and a great photographer was five miles of film. That would be a lot of pictures, and that is the point.

With the advances in digital photography, it’s easy to take a technically good picture. It’s also easy to “settle” for a good photograph because even with technology making it easier, it still takes a lot of effort to get a great picture — taking it to the level of photograph. The principles of outstanding photography have not changed, even though the technical aspects have gotten a lot easier.

There are technical aspects that need to be mastered to make good photos. Technology allows you to take a technically “perfect” photo with almost no effort, but there is still an art in going from good to great. The art comes in being able to “see” the thing you are shooting, and then being able to convey that to a photograph. That is the difference between taking pictures and making photographs.

A picture shows what was in front of the person taking the picture. It is on the outside looking in. A great photograph shows you the emotion, it makes you feel something.

I went with some other news photographers to some war games. Some had nice pictures that showed you what the scene looked like. Other photographers had images that made you feel what it was like to be in the battle.

Here are some key tips that can help you take your photography to another level.

You can see the emotion a flower has if you get close enough. Pixabay photo

Get Closer

Capturing emotion makes pictures great. The closer you are, the more you will capture the emotion, even if you are taking a picture of a flower. No matter how close you are, you should probably get closer to your subject. You can get closer with a zoom lens, but still, there is something about being literally close to your subject that gives a photo a feeling of intimacy. I had a photography professor in college who used to say “get a little closer than you think you need to, and then take 2–3 steps closer.” No matter how close you are to your subject, you need to be closer. This is the most important tip in this article.

Photography is an art. Just like in painting, you have to “see” it before you can create it.

Learn to see

Much of photography is being able to “see” the finished photograph when you shoot it. It is also “seeing” the emotion and capturing that emotion. Take time to study your subject carefully. Over time you will start to get an eye for what you are trying to shoot. Think about what is making the photo you want to shoot interesting. What do you see that you want others to see in your picture? Study how light and shadows interact. In photography light and shadows are always magnified. Photography is an art. Just like in painting, you have to “see” it before you can create it.

A different angle can make a big difference, Photo by Pixabay

Your photo of a flower will be better when you really understand the essence of that flower.

Study your object

Similar to learning to see, the more you know about what you are shooting, the more you will see and the better your photos will be. Before taking a picture of something, study it for 10–15 minutes, or at least for a little time. Find the thing you find most interesting and then get the best picture of that. Look at it from all angles. Your photo of a flower will be better when you really understand the essence of that flower.

Lots of pictures

This pertains to the five miles of film mentioned earlier. Professional photographers at major sporting events shoot a thousand or more pictures of a single game. If they get three or four excellent pictures, they feel they’ve had a good day. The difference of a tenth of a second, or standing two feet to the left, can make a difference you cannot see with the naked eye. You may have a lot of good photos, but there will most likely be one that stands out. With digital cameras you can look at your pictures immediately, but even then, you can’t really see the photo until you look at it in full size on your computer.

You can’t take too many photos, but you can take too few.

Try Another view

Take pictures of unconventional things, or from different angles. Everyone has seen pictures of a flower, and just about everyone knows what they look like. Find something that you don’t normally see and shoot that. I used to try to shoot pollen on the petals of flowers, for instance. Art takes many forms. This is where imagination and “seeing” the final product in your mind before you shoot comes in.

A simple path can be an interesting photo. James Jordan photo

Know your tools

Learn everything there is to know about your camera. Try all the settings and get comfortable with them. After that, you can try a lot of different things. Study the owner’s manual carefully to learn what your camera can do, then you can start experimenting with different ways to use those features. Technology has made photography easier, but I am not sure this is good in all cases. It is too easy to just get a decent picture and move on. You won’t get a great photo that way. But knowing your camera’s capabilities can open up new worlds.

Keep it simple

Invest in books and time, studying light instead of buying a lot of accessories. Add gadgets to your gear only when you are sure you really need them. Keep focused on the camera and the photos. If you have too much gear to keep up with, it can become a distraction. Gadgets and fancy equipment will not make you a better photographer. Shooting more pictures and taking time to look at your subject will.

Cameras everywhere Unsplash photo

Gadgets and fancy equipment will not make you a better photographer. Shooting more pictures and taking time to look at your subject will.

Investing in the right equipment

While it is true that gadgets won’t improve your pictures, you do need good equipment. When it comes to cameras and lenses, you get what you pay for. The lens is more important than the camera. Spend more on the lens and less on the camera, but buy the best camera you can afford. You really don’t need more than two or three lenses, and it is better to have one really great lens than three that are just average.

Look at pictures

Take time to really look at photographs. There are a lot of websites dedicated to photography, and you can easily find a lot of great photos. When a photo catches your eye, think about what it is you like. What makes this a good picture? Think about the angles involved, the vantage point of the photographer. Just like in painting, studying the masters will make you better at the art.

Fail boldly

Shoot a lot of pictures from a lot of angles. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you are shooting something you often shoot, do it from a place you would not normally try. Climb on top of things, or lay on the ground. If your pictures don’t work out, it won’t matter. But you may just discover something in all those mistakes that will take your photography to another level. If it doesn’t work out, nothing is lost. If it does, then you have something new.

Sometimes I take pictures, sometimes I take photographs. Sometimes Im somewhere in between the two. Ive been doing both a long time, and have won some awards for my news and sports photography. Let me know if you try some of these tips, and what you think. Getting closer is the biggest thing I would say for most people who are shooting.



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James Jordan

James Jordan


Teller of tales, many of which are actually true. Award-winning journalist, and the William Allen White Award for reporting.