My Secret to Great Photos?



   Would you believe me if I told you that I have the secret to capturing awesome photos? That I have the secret to photography? If you believe that then I also have an awesome deal for you on a brand new personal space ship to Mars.

My point is, there is no secret.

   I get this question a lot from people who have seen my photos. It goes along the lines of, "How do you take such great photos?"

   Before I go any further, I will never say my photos are the greatest in the world. I am not the greatest photographer and there are so many photographers that I personally look up to. However there are people who enjoy, and believe in, my work.

   I would love to be able to give them a solid answer but the fact is it is impossible. Recently I got this question again from a friend who also enjoys what I do, but she asked it in a different way. Her question got us onto the topic of editing.

   Editing an image is important. Just like a writer doesn't write one draft and call it a novel, it is almost impossible to press a button and achieve an artistic image. This isn't solely a digital thing either. This has been done since photography was invented. Film prints were edited too it was just a lot more tedious. (Not that digital editing is easy, let me tell you...) There are also a lot of different editing techniques which range from completely taking elements out or putting them into an image, to simple color shifts, and small tweaks.

   Back in the film days a negative was produced from your exposed film. That negative was your image information exactly as it was shot. After that the image was edited for print to make darks darker, lights lighter, etc. The same applies to photography today, only today we have something we call a RAW file.

   If you've ever seen a photo on your computer it's name probably looks like (name).jpg That ".jpg" means it is a JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) file, which means it has been digitally manipulated from the original scene by your computer and/or camera, usually to make it smaller in size and still look like what your computer THINKS is the best. But there is the problem. Our computers and cameras are not human beings with brains, eyes, and emotions. So it does the best job it can, and for every day photo sharing that is fine. However, if you want full control over your photo you must shoot in RAW, and RAW looks UGLY.

Let me first show you the difference between a RAW image and a final product.

RAW file unedited

RAW file edited

   Take a good look at both of those images. The first is the RAW file without anything making any changes to it. (Technically it has been compressed to upload to this site but we can ignore that) What that RAW file is, and why it looks so ugly, is all the information my camera could capture with nothing left out or changed. (I'll use Jared Polin's analogy.) Basically I told my camera, "I want a cake. But I don't want you to make it, I want you to go to the cake section and buy every single ingredient they have there and do not leave out anything, even if it seems like I wouldn't need it. Later when I make the cake, I'll decide what I want to put in and take out." Like that my camera pulls all the information it can from the scene and does nothing with it except saves it onto a card. Afterwards, I make the decision on what to brighten, what to darken, which colors should be more prominent and which shouldn't, and so on.

   If I had told my camera to capture a JPEG, it definitely would produce a nice looking image. Cameras have gotten good at that. I would just have to give it the right settings (unless I was in automatic which I don't use either) and BAM it would bake me a cake that it thinks is good. The problem is that it has no soul to it. I had no control over how it looked (tasted) in the end. What if I wanted the sky darker? What if I wanted the cake sweeter?

   So my point is that you cannot simply press a button and call it a day if you want great images. There is a lot of work that goes on after that button is pressed. I spend more time at a computer editing than I do actually taking the photos. One full hour of shooting could yield a good two hours of editing.

   So then why isn't editing the secret to great photos? Well editing definitely is half of the equation. But there is a lot to be said about the moment when the shutter button is pressed too. Sometimes I only have one chance to capture something, and then it is gone forever. Other times I have to take a photo, move an inch to the left, take it again, move back a step, take it again, go around to the other side, take it again, etc. (Sometimes only to find out the first shot was the one!) Developing an eye for photography is arguably more important than editing, and that doesn't come over night. I would even argue that your artistic eye isn't something that can be taught either.

   All of this neglects the fact that photography, even from it's creation, is a very technical art form. We take for granted just how difficult photography is because we can pull out a camera and take a picture anywhere now. But in making it more accessible for every day snapshots, it did not make photography as an art any easier, in fact digital photography has, in some regards, made it more difficult. So technical knowledge is also crucial.

   Still none of this is a magic bullet to "great photos." I don't know what it is really, that's part of what makes art so engaging. Learn to pour your emotions into your photography and that may very well be when you learn the secret to photography.

RAW unedited

RAW edited

RAW unedited
RAW edited