It’s not the Camera, It’s the Eye.

Bear Claw. This picture won Grand Prize in an Animal Planet contest for unusual animal photos. Photo by Callen Harty.
     Often I am asked about what kind of camera I have.  It is usually accompanied by something along the lines of, “You get such good pictures.  What kind of camera do you have?”  I have a Canon digital Rebel, and I love it.  It does make certain things easier when trying to capture photos, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter what kind of camera a person has as much as what kind of photographic eye they have.  The best camera in the world will not make someone without that photographic eye into a great photographer, and a really good photographer can take great pictures with virtually any kind of camera.  A nice camera and additional lenses can help a photographer get some shots they might have difficulty getting otherwise, but they still have to have the eye for it.
     However, there are some tricks that I’ve learned over the years that do increase my chances of getting a good photograph.  These are things that anyone can learn and that can help improve the odds a bit.
 
It’s a Numbers Game
     Some of the greatest photographers in the world will tell you that to get one great shot you must take hundreds of photographs.  One in ten photographs may be good.  One in one hundred may be really good.  One in one thousand may be great.  One in ten thousand may be one of those photos that everyone reacts to, loves, and remembers.
     With the advent of the digital age it is easier to take multiple photographs.  In the old days the cost of film and developing was prohibitively expensive for most people, but now one can shoot dozens of shots of the same subject and toss out all the ones that are blurry, framed badly, or otherwise just don’t work.  The only cost is the time it takes to sort through them all at the end of the day.  What often happens with amateur photographers is that they’ll see something interesting–sometimes even a once-in-a-lifetime shot–and they’ll snap a couple pictures of it and think about how exciting it was to see and they can’t wait to get home to see the end result.  Then they get home and look and both pictures turn out so bad you can’t even really tell what the subject was.  That special moment is now lost, or captured in a blurry photo that gets posted online that nobody really pays attention to because it’s so out of focus.
     The key is to feel free to keep shooting until your finger wears out.  It statistically increases the likelihood that at least one of the shots you take will turn out to be a good picture.
 
Light
     Photography is about light.  One cannot shoot a picture in total darkness.  If there is no light it has to be created artificially.  This is where a flash comes in, but artificial light can also be introduced with lamps, candles, and other sources.  I find that built-in flash tends to leave the photograph flat.  Wherever possible, I use natural light.  It almost always makes for a more interesting photograph.
     I do most of my shooting during daylight hours because I find natural light lends itself so much better to the kinds of things I like to capture.  But it is not just a matter of having daylight available.  Look for the interplay between light and shadow.  This is where drama is introduced into photography.  A photo shot at noon in full daylight can be as flat as a photograph taken with built-in flash.  Most photographers know that the best time of day to shoot with natural light is at dawn and at dusk.  There is a different quality to the light at those times that imbues photos with a richness that cannot be gotten at other times of day.
     I find that I notice subtle shifts in light throughout the day that most other people don’t even realize are happening.  It’s natural to me now, but it’s from years of being very aware of light and thinking photographically in my head.  If you can train yourself to see these shifts you’ll find that your photographs have a different and more interesting quality to them, because you’ll take pictures when the light will bring out details that may have been missed otherwise.
 
Anticipation and Patience
     What often happens to photographers–even the best ones–is a missed opportunity.  A photographer will notice something and try to get a picture, but it’s already too late.  A good photographer anticipates.  They understand the world in which they live and they instinctively know when something is going to happen.  In addition, a great photograph can take an incredible amount of patience.
     Although a good photograph may seem like it, it is not always a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  It seldom is in reality.  It is often a matter of being in the right place for a long time.  I took a picture once of a squirrel peeking its head out of a tree that turned out to be one that everyone who saw it loved.  What they didn’t know was that I saw the squirrel go into the hole in the tree, moved into a position a few feet away from it, and then stood there without moving for about half an hour waiting for it to come back out again.  It peeked out first, but I had been patiently waiting with my camera at the ready, and caputured it with its feet and head just outside the hole.
     Another time I saw a skunk walking along a path next to a lake.  I was familiar with the park and knew where the path came back up from the lake.  I ran ahead and waited several yards off until the skunk got to that part of the trail and headed up the hill from the lake.  I was able to capture several good pictures without alarming the skunk or getting sprayed.
     If you see someone causing a ruckus and then see a police car pull up you can figure that something might be about to happen. Get the camera ready before it does.  At a sporting event know the sport well enough to know what is likely to happen next and have the camera ready before it does.  Think ahead.  Calculate which way a person or animal is going to move so that you can be there ahead of them.  Then takes lots of photos so that one or two will turn out good.
 
The Photographic Eye
     Some people have an innate ability to see a photograph that others would miss.  This cannot really be taught, but I think it can be learned, at least to a degree.  It is a matter of looking at the world and seeing things in a different way, noticing patterns or something unusual.  I have had friends on photo hikes with me who watched me take a photo of something and didn’t really understand what I was shooting until they saw the picture later.  They’ll often say things like, “I was wondering what you were taking a picture of there,” even though they were watching me do it.  They weren’t seeing it with that photographic eye.
     It is a difficult thing to describe.  For me it is often about shapes and colors, patterns in nature and in the way humans build things.  I see these patterns as I walk through my daily life.  I don’t view the world in the way that most people do.  My mind is always framing things photographically, even when I don’t have a camera with me.  I think like a camera sometimes, which can make it difficult to just sit back and enjoy the scenery.
     I’ve had people look at photos that I’ve taken from trips to Ireland, the Grand Canyon, northern Wisconsin, and elsewhere, and they’ll say things like, “You were so busy taking pictures it doesn’t look like you enjoyed the trip.  How could you really see anything if your eye was always behind the camera?”  And I understand why they think that, but it is not that I don’t see things–it’s just that I see things in a different way.  I don’t take trips and come back with snapshots.  I take trips and come back with photographs, and there is joy in that for me.  Most people want to take pictures for their personal memories and nothing more, and that is okay, but I want to take pictures that tell a story and that may even create memories for people who weren’t there.
 
Composition
     Composition is different than having a photographic eye.  It’s the ability to frame pictures in a viewfinder or on the screen in such a way that they are pleasing to the eye.  Some of this can be done later with photo editing programs, but I prefer not to use those.  I’d rather get the photo right as I’m taking it.  But even if you use editing software, getting the photograph as close to the way you want it up front will help with the later editing.  There are some basic rules that make doing this easier.  Any photographic manual will explain these rules in detail, but following are some of the more common ones.
     The basic rules include one that is called the rule of thirds.  Think of a photographic image and draw two lines vertically and two lines horizontally that divide the picture into nine equal boxes.  Putting the subject along those lines, and particularly at the intersections of those boxes, makes for a more dynamic and interesting photo.  Centering the subject will often make it seem dull and uninteresting, even though that is our natural inclination and what most people do when they photograph something.  This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a good general rule.
     Another helpful thing is to use a basic rule of painting and photography where you lead the viewer’s eye into the photograph and don’t let it leave.  Our eyes have a natural tendency to wander, but there are some ways to rein in this natural tendency.  For example, you could use a path in the woods to lead the eye into the picture of the forest.  The treetops may keep the eye in the picture longer than if the path just led off to the horizon.  For people or animals it can be helpful to photograph them looking toward the center instead of outside of the picture.
     Filling the frame can often help.  If you are taking a picture of another person and you stand ten yards from them they are going to be a small part of a larger, more uninteresting picture.  Move closer to your subject, either by physically moving, or by using a telephoto or zoom lens to bring the subject in closer.  With people it is often better to use a longer lens if you can, because most of us are shy about getting our pictures taken and become more self-conscious the closer a photographer gets.
     For living beings action can make a picture more interesting.  While a good portrait reveals the character of a person, usually through the eyes, having a person doing something in a photograph can make it more interesting.  Instead of just sitting there waiting to be photographed, capturing a person doing something they love, like gardening, can add to the picture.
     Check the background.  Often a good picture is ruined because a photographer didn’t look closely enough at the full picture.  They put their subject in, but didn’t notice the light pole in the background that appears to be sticking out of their subject’s head.
     These are just some of the helpful rules you can use.  Once they’re second nature, then you can go about learning how to break them for other effects.
 
Look for the Unusual
     This applies to both subject and composition.  Some of my best photographs are of details rather than the full subject.  For example, at the Wisconsin Capitol most people who go there with cameras will end up with several pictures of the whole building with its glorious dome.  Often these are very good, as it is a magnificent building.  But how many people notice the carved pediments and take pictures of those?  How many notice the intricate door handles and plates?  Sometimes focusing in on a smaller detail of a larger subject–the wing of a bird instead of a portrait of the entire bird, a wave crashing against rocks instead of trying to capture the whole of Lake Superior–can make for a far more interesting photograph.
     Unusual subjects can also make for more interesting photographs.  People like to see things that are not part of their ordinary world.  One of my favorite photographs is one I took of a woman walking a bicycle on a busy street with three dogs in bicycle baskets.  I saw a train once that had some elements on the front of it that when looked at from a short distance away made it seem like the train engine was smiling.  At a museum I saw a gramophone that was painted blue that looked like a flower when framed just right.  All of these were unusual subjects that most people wouldn’t notice or shoot.
     Everyone at Niagara Falls, including really good photographers, will come back home with some pictures that are the exact same view that everyone else took.  The good photographer will also focus in on some other things that make the place interesting–the people watching the falls, waves rolling over the tops of rocks at the edge of the falls, and more.
 
     While this is not an exhaustive list it is a good starting point to try to improve your ability at taking good photographs.  Reading good books on photography can be helpful, too, but the best thing to do is to go out and shoot.  Experiment.  Play with the camera’s settings.  Shoot subjects that you would not normally think to shoot.  Take dozens of shots of the same subject and then analyze which ones you like and why.  Keep shooting.  One out of every ten thousand you take could be a very memorable photo.
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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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One Response to It’s not the Camera, It’s the Eye.

  1. debikayo says:

    Well said, Callen!
    I understand the idea of walking through your day and seeing it as a series of photos! Totally. In fact it can be exhausting if you are arguing with yourself as to whether you should get out your camera for this event or not! One of them is usually within arms reach-

    Thanks for the great post- again! 🙂

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