How to know if your photo is good?

I recently received an e-mail from a follower who asked me how to know if a photo is good enough to share it with others.

It’s an excellent question, and it got me thinking. I also think the answer would benefit others, so I decided to write a blog post about it.

This is a highly extended version of the reply.

I think when we come across a dilemma like this, there are essentially two ways we can go about it.

The first way would be to think if others would like it. We would then compare our picture with similar pictures made by others to see where our photo stands. We would also take into account our previous e.g., social media likes or comments. These are the so-called external metrics.

The second way would be to use our internal metrics. Do I find it to be a good photo? Do I think the composition is good? Not compare it to other’s work, but to our standards. What is my standard of good composition?

However, I think a kind of a hybrid between the two is actually more prevalent. It’s probably impossible to only use internal metrics purely.

But the question is – in which direction does the scale tip?

Do we value more of our gut feeling or we try to “please” others? I do think the word “please” is quite accurate here, because when we’re afraid to share our work by saying and having the vibe of “check this out!”, we’re essentially unsure if it’s good enough for them.

I think it’s important to use our internal metrics as much as possible. If we think it’s a good photo, it’s a good photograph. Simply because we say so. Why should the opinion of others be any better or more valuable? We’re all human beings, and we’re all equal. Even if someone had 10 art Ph.D. degrees, it wouldn’t make that person more authoritative. This is my opinion.

The reason why I think that is because nobody knows the truth of this world anyway. Nobody has figured it out, and my guess is, nobody ever will. So, essentially nobody knows anything. Some people claim they do, but do they really?

If some sort of a god would come down to earth and would say what is good and what is not, then perhaps I would rethink. Until it’s just human being(s) – flesh and bone just like me – I don’t put them on a pedestal as someone “higher” than me.

That doesn’t mean I don’t respect their opinion. If it’s something constructive, I respect every opinion, whether it’s positive or negative. But ultimately, I decide for me.

10 lessons on getting good at photography fast

Introduction

By “good,” I mean good. I don’t mean becoming a master – that’s another story that I’m not qualified to tell.

You don’t need a “decisive moment” or luck to get a good photo. Understanding basic principles is all it takes. E.g., you can take a picture of a tree or a pigeon and composition-wise there’s no difference between composing a scene with people or trees. Composition is composition. Shapes are shapes, lines are lines, and light is light.

If you’re doing photography just for snapshots and your purpose is not to become good at this, that’s fine. In this case, most of the list probably won’t be any good for you.

If you want to get good however… then this is what I’ve figured out on my journey so far.

“It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

It’s a list I would give myself when I first started out. I share this list with you. Maybe you get some ideas, maybe not. You decide.

#1. Get a compact camera

Get a small camera. If you have a DSLR or a big mirrorless camera, sell it and buy a small Fuji, Ricoh GR II or III or something similar.

I have had 2 DSLRs, and the best decision I’ve ever done related to gear was to buy a used Fuji X100T and sell my DSLR gear.

I’ve had the Fuji for around six months and still love this camera to death. It feels so good to not stress over gear. Not having to think what kind of a lens should I get next.

Get a compact camera where you can’t change the lens. This forces you to master one focal length — one camera-one lens principle.

Wider focal length is better. You get more dynamic pictures. Compressed photos done with a 80mm and 100mm (anything above 50mm to be honest) are usually boring. Also, forget about zoom lenses. They add another layer of complexity. Another thing to worry about. Zoom with your feet.

Not only do I feel a lot more liberated by not having to carry a big heavy camera around, but I also started to learn much faster. I take this camera everywhere I go.

Check my article “Forget big heavy cameras and get a compact camera” as well.

#2. Photograph everything

Don’t try to find interesting scenes, create interesting scenes yourself.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

Ansel Adams

Practice compositions on buildings, trees, street signs, mannequins – everything. Photograph everything that’s even slightly interesting. Create beauty in the mundane.

Street photography is probably the best area of photography that will teach you photography fast. There’s so much you can shoot and compose. Infinite possibilities. It doesn’t mean you have to take pictures of people, although by taking pictures of people you learn a lot.

People on the street move, and you have to act fast. I think doing street photography trains you to use more of your intuition as you don’t really have a lot of time to think and analyze.

#3. Photograph every day

If you want to get good at anything, you have to do it every day.

“There are no shortcuts—everything is reps, reps, reps.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Total Recall

It’s not even so much that I take a lot of photos. I don’t. It’s that most other aspiring photographers take so little.

So, it’s all about reps, like going to the gym. If you only go to the gym once a week and lift the pink little dumbbell for 20 minutes, don’t expect to get ripped any time soon. Same with photography. Same with everything.

“Do you even lift?”

Some street photographers only go out to take pictures if there’s some event e.g., a protest.

There are events happening all the time. Sure, a protest creates more interesting opportunities, but if you only shoot on special occasions, you don’t learn fast enough.

Practice shooting every day and when the occasion comes, you’re a much better shooter. Suddenly taking pictures is way easier.

For me, when there’s a protest (not that many in Luxembourg where I currently reside), I feel like a kid in a candy store. I shoot at least 1000 images (single-shot mode) if there’s something happening. And I’m not even bragging about these numbers. I know I should do at least 3k. And even that wouldn’t be anything extreme.

My thought: If you don’t practice shooting the mundane everyday life on the streets, you don’t appreciate the opportunistic scenes enough.

#4. Set it and forget it

  1. Center-point autofocus (largest square, so It’ll focus faster);
  2. Automatic aperture;
  3. Automatic shutter speed;
  4. Set ISO to 1600 (learned this from Eric Kim);
  5. Black and white.

These are my settings. Find what makes taking pictures easy for you, so you wouldn’t have to adjust anything while out. With these settings, I can simply set it and forget it.

Understanding technical settings is somewhat necessary, but understanding what makes a good photograph is more important.

#5. Abandon Instagram

I wasted a lot of my time on Instagram. If I would’ve spent that time looking at the pictures made by the masters of photography in photo books instead…

There’s so many problems with Instagram concerning art, it would be easily a 2000 word article itself, so I’m not going to cover it in here.

“In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.”

Seth Godin, Purple Cow

One of the problems for artists with Instagram is that it’s a huge pile of mediocrity. If you get your inspiration from there, you will never stand out, because you do what everyone else is doing.

Instagram is not going to make you a better artist. I’m quite sure it actually does the opposite. So why bother with it? More followers is not going to make you a better artist either.

#6. Don’t spend time on editing

Get a collection of film simulations such as Astia, Provia, Velvia, Acros, Tri-X, and just use these. Stop searching for cool presets and god forbid pay for them.

Learn shooting first, then learn to edit. Not the other way around.

Since I have my own preset, which is based on the Acros film simulation, I only change exposure, blacks, and highlights. That’s it, only those three sliders. I also straighten and occasionally crop.

#7. Buy books and learn about art

You’re not going to take better pictures by getting a better (read: newer) camera. I tried this – did not work.

The best investment in terms of photography you can ever do is to buy photography books and watch tutorials on e.g., composition on Youtube.

The best book to start would probably be Magnum Contact Sheets. This book shows you how the cream of the crop photographers take pictures. Through the contact sheets, you see their thought-process and get a glimpse of what they might have been thinking when they took those iconic photographs.

When learning composition, I recommend watching composition tutorials on paintings instead of photography. In my opinion the quality is better. Besides, composition for paintings is no different than it is for photography.

#8. Stop watching gear reviews

They massively waste your time and give you nothing. In fact, they make you miserable as you start to think you need all this new stuff.

You don’t.

The only gear related show I watch is Jared Polin’s photo news fix. It’s one of the very few guilty pleasures. I only watch it because it’s funny. I couldn’t care less about the new cameras and lenses.

#9. Shoot in black and white

There’s a reason you’re only allowed to shoot in black and white for the first year in most photography schools.

For starters, it makes you focus more on composition. You have to focus on light, shadows, and shapes.

Besides, black and white is a lot more forgiving. You can have high ISO and blow out your highlights, and it’s mostly fine. Color is very delicate.

#10. Photograph people as much as you can

Use the opportunity to take pictures of people as much as you can. Take pictures of your family and friends or your partner all the time. You don’t need an excuse to take pictures. Just take pictures. Just because you want to.

This is where a small camera comes handy as well. A small camera is not intimidating, whereas if you pull out a big DSLR with a even bigger lens, it creates this tension that some important shit is about to go down.

Suddenly people are not loose any more; they feel a need to pose and become tenser.

If you have a small camera and take pictures all the time, people get used to it, and at point they stop caring.

KRISTJAN

3 tips for street portraits

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Intro

By no means am I good at portraits. I’m just learning, but there’s a couple of things that I’m starting to understand.

These don’t apply to just portraits, but to photography in general. However, in my opinion, they apply especially to portraits.

Tip #1: Shoot as much as you can

First, it’s important to shoot a lot of photos. As many as possible. The more the better. Basically, as long as the subject is there, it’s important to keep shooting. As you can see on the contact sheet, I shot 13 photos. This is nothing; it’s not a lot at all.

It depends on every scene, but 10-15 is the bare minimum. It would be better to shoot at least around 50.

As you can see, the very last image I took ended up being the best. If I would’ve only taken 10, I wouldn’t have gotten this one. Then again, had I taken 50, I would’ve perhaps gotten an even better one. I never know.

There’s a really good photography book called Magnum Contact Sheets. Going through the book, I realized that the Magnum photographers often shoot a huge amount of photos.

Even on the days of film, they shot an entire roll if they saw a good scene. Sometimes the very last frame ended up becoming a world-famous iconic photo.

Tip #2: Work the scene

Working the scene means not only taking many photos but changing the angle, perspective, directing the subject, using portrait mode as well as landscape mode, etc.

So that ideally you would have a lot of different photos of the same scene. You never know if you got the image you want until you look at them on your computer. The more pictures you have, the bigger the chance that you got a keeper.

I do have to mention that on this particular series, I get a little bit annoyed by the pole. But then again, this is street photography, and there are so many variables to look out for. I guess, noticing such details comes with experience.

Tip #3: Catch the unguarded moment

Lighting, simple background, subject separation: all checked in the photo above. But none of them makes the photo.

What makes the photo is the unguarded moment.

This is the moment when your subject is not aware of the camera. Even if the moment lasts a split of a second, it makes a huge difference.

In the contact sheet above, it’s obvious why the last frame trumps all the others.

KRISTJAN