Stop thinking about capturing pictures and start thinking about making art. Start with this question: What does art do? The answer is that it tells a story. It’s designed to draw people in and leave them with some sort of message that they can take away.
If you start thinking about photography as “snapping pictures” of things that happen or objects that exist and start imagining it as art, you’re going to make improvements in your photography that are more powerful than any photo editing software.
Step 1: Have a Vision, Tell a Story
Just like other types of art, each photograph you take should be a visually interesting story.
You don’t necessarily need to know what the story means yourself—it could be up for debate. At the very least, you want to select elements of visual interest that you want to highlight and direct the viewer’s eye to it by manipulating the factors you can manipulate in a photograph.
It’s a lot like writing a story with a writing prompt. You’re given a scene to start with or an idea and then you get to use all of the tools in your power to take it from there.
Step 2: Use Lines, Use Textures
The easiest way to tell a story is with texture, lines, and patterns. People like to follow lines with their eyes. We are drawn to them. Set your primary subject or the point of interest in your photograph up with lines that draw the eye to it. Lines that lead to a subject will help people understand what your photograph is about—it’s about where the lines lead.
You can also use texture or patterns. In fact, the whole photograph could be about a pattern that you think is unique. There are no solid rules, but patterns, lines, and texture help make your photographs more interesting to look at.
Step 3: Think About Perspective
Perspective is one of the primary tools in your photography arsenal. Regardless of where your subject is or what it is, you can almost always shift perspective.
Think about taking a portrait. You can use a medium telephoto—a 100mm lens or focal length—to capture the shot or you can use a wide angle (17mm) to capture it. How would the image change? With the telephoto, your subject would be isolated. With the wide angle, your subject would be a part of the environment.
You don’t always need to shoot level to your subject either. You can get high or low. Think about taking shots that show a bird’s eye view of a subject or a wide ground-level looking up shot.
Remember that you are telling a story and you can use perspective to help. If you want to tell a story about someone you are taking a picture of, put them in an environment filled with things that they like and do and use a wide angle perspective. If you want intimacy in a portrait, use a telephoto lens.
Step 4: Wait for the Right Light
When the sun is high in the sky, you’re going to have a ton of contrast and harsh shadows in your images. At sunrise and sunset shadows are softer. Soft shadows generally produce better photographs, unless the story you want to tell is “hard” and requires hard dramatic lighting.
Here’s another thing to consider. Great photographers, particularly landscape artists, spend hours envisioning shots, setting up, and waiting for the light to be just right. You should do the same!
Step 5: Master Your Settings and Equipment
Learn what everything does and learn how your camera responds. Every digital image sensor is different and with every different lens focal length you get a new world of creative possibilities. Take the time to understand what your equipment does and what settings you can use to capture the stories you want to tell.
You get to make a lot of decisions when you take photographs. It isn’t about what is placed in front of you or the object you decide to take an image of. It’s about the decisions you make to tell a story about that image.