To Take Good Pictures, It Helps to See Good Pictures
Many aspiring photographers struggle with composition. They can find interesting things to photograph, but their images of those things seem somehow lacking. Fear not, help is available. To take good pictures, start by learning to see good pictures.
A good image can be said to consist of an interesting and compelling subject, photographed in an interesting and compelling manner. It's not enough to find a good subject. That's the easy part. Such subjects are all over the place, in your own backyard, in your neighborhood, or within reasonable travel distance. Where I live, I'm surrounded by three national parks, a national volcanic monument, and a number of other attractions. I like that. But wherever you live, scenic attractions can be found. Indeed, they tend to be marked on maps and listed in guidebooks. As I say, this is the easy part.
So once you do find something, what then? If you merely point your camera at it and go "click," the results may help capture memories for posterity, but they could be so much more. Photography can and should be viewed as an art form. But how can you make art with your camera rather than just snapshots? This is where composition comes in. To look their best, your images must have an interesting and compelling composition. Here a few ideas on how to improve your composition skills.
One place to seek inspiration is in looking at your own work. Even through random trial and error, everyone has at least a few good shots to be proud of. Take a good look at yours and see what you can learn. You may be surprised at what you already know. Don't stop at culling good images from average. Study them. Look at the relative weight and placement of objects in your good images. Look for patterns and repeated forms. You know the drill. Don't so much look for examples of rules you've read in books and online. Feel free to make up your own rules. Why not? You're just adding to your list of mental shortcuts for how to approach future composition challenges. If a rule works for you, don't worry if you read it in a book or figured it out on your own. If you think you have something figured out, but next time end up with results that don't match what you had hoped, think about why. Learn as you go. Revise your mental rules for composition and try again the next time you find yourself with a similar opportunity. I find that too few photographers take the time to learn from their successes, yet this can be one of the most fruitful places to look for good images. Don't just mark that one off on your bucket list and move on in search of other conquests. You should strive to become as familiar as you can with your own work. You can then build on and apply what you learn from what you find. Try printing your own images and hanging them on your walls too. This can be an excellent way to become more familiar with your photography.
Looking at good images shot by other photographers can provide inspiration and education too of course. But whereas you start with at least some degree of intimacy with your own work, you may need to work at it more when examining that from other sources. Don't hold such images at arm's length. When you find images you like, take some time to consider them in detail. If there is anything you don't like, even if it seems minor, give some thought as to how that image might be improved. At a minimum, you can add what you find to your personal rules for composition and see how it works out for you. It may be harder than you think to avoid repeating the same problem yourself, but you'll never know unless you try.
If you're blocked on where to look for images to study, don't overlook the obvious. I find that Facebook and similar sharing sites can be great sources of inspiration. Yes, in amongst all that fake news and whatnot, there are some great images. Regardless of where you live and what type of images you prefer, images abound online just waiting for you to learn from them. What you see on Facebook also tends to be shot fairly recently, perhaps giving you the chance to apply what you learn before the season or circumstances change from what you saw online. See a great shot taken last weekend of a nearby attraction online? It may not be too late to go to that same location yourself this coming weekend. Even if you own numerous photo books filled with images from famous photographers, you may find that images online are more approachable and thereby easier to learn from.
But one place I do stop to look at photo books is at the visitor center in national parks and similar sites. Sometimes, I find new ideas of spots within the park to investigate. Other times, I find new ways familiar subjects can be shot. Be sure to checkout the postcard rack too. Area gas stations, drug stores, and other shops sometimes have postcard racks as well. You're there, the postcard images are there, and the real thing depicted on those postcards is there too. Take advantage of the resource.
Going beyond your own and others' photographs, spend some time looking at paintings for inspiration. Although you can find reproductions of paintings in books and online, for full effect, I recommend visiting your local art museum. Think about it. Painters such as the old masters had been honing their compositional skills, generation after generation, for centuries before photography was even invented. Granted, photographers must work with what they find, while painters get to start with a completely blank canvas and add as they choose. But that doesn't mean we can't emulate what we see in their work to help improve our own as photographers. This can also help you think of the artistic side of photography which puts you more in the compositional mindset.
You may already be putting some of these ideas into practice. But even if all this is old hat to you, it can be helpful to go over it again from time to time. From my own experience, it helps me to reexamine my own strategies for seeing good images to consider whether they can be honed and improved even further. All of us are always learning. Or we should be.
Hopefully, all this will put you into a better position for seeing good pictures through your camera's viewfinder. Remember, its not only what you take pictures of, its how you compose those pictures.