How To Take A Shot – 31 Days To Better Photography

Yesterday’s Topic: White Balance

Some of you have asked how I take a shot, what goes into my thought process. Much like opening Pandora’s Box, I’m not sure that is a safe question, but let’s take a trip down the lane of shooting just one picture and the voices I hear in my head. For an example, let’s use the image below, from the Serengeti in Tanzania, Africa (in another post I will explain how I edited it). Canon 7D, Canon 28-300mm L lens, ISO 100, 135mm, f/5.6, 1/160 second, no flash.

Step 1 – Stop thinking

The first step is to get all Jedi on the process. “Feel the shot flow through you.” “With the blast shield down I can’t see a thing.” “Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?” Really, I could go on all day with Star Wars quotes. But the important part is to get to a point where thinking about what you want to shoot takes a back seat to seeing it.

Will this happen overnight? Nope. It’ll take practice. I shot about a dozen weddings before I felt comfortable just knowing what I should be seeing, and seeing it in my mind before I shot it. That’s a lot of nerve wracking weddings before it started to come naturally. Some people have the gift to start out just ‘knowing’ and that’s awesome. For the rest of us, it takes work to get to a point of not thinking. Practice, you’ll get there.

At this point I’m thinking – “Hey, that looks cool” and right after that was “Damn, I better get the tripod out because there’s not much light” I know, a lot of thinking for the first phase.

Step 2 – Think About What You Want To Convey

And what you want to convey is typically an emotion. Or a sense of place. I often tell people to put down their camera when they travel some place new and walk around for a day without it. I also got lambasted by some commenters for suggesting such blasphemy. You can decide if that tactic is right for you. I have found looking critically, without a camera, leads to better photos. It will give you a sense of place that becomes more readily obvious to shoot when the camera is unpacked. List out some adjectives of how you feel and what you see, if you’re the list type.

At this point I’m thinking – “The rich colors and the calm of the Serengeti as the sun is setting…..before you start wondering what those glowing eyes in the bush are thinking.”

Step 3 – Now, How To Show That Emotion Or Feel?

I wrote about capturing emotion, at least some tips, here. This is a fun area because if you ask 100 photographers about how to do it, you’ll get 98 different answers (there’s always two passive photographers in every crowd). Keep asking whenever you can and study other photos to see what pulls at you and how the photographer was able to capture that.

At this point I’m thinking – “Deep colors. Underexpose if the first one doesn’t come out, because that bit of light can be tricky depending on where it hits the light sensors.”

Step 4 – Set It Up

Now it’s time to get the camera in place, be it on a tripod or handheld or on a jib. Look through the viewfinder and frame things up. If you’re stuck for a place to start, use the Rule Of Thirds, which is much easier than the Rule Of 65ths.

At this point I’m thinking – “Get the tripod out and zoom to crop the tree just right.” Then, after moving 5′ to the right, “Get the tripod out and zoom to crop the tree just right.”

Step 5 – Check Settings

You might want to have done this before, but it’s ok to do it now as well. If you’re going for anything other than average, which is what you camera wants to achieve, check your settings. Are you going to meter off the whole scene, or just part of it? Do you want to blow out some highlights or deepen shadows? Will there be enough light for a lower ISO? What’s the white balance set at? Will there be blur at this shutter speed? Will I get enough depth of field with this aperture?

At this point I’m thinking – “ISO to 100. Check! I don’t want noise.”

Step 6 – Breathe Slow

At this point I’m thinking – I’m not. I’m breathing and getting all Super Zen-like and stuff.

Step 7 – shoot

Why is shoot lower case? Because it’s not really that big of a deal. What’s happening in front of you is. Don’t forget, you are capturing a moment in time and experiencing it, right along with shooting it, is important. In my mind, for something exciting, it should go “Wow! Something cool happened. Hey, cool, I got a shot of it too” instead of, “Wow! I got the shot, I got the shot!”  If nothing else, there might be another shot AFTER the one you got and were so proud of. Keep your mind open. And keep breathing.

At this point I’m thinking – “Wow, what a beautiful place.”

Rinse and repeat!

Oh yeah, you can review if need be. I often do, using a histogram to make sure my sunset viewing eyes are seeing things right. And that’s what’s next!

31 Days To Better Photography is a series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey on The Carey Adventures.Com. The series is designed to unravel the mysteries of photography so you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

8 Replies to “How To Take A Shot – 31 Days To Better Photography”

  1. Shaon

    Excellent algorithm….specially the step where you told to move around without a camera to get a feel of the place. How true if you just want to use your camera to convey your feelings…

  2. Fotofanatix

    First of all, ABSOLUTELY STUNNING PHOTO, Kudos to You Sir!!!
    As for what you are trying to convey whether it be emotion/s, a feel for the place or just a plain memory of the best time of your life, I ‘TRY’ to think like that all the time i have my camera with me and when i don’t – what am i seeing, hearing, FEELING, and if it ‘Moves’ me it will probably move others too, it WILL evoke a response from the viewer, whether that response be powerful or not, negative or positive (preferably positive) My whole reason for taking a photo is to evoke a response from others as well as myself when i look at that photo days, weeks, months or even years after the shot was taken. And if EVERYTHING is not perfect when you take the shot like metering, shutter speed, ISO or whatever it may be, do not get too downhearted the beauty of Digital is that there is ALWAYS another shot!!!

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  5. Adeleye Adetayo

    Hello Peter, I have gone through your writing previously a few years ago and decided to go through it once again, because I was feeling distant from photography, like I should call it quits. Read this post and the hyper link post on emotions at dps, and I just wanted to say thank you for helping me understand that my emotions translate into my images. As I have been really unhappy in recent months. Please I would just like you to tell me how I can pick up my mood again. P.S. I am happier when shooting wildlife or nature the thoughts alone make me happy. Thank you.

    • Peter West Carey Post author

      Hello Adeleye,

      My apologies for a slow reply over the holidays.

      First, I am glad my words can give you some boost to not give up on photography. Know that all of us, from beginners to seasoned pros, feel what you’re feeling at one point or another. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself; we feel down so we take less uplifting photos, which makes us feel more down and so on and so on. The answer lies outside of photography, I believe. It comes from ignoring the things in your brain that are bashing you and telling you things aren’t right or going well. Or that you stink. Or that you can’t create anything. I have found meditation to help calm those voices sometimes but it takes a lot of work and right now I am in need of more work myself in this regard.

      It also comes from taking time to shoot just what you enjoy. I haven’t been shooting ‘just for me’ in a long while and I can feel it. There needs to be a mix. I shoot weddings, which I really do enjoy, but I also need to go shoot sometimes off things or non-popular stuff that excites me. It will never go in National Geographic, but it feeds me.

      Try to find that balance of shooting just for yourself and plan personal projects. I’m starting a couple this year; one on reflections in buildings and another on the seasons using a drone. They require me to plan and think about how to get the shots before going to shoot and this is something I can do in my home that brings me just….just thinking about going and shooting what I want. Work in that time any way you can for personal projects. And keep shooting!


      • Adeleye Adetayo

        Wow thanks Peter. You are spot on. Very encouraging. Like you said the joy I get when planning a personal project make me feel really food about my photography again, but you know those project could be very capital intensive.

        Lol we all have those images that might never make it to National Geographic.
        Happy New Year!!!


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