How to Take Great Photos


So, how do you take a great photograph? That's a great question!! Depending on the subject and your definition of a great photograph, this will be different for you and I. I'm mainly a landscape photographer, and I seriously hesitate to call myself a "photographer" at all. The saying that the more you know, the less competent you feel definitely applies to me and photography!


Here's the top 10 things that I try to do to improve my own photographs. YMMV, of course.


  1. Take the shot. Seriously. :-) People get way too caught up in the technical details of their equipment. If the shot presents itself, snap it. In order to do this you need to carry your camera with you all the time. This can be a hassle if all you own is a giant DSLR. I recommend using your smart phone for everyday, carry everywhere photography. There are even interchangeable lens options for your smart phone, including Moment or Olloclip lens solutions. The best part about using a smart phone is that it's always with you, you can use it for GPS navigation and when combined with cloud storage, all your photos are backed up as soon as you get back to a WIFI zone.
  2. Carry your camera around your neck. In the shot at the beginning of this article you should notice several things. First of all, the subjects are all moving. Secondly, I'm tied to them with a climbing rope! Third, we're in an intense environment, high up an exposed snow ridge. Fourth, this is a series of shots, stitched together. So how did I manage to capture a shot while moving on an exposed mountain ridge, tied to my partners who were also moving? I always carry my camera around my neck, ready at any moment to snap a photograph. In this case, I simply pointed the camera in the general direction of my friends (without even looking through the viewfinder) and snapped a series of photos in about 3 seconds. I didn't know how it turned out until I got home. I've hiked and climbed with many folks who are too scared to damage their camera and miss a lot of these shots because they don't have the gear out and ready to use.

    [Taking this shot of Ben and Steven descending Mount Joffre was only possible because the camera was out and ready to shoot right away. Five seconds later the shot was gone.]

  3. Shoot RAW (+JPEG). Yes, I know this is a pain and it takes up a lot more space but there are irrefutable advantages to shooting RAW photos, such as increased dynamic range (more detail in shadows / highlights) and options for future manipulation whether that is printing, photo contests or web display. Think of shooting RAW vs. JPEG as being the same difference between shooting 35mm negatives (or slide film) vs. Polaroids. Polaroids are cool but they're very static and inflexible whereas you could enlarge and manipulate your 35mm negatives much easier. Especially if you're an amateur or beginner, shooting RAW+JPEG allows you to use the JPEG's (which can be very good, straight out of camera) easily but still have the RAW for future use as you grow in post processing (PP) skills. Many amateur photographers shoot RAW without having the time / energy / skills to process them correctly. Most people simply don't have the time to spend hundreds of hours learning to process RAW photos and should use JPEG's whenever they can.
  4. Post process (PP) your photographs. Some people think that by sharpening or boosting the contrast levels on your digital photograph you are somehow misrepresenting the original scene. This is ridiculous. It's like insisting that any photography ever shot using Velvia film is not a 'real' photograph. If you're shooting RAW you will definitely have to learn to sharpen and post process (PP) your pictures. I would recommend at the very least sharpening and adjusting the contrast using a tool such as Google's Picasa or much better, a tool like Adobe's Lightroom. Sharpening is one of the least understood ways to make your photo "pop" when viewed on print or screen. It's also a very confusing subject...

    [Shots like this one of the Lake O'Hara region are difficult because there's so much going on. This is a rare HDR panorama that I took in order to get detail in shadow and highlights. This shot required a lot of PP to get it 'right'.]

  5. Use a prime lens. To boost creativity, leave the zoom lens at home and head out with a small prime. I shot most of my hikes and climbs for a whole summer on the Sigma DP1, a fixed focal length camera with an APC sized sensor. The lens was 28mm wide and produced some stunning shots. I never really missed having a zoom and I believe my creativity was boosted by being 'forced' to look for good 28mm shots. A more useful general photography lens would be 35 or 50mm equivalents. (NOTE: This is a good way to boost creativity, but not a great overall solution. I still use a wide angle zoom like a 24-70 for the vast majority of my climbing photography. Zooms are way too convenient to never use. :))

    [Believe it or not, this shot was taken with the Sony RX1 - a camera with a built-in 35mm f/2 prime lens. I had to take 9 photos and stitch them together afterwards to get the whole scene - but it worked!]

  6. Watch your perspectives. The vast majority of sub-par photographs, or the defining characteristic of a 'tourist photo' or 'snapshot' is the perspective of the shot. Way too many people assume that a photograph should be exactly what the person is seeing from their (usually standing) position at that exact moment. This seems logical but it doesn't convey any feeling. For example, take a beach volleyball game. You could just snap a shot from eye level and get a bunch of people playing in the sand, or you could crouch down and let the viewer feel the action from a lower perspective. Trees and telephone poles sticking out of subject's heads is another classic tourist mistake - pay attention to the background!

    [Sometimes the easiest perspective is just to point the lens straight down near your feet!]

  7. Pre-visualize your shot. Related to the above point on perspective is pre-visualizing the shot. Know what you want the shot to convey before you take it, then try to make it happen.

    [I pre-visualized this shot of Steven Song on Big Bend Peak during a snow shoe outing. I knew he'd pop out on the summit ridge and waited for it to happend before snapping this shot.]

  8. Learn to use the exposure histogram. If you don't know what the histogram is, or how to use it see this article
  9. Use filters. Especially for landscape photography, a CPL (circular polarizing filter) can make or break the shot. See here for more ideas on filters.

    [For this shot, I used a CPL to bring out the blue sky and remove unwanted reflections from the lake below.]

  10. Study other pictures. Learn from others! Some of my favorites are Galen Rowell, Darwin Wiggett and Michael Reichmann. Instagram can be a great way to get ideas, but be aware that many of the amazing landscape shots on Instagram are fake, including many that are promoted by the big names like National Geographic and others. 



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